How tired are techs? Recovering from fight-or-flight mode

Jade Velasquez, LVT

Jade Velasquez, practice manager and technician at Brookside Veterinary Hospital in Gig Harbor, Washington, is the founder of Veterinary Support Staff Unleashed, a Facebook group that has grown to more than 19,000 members since 2014. The mission of the group is to discuss the emotional aspects of veterinary medicine, promote education and provide support for members in a safe environment.

If I could use one word to sum up veterinary technicians' emotional state right now, it would be "fried." Everybody's fried. We were already pulling blood, running labs, doing callbacks, missing our lunches and working more than we should because we wanted to help patients. Then COVID hit, and an amped-up field went full bore. There's a never-ending line of people and patients waiting to be seen, and the idea of going home on time seems like an increasingly elusive dream.

Challenges on top of challenges

The upshot? It's especially tough to be a veterinary technician right now. At some point in the past year and a half, we have all lost it mentally. We were used to being overworked (and often underpaid), but then we faced the insanity of the pandemic and found ourselves in uncharted territory. I feel like frustrations are building. Sometimes we lash out at each other in the clinic. And a lot of people are choosing to walk away from the profession, because it's just too much.

It doesn't help that veterinary team members are being verbally or even physically abused by clients. Receptionists—God love 'em. They are going through it right now. People are just so frustrated and mean. All of us are trying to look for the bright spots, but at some point we have to say, "This is really hard right now. And we're doing the best we can."

The problems aren't new

While COVID brought some of these issues to the forefront, veterinary medicine has been grappling with them for a long time. We have been dealing with low pay, working overtime and missing breaks for decades, but now it's times a million. Difficult clients are a fact of life in veterinary practice, but now their nastiness can be off the charts. And because practice owners don't want to lose a client, they sometimes allow their staff to be hurt. People want to feel respected and valued and heard, but that's becoming increasingly difficult.

The profession as a whole needs to recognize how these issues are affecting the current generation of technicians. We need to look at our hospital dynamics and find a way to pay appropriately, show respect and offer support. We all know we're here to work hard, but we shouldn't have to kill ourselves day in and day out.

And while that's a figure of speech, it literally does happen. Veterinary medicine has a very high rate of suicide, and with the craziness of practice life right now, things are getting harder. My main hope is for the situation to improve for technicians, but I would rather somebody walk away from the profession than choose to go down that path.

How to care for yourself

Technicians are notoriously bad at work-life balance. And when we were in lockdown, there was nothing to do but work, so that struggle became even more intense. If there was ever a time when self-care was crucial, that's now.

If you're feeling strung out on adrenaline and flirting with burnout, the first step is to acknowledge what you're going through. Sit quietly for a moment and take a look inside. Ask yourself why you are coming home angry, frustrated and exhausted. Next, ask, "What can I do to fix that?"

Setting boundaries is important in this field, and a good team dynamic helps immensely. In my practice, if somebody has to stay late, we rotate through so it's not the same person every time. If a team member has dealt with 50 grumpy clients, someone else steps in and takes the next few. It's important to pay attention to what's going on with yourself and others and figure out how to manage it.

It's also vital to explore who you are outside of veterinary medicine. A lot of us are fully invested in our role as technicians, and it's because we love it. But especially right now, we can't be so wrapped up in our job that we don't know who we are outside of it.

We also need to check in with our colleagues, asking, "How are you doing? Are you OK? Is there anything I can do to help you? How can I support you?" If you see somebody who's overwhelmed, what can you do to make it better? We're all going through this together. So we've got to be there for each other.

"A lot of us are fully invested in our role as technicians, and it's because we love it. But especially right now, we can't be so wrapped up in our job that we don't know who we are outside of it."

A path back from burnout

After doing this work for 20 years, I've been through burnout, and I know you can find your way back from it. You can find the path back from compassion fatigue. If you truly love working with patients, learning something new every day, and connecting with clients and your team, it's a great field. We don't take vacations to Hawaii every year, but we get to do amazing things. Yes, there are some sad parts, but that's what makes the good parts better.

If after some soul-searching you find that your practice isn't a good fit for you, go find another clinic! There are lots of other options out there right now, so you can pick and choose. It may mean driving more or relocating, but if this helps you rediscover the joy in your career, it may be worth it.

In the age of COVID, we hear a lot about uncertainty. The pandemic has forced us to recognize our mortality and, for many of us, that means wanting to live our life in a way that makes us happy. I encourage all of my technician colleagues to do that, whatever that looks like.

As more practices seek to hire credentialed technicians, veterinary medicine is moving toward better-quality medicine and higher standards of care, which can only help our field. This is a lifelong profession for those of us who enjoy it. So let's make sure we are investing in people, looking for ways to help them grow and making sure they're happy as the technicians of the future.

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