Understanding Veterinary Burnout Using the Job Demand-Control Model

July 26, 2021
Dr. Holly Sawyer, DVM

We’ve all been touched by the reality of veterinary burnout in our work lives. Burnout has been studied extensively in human medicine for more than a decade. Thankfully, more literature is coming out now to unravel why burnout has become so prominent in the veterinary realm as well. First, we must understand some terms. 


Compassion fatigue is the emotional burden felt when caring for those who are suffering. To speak metaphorically, if each contact with suffering is a spritz of water on a cloth, the compassion-fatigued worker is a water-logged towel that cannot hold another drop of moisture. 


Burnout, in contrast, is defined as severe physical and emotional depletion due to prolonged work stress. Where compassion fatigue produces a sopping wet mess, burnout results in a crispy, bone-dry cloth that can no longer bend to fulfill its original purpose. 


What is it about modern-day veterinary medicine in particular that is leading to so much burnout in our colleagues?


Industry articles propose a variety of causes: 

  • Student debt outstripping the rate of projected salary increases
  • Compassion fatigue in the face of constant exposure to suffering
  • Frustration over effective treatments that clients cannot afford 
  • Work overload due to unprecedented patient demand


What do all of these explanations have in common? 


Modern veterinary professionals do not feel they can control their own destinies.


In 1979, sociologist Robert Karasek observed that workers, regardless of how demanding their jobs were, experienced improved mental and physical health when given increased control over their work environments. In contrast, workers in low demand jobs with rigid work parameters became passive and bored, while workers in high demand jobs given no opportunity to influence their work space were prone to psychological strain and physical illness. Karasek named these tendencies the Job Demand-Control Model.[1]


Every job position in a veterinary clinic requires maximal effort from each team member to provide safe, consistent, and compassionate care to patients whose lives are on the line. This is the definition of a high demand job. According to the Job Demand-Control Model (JDCM), workers in high demand jobs who lack autonomy over their work environments are at extreme risk for prolonged work stress.


That sounds like a top-of-the-list differential diagnosis for the burnout that ails our profession. The JDCM not only explains this major cause of work stress, but also elucidates areas of potential intervention. Work environments can be modified to decrease the likelihood of workers reaching burnout and leaving their jobs altogether. 


The first step is to give veterinary staff, from the CSR to the associate DVM, more control over their immediate environment and the systems that govern it. The model advocates managers to grant this “decision latitude”[2] to mitigate work stress and improve professional longevity in individuals and teams at large. 


Model Behavior


Increasing a worker’s sense of self-determination within a broader work environment requires concerted effort on the part of hospital managers to ask for and implement suggestions from the team. Whether this happens at staff meetings or during individual employee reviews, it is imperative for the leadership to ask, “What can we do better?” and then to show how suggestions are being incorporated into the daily workflow. 


Individual autonomy can also be enhanced by giving each team member a certain amount of freedom over work schedules while maintaining standard of care and proper patient flow. This could take the form of increased job sharing and part-time positions. adjusted work hours to facilitate childcare needs, and establishing a culture of affirmation when hardworking individuals request needed time off. 


Lastly, it is worthwhile to note the Job Demand-Control Model also goes by the name of the Demand-Control-Support Model. This nomenclature emphasizes the importance of support from supervisors and colleagues in raising the overall health of the workers. This again speaks to practice culture and how concerted effort by management can facilitate the kind of mutual respect and camaraderie that can only be found in well-managed troops in the trenches together. 


The Now and Future Worker


It has been said compassion fatigue results from WHAT we do, but veterinary burnout results from WHERE we work.[3] To decrease staff burnout, hospital managers must take a step back and look at the practice through fresh eyes. Would your workers characterize your management style as collaborative or authoritarian? Proactive or reactive? Open or closed? By giving CSRs, veterinary technicians, and associate DVMs a voice in how the practice can improve, you will give your team ownership over its own success, and enhance team loyalty and retention along the way.



GuardianVets partners with veterinary practices to decrease the demands on today’s clinic staff at three major pain points. For the daytime practice: the licensed veterinary professionals at GuardianVets help answer phones during high call volume. For the hectic emergency practice: GuardianVets professionals triage patients over the phone to ensure the most critical cases get the fastest intervention while shunting those that can wait back to their regular DVMs. For the on-call DVM: GuardianVets triagers filter calls based on emergent status and contact the on-call doctor only when after-hours intervention is necessary. GuardianVets steps in as an ally in the trenches to ease your veterinary team’s stress and decrease the risk of veterinary burnout. Want to learn more? Visit www.guardianvets.com.



[1]https://www.toolshero.com/human-resources/job-demand-control-model/

[2]https://www.ckju.net/en/dossier/job-demand-control-support-model-what-it-and-why-it-matters-cope-workplace-stress

[3]https://vetidealist.com/burnout-veterinary-medicine/


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