Female veterinarians are dying by suicide at high rates nationally. A local vet practice is seeking to combat the issue by proactively caring for its staff.
By Abby Hopkins
Dr. Stacy Mozisek just had her third child when Firehouse Animal Health Center hired her as its first associate in 2012. If that weren’t challenging enough, her husband traveled for work and, in a profession notorious for long work hours and constant sacrifice, she quickly had to establish boundaries to take care of herself and her family, something many veterinarians struggle to do.
In a January 2019 study, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found female veterinarians are 3.5 times as likely to die by suicide than the general U.S. population.
Although there are no proven causes, Mozisek believes factors like poor work/life balance, compassion fatigue, long work hours and euthanasia procedures may contribute to the crisis.
The study found in 2017, more than 60 percent of current veterinarians were female, and in 2016, 80 percent of veterinary students were female. With female veterinarians experiencing a higher suicide rate than their male counterparts, the industry may only see an increase in suicides if conditions remain the same.
Firehouse, a local veterinary practice, is aware of this vulnerability, as three of its five medical directors and the majority of its veterinarians are female. Mozisek, who is now a medical director at the West Lake Hills, Texas, location, says the practices seeks to create a healthy work/life balance for employees, offering flexible schedules and frequent check-ins.
“We’re caring about our team, checking in and talking about it and promoting awareness,” Mozisek says. “I think that’s going to be the first step into changing this pattern, this direction in our industry. I don’t think it’s OK just to acknowledge it and not do anything about it. We need to acknowledge it and figure out how we can improve it.”
Firehouse opened in 2012 in West Lake Hills and has since expanded to five locations. Each site practices 100 Little Things, a list of daily habits the staff commits to practicing for their own health and to create a unique, enjoyable environment for clients, patients and employees.
Some of the employee-specific details on the list include “smiling faces,” “awesome doctors” and “passion,” ensuring clients will encounter a friendly, motivated staff. Mozisek says the veterinary occupation naturally attracts compassionate, highly motivated individuals, but coupling these qualities with a healthy work/life balance is crucial.
Left unchecked, long hours and constantly tending to the needs of others can lead to burnout or compassion fatigue. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterinarians often work more than 40 hours a week and sometimes work nights and weekends. However, at Firehouse, veterinarians are always scheduled less than 40 hours a week and only work one open-to-close shift per week. The clinics close at 6 p.m. and are open Saturdays from only 8 a.m. to noon.
Another challenge unique to veterinarians is working within the constraints of owners’ budgets when many don’t have pet health insurance. Mozisek says this creates internal conflict of how to help the pet with limited resources or diagnostics.
When helping the pet involves euthanasia, veterinarians can experience more stress and compassion fatigue watching the pet and the owner suffer after building long-term relationships. At Firehouse, Mozisek says the team is fortunate the majority of the euthanasia procedures they perform are to relieve the pet’s suffering.
“When I get to do that with a family that I’ve bonded with, it can be a really beautiful experience, even though it’s super sad,” Mozisek says. “I get to help the owner deal with stress and sadness, but in a positive, celebratory way. It’s like when a family member dies at 95. That’s a different funeral than a teenager.”
Additionally, Firehouse aims to never decide on any procedure without involving the client in the decision. Mozisek says the team focuses on a collaborative effort to attain a realistic plan that is best for the owner and the pet.
Communication is also a priority among the staff. Employees participate in quarterly “leadership sessions” in which they meet with their boss to set goals, track progress and discuss any hardships. Mozisek says she is intentional in this time to ask pointed questions, check in on the mental health of her team and erase any stigma about counseling and therapy.
“Instead of doing an annual review—all the research shows that’s not very effective because you can’t deal with the whole year of problems in one meeting—it forces us and the team members to check in,” Mozisek says. “Valuing what people do outside of work is really important, not just how they function at work.”
To build bonds outside work, Firehouse staff engages in community events like Paddle for Puppies and the Buda Wiener Dog Races. Mozisek says this allows the team to feel appreciated by and engage with the community.
In addition to staff bonds, veterinarians benefit from being part of the human-animal bond and building strong relationships with both clients and patients.
“I love helping people and it does bring me a lot of joy,” Mozisek says. “I would hate for people to not join this profession because they were worried that it was going to be poor for their mental health, even though we know for a lot of people, it is.”
Rather than avoiding the work, Mozisek is pressing in and asking questions about her staff’s personal lives so they can collaborate to come up with a solution. From changing an employee’s schedule so he or she can seek professional help to letting staff take time off or tweak the schedule so they can try a different sleep pattern, she is starting the conversation with her staff to ensure their needs are accommodated and their job isn’t the biggest stressor in life.
Get support by calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-8255 or chatting online with trained professionals.