Recruitment & Retention

How HR can better support veterinary professionals

Veterinarians face burnout and exhaustion at levels greater than the overall workforce.
article cover

Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photo: Richard Bailey/Getty Images

· 4 min read

It can be easy to romanticize the veterinary profession—who wouldn’t want to spend their days helping animals feel better and booping all the snoots? But the reality of the job can be quite different.

Some 82% of veterinarians experience “low to medium burnout” at work, according to Merck’s 2024 Animal Health study, and 61% of veterinarians reported feeling exhaustion, as compared to 32% of workers overall. Veterinarians are more likely to die by suicide than the general population, research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.

As the US contends with a veterinarian shortage, there are strategies HR can implement to help support veterinarians’ mental health, as well as retain them.

But first, perspective. To best serve veterinarians, HR must keep in mind that many in the field view their work as more than a job. It’s a calling, Lisa Stewart-Brown, manager for mental health and well-being at Banfield Pet Hospital, which is owned by Mars Veterinary Health, told HR Brew. These professionals often put their passion for helping animals ahead of their own well-being.

“[In] HR in veterinary medicine [it’s] really so important to understand the uniquenesses of [those who work in] veterinary medicine,” Stewart-Brown said. “As an HR person, I think understanding the context of who is drawn to this profession and then what this profession means for that individual, and the toll that it can take, [is key].”

Actionable strategies. One step HR can take is to intervene and defuse contentious situations between clients and veterinary staff, Kathryn Dench, chief veterinary advisor at pet products company Paw Origins, told HR Brew.

It is not uncommon for pet parents to become aggravated with veterinary staff. Dench said she was once screamed at by a dog owner over the appearance of his pet’s surgical incision. The practice’s HR leader stepped in and asked the owner to direct any complaints to her. The support, Dench said, was “really appreciated.”

Another strategy HR can take is to create a buddy system, Dench said. This is something she has seen work during her 17 years as a veterinarian. By pairing colleagues for end-of-shift discussions about how their day went, she said workers can share what’s on their minds, see they’re not alone, and get support from colleagues.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

Mentorship can be similarly helpful, Stewart-Brown said. HR can help design a program that sets aside time for more senior staff to connect with their greener colleagues about their work, as well as the pressure points of the job and the feelings they may be struggling with.

Mental health resources. HR can help stave off burnout and other mental health issues by familiarizing their workforce with the ASK program, Stewart-Brown said. Banfield started the ASK (assess, support, know) program in 2019 to train veterinary professionals to “recognize and address emotional distress and suicidal thoughts in others.” The program has since expanded and is now available to all veterinary professionals, free of charge.

HR can also try to alleviate some of the emotional weight of the job by enlisting the help of veterinary social workers, Stewart-Brown said. These licensed mental health clinicians have a deep understanding of animal medicine and can guide and comfort pet parents during the process of making difficult medical decisions, allowing the veterinary staff to focus on the clinical side of things.

“The place where we are most distressed is working outside of our scope, when we’re doing things that are beyond what we’re trained to do,” Stewart-Brown said. “I wouldn’t give a dog a shot, but I will certainly talk to a client about grief and loss.”

A final note. Remember that veterinarians often believe from a young age that animal medicine is meant to be their life’s purpose, Stewart-Brown said, and may throw themselves into their work at the detriment of their own needs. It is up to HR to provide them with the support they need to do the job they are so passionate about.

“[Veterinarians] are not necessarily the best at taking care of themselves,” Stewart-Brown said. “As HR professionals, [it’s about] really understanding that and setting them up for success.”

If you are in crisis, please call, text or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.