Protecting Mental Health in the Workplace with Dr. Amy Butler

September 5, 2021

This article discusses suicide and may be a possible trigger. If you require immediate help or are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please contact the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 833-456-4566.

In honour of World Suicide Prevention Day, Amy Butler, Talent Acquisition Partner at VetStrategy discusses mental health in the veterinary industry and how she became an advocate for creating a safe workplace.

Amy Butler
Talent Acquisition Partner, VetStrategy

Mental Health in the Veterinary Industry

After a well-known veterinary behaviourist, Sophia Yin, committed suicide in 2014, discussions surrounding mental health have been at the forefront of the veterinary industry. In response to her death, Not One More Vet (NOMV)1 was started to provide support to those in the industry affected by thoughts of suicide or struggling with mental health. The NOMV Facebook group now has over 26,000 membersand focuses on mental wellness education, resources, and support for those in the veterinary industry.

The nature of the veterinary profession – the emotional highs and lows, difficult conversations, cyber-bullying, high caseloads, and long work hours – puts veterinary teams at increased risk of compassion fatigue, burnout, anxiety, depression, and suicide ideation. A study conducted at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) in 20202 found that 26.2% of Canadian veterinarians had considered suicide in the past 12 months, which is significantly higher than the estimated 2-10% of the general population.

Of course, the pandemic has only added personal and professional stress to people’s lives.  With the surge in demand from newly adopted pets, veterinary staff shortages, and significant changes to day-to-day workflow due to curbside service, it’s more imperative than ever to adopt measures to protect your teams’ mental health3.

What Motivated Me to Become an Advocate

Despite the conversations in our profession surrounding mental health and suicide, up until this event, I had not experienced it firsthand. One night after a busy evening shift, a co-worker and I were tidying the clinic and catching up as we often did. I knew my co-worker wasn’t feeling like themself but was shocked when they shared that they were struggling with thoughts of suicide. I immediately recognized how important it was that I say and do the right thing in that moment. I stayed and listened. I offered help when they asked for it. I made sure they knew they could call me anytime, day or night, and I would find whatever resource they needed.

What shocked me the most was I worked with this person every day and had no idea they were struggling to this extent. It scared me – if I didn’t know they were struggling, who else in the clinic was fighting a battle that I didn’t know about? This is when I knew that we had to be more open about mental health in the workplace and take measures to protect our staff.

Creating a System of Support

My instinct was to protect my entire work family and that meant starting with some immediate conversations with my co-workers. A great resource for these conversations, that is accessible to all veterinary team members for free through the AVMA, is QPR (Questions, Persuade, Refer) training4. This training focuses on better understanding suicide – recognizing warning signs for suicide, how to question a suicidal person, how to persuade someone to seek help, and then refer them for help5. This training gave me the confidence to ask the right questions to determine whether immediate help was needed and refer them to a doctor.

Once we determined that there wasn’t an immediate crisis, the focus turned to providing ongoing support to that co-worker, as well as improving support for all team members through a multi-layered approach. Open conversations where the team member feels safe expressing their needs and how best to support them is an important first step. Has their doctor recommended they take a medical leave, work reduced hours or accommodated duties?  Then be sure to check in regularly and see how they are doing. Don’t forget the rest of your staff too!  Frequent, one-on-one check-ins are necessary with all team members to get a sense of how everyone is doing and what additional workplace wellness initiatives should be implemented.

Tools and Resources to Protect Your Staff

It is necessary to maintain a strong Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and promote it’s use to all staff members regularly at team meetings and through display posters within the clinic.  While the EAP can be used by individuals struggling, it can also be used as a resource to consult health professionals for the best course of action to move forward when you are supporting those struggling.

Studies have shown that many people make the decision to commit suicide impulsively6 and so approaches to preventing suicide can include simple things like displaying these stickers from the CVMA7 on the narcotic safe, the doors staff exit at the end of their shift, and shared staff rooms.  These stickers provide a Suicide Hotline number and are just one way we can interrupt individual’s thinking that they are alone.

Many of these tools and resources are well-known and implemented in the workplace, but we are still losing too many veterinary professionals. The CDC has reported that 2/3 of female veterinarians and 1/3 of male veterinarians that died by suicide used “poison.”6   Despite federal and provincial regulations that require controlled substances to be under lock and key and a drug log maintained, there is a concern access to controlled drugs in a veterinary clinic is too easy.  A recent study6 by Dr. Andy Roark found that 71% of respondents were able to access the control drugs in their clinic with no witnesses. As a result, Dr. Roark suggested we must implement a “4 eyes” system, which requires 2 people be present anytime controlled drugs are being handled6.

How to Limit Access to Control Drugs

The 4 eyes system is standard in human healthcare. It ensures no staff member has access to the control drugs when alone. Dr. Roark believes this is a necessary initiative in all clinics as a safety measure to protect your staff6. This practice uses double-coded safes that require two pin codes to open it. Each individual who requires access to the safe has their own unique pin code so two people must be present to open it. The desired amount of medication is retrieved with both individuals present, logged, and the bottle immediately returned to the safe.

RFID safes are now available for even faster access and if you are looking for a low-cost alternative, using two different locks on your cabinet with a doctor carrying one key and a technician carrying the other, is a great budget-friendly solution6.

You’re Never Alone

Mental health and protecting their staff weighs heavily on the minds of most veterinary professionals right now, however, resources for management and veterinary teams are growing rapidly. Utilize the resources provided to you by your EAP, veterinary associations, and national suicide prevention teams to support each other. We are in this together and there is always someone willing to listen and hear your story.

  1. Not One More Vet
  2. Prevalence of mental health outcomes among Canadian veterinarians
  3. CBC, Shortage of veterinarians across Alberta causing burnout
  4. What is QPR?
  5. AVMA, QPR suicide prevention training
  6. What do we do about suicide?
  7. CVMA, Vet Mental Health Awareness Week
  8. Change Management Models

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