Julie closes the door to the comfort room behind her and allows herself to lean back onto the wall. She closes her eyes, draws a deep breath—and immediately hears the next chart slide into the bin. She exhales sharply, pushes off the wall, and heads to her next appointment. 

Julie has been a veterinary technician for six years. She has always been the technician who soothes distressed patients and who clients request by name. Recently, you have seen Julie lose her temper with a few patients, and she has struggled to complete her medical notes. She has also arrived late for her last three morning shifts.  

At some point in our veterinary careers, we all have or will work alongside someone like Julie. Someone who has been dependable, engaged, and an all-around good employee and co-worker for most of their career. Then, either suddenly or over time, their performance and behavior shift. Most of the time, it’s assumed that their abnormal behaviors are associated with poor performance, but how do you know when burnout, depression, or other mental health concerns are to blame? 

How to spot a mental health issue in a veterinary team member

To identify when a colleague is struggling with a mental health issue, you must first understand the differences among common mental health concerns. Veterinary medicine’s most common concerns are burnout, compassion fatigue, and depression.

  • Burnout — Burnout is associated with exposure to chronic workplace stress and is not trauma-related. It is related to where a person works, and factors such as excessive workload, lack of control over work or work processes, and low recognition.
  • Compassion Fatigue — This condition results from exposure to trauma and caring for those who are ill or have been injured. Compassion fatigue has more to do with a person’s line of work than their work environment. 
  • Depression — Depression can be caused by genetics, major life events, and environmental factors.

Recognizing the symptoms of one of these mental health conditions is the first step toward helping a team member. Watch for the following signs:

  • Burnout —Feeling overwhelmed, lacking energy, and cynicism toward one’s work or co-workers
  • Compassion Fatigue —Sadness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, isolation, and emotional detachment
  • Depression —Changes in sleep or meal patterns, emotional outbursts, disinterest in everyday activities, or thoughts of suicide

How to help a struggling team member

Recognizing when an employee or teammate may be experiencing mental health issues is incredibly important. However, knowing how you can help as a practice owner, associate veterinarian, practice manager, or peer is key to keeping our teams resilient and mentally healthy. Use these tips to reach out and help a struggling team mate find the appropriate support.

  1. Don’t assume  — As I mentioned above, believing a team member’s emotional outburst or tardiness stems from a change in work ethic or attitude may be the most natural response. However, we should always avoid jumping to conclusions when evaluating a change in work habits or behaviors. 
  2. Review your role — It is essential to review your relationship or position in relation to the struggling teammate, and your comfort level in opening up the conversation. Are you the most appropriate person to check in with them? If you are not the best person to approach them, seek help from a manager or human resources department. 
  3. Share your observations — If you are the most appropriate person to approach them, be objective. Only discuss your observations about their behaviors or performance without placing blame or attaching judgments to their behavior. 
  4. Listen Providing a safe space for someone to share their recent experience or perspective is one of the most important things you can do. Allow them to communicate to the extent they are comfortable and avoid offering advice. 
  5. Plan or refer If you are the appropriate person to do so, and the employee does not need a mental health professional referral, review possible internal support measures, such as temporary adjustments to work assignments or taking more time off, and offer employee assistance programs, or similar resources. If you are not in a position to brainstorm workplace solutions, or you believe the employee may need professional help, refer them to a suitable organization—see AVMA’s QPR suicide prevention training for free team education.

So what about Julie? Since you have worked together for years and hold a close relationship, you decide that you are comfortable checking in on her. You are able to share that you have noticed her tardiness, emotional reactions, and lack of follow-through with her charting. In sharing your observations, asking if she is OK, and providing a safe space for her to speak, you learn that Julie feels depressed. After talking about her challenges, Julie decides to follow up with her manager and, more importantly, seek professional help.

Improving mental health in veterinary medicine requires a team effort. Regardless of our position within the hospital, we each are responsible for increasing awareness of the warning signs, creating workplace environments that allow judgment-free conversation, and ensuring we can offer resources when needed. As in Julie’s case, improved mental health begins with just one of us reaching out.