The doorbell chimes for the fourth time in a minute. All three phone lines ring off the hook. The only other human around is out of their depth, and I am too. A bead of sweat falls as I work on the anaesthetised patient on the table while the world around me falls further apart. This was my everyday as a veterinarian during the global COVID pandemic.
Who am I? One of the hundreds of millions on the front line of this unprecedented global catastrophe. My name is insignificant, but my role as a cog in this flailing system is keeping the world ticking. Mine is a tale shared by those many millions, and what they now call my burnout may one day be classified as my PTSD.
The veterinary industry has never been easy, but the stark difference between the days pre-COVID are astounding. A full waiting room, 4 veterinarians between multiple clinics seeing patients while a handful perform surgery with the assistance of a comprehensive reception, nursing and animal care team was what I’d come to know, and although they remained stressful, thankless, and emotionally heavy, those days were idyllic in comparison to the last two years.
The sad truth is, I see my industry – one that I’ve spent half a decade in – on the brink of collapse, and I am the problem.
It’s because of me and many others that industries around Australia and the world are in their death throes. We’ve realised that our life is more valuable than a job so we must put ourselves first and our industries in the rear-view mirror. 7 years of study, 5 years of practice across 2 countries, and I’m starting again somewhere else. It’s terrifying, but it’s better than the alternative.
A shortage of skilled staff, high emotional stakes, poor pay, a growing number of pets, and a workforce that’s 4x more likely to end their own lives; my experiences are specific to my industry, but they can be applied to front-line workers across Australia. A culmination of heightened pandemic pressure points and an unsupportive workplace culture are two factors that have resulted in unprecedented burnout in entire industries.
In my case, reality remained chaotic once my colleagues began slowly returning to the practice. Imagine perpetually feeling like you were on a terrifying rollercoaster everyday driving in to work. Sick to your stomach, tears rolling down your face and struggling to breathe as you tried to navigate the peak-hour travel. Restless Sundays spent contemplating what was around the corner. This was normal to me, as it may be normal to some of you, but I came to realise that this couldn’t remain as my ‘new normal’ and I reached out for support with overcoming this trauma. But even with help, I found my mental-state too damaged.
It’s so hard to put your heart and soul into caring for an animal with neglectful owners, restrictive new protocols and pandemic trauma baring down. That’s the heart of this new crisis. It’s an unstoppable haemorrhaging of skilled workers, from vets to warehouse workers to baristas with distance prescribed as the only cure to their trauma.
So, I’m leaving the industry and I accept that I’m contributing to the problem for the vets that stayed behind. But to action real change, we need to acknowledge the pitfalls and change the way we view burnout. I want to incite this change. I want to help elevate internal cultures, and guide others to fulfilling careers. But I want to do it from the outside.
Yes, the COVID pandemic introduced labour intensive workers to new lows, but it only highlighted what was already there. Only with understanding, and a binding internal culture that puts people first can we move towards a better future.
I may be the problem, but I hope that by examining the good and the bad that I can help become the solution.