15 Jun 2022
Living la vida locum – my experiences with practice culture as a locum RVN
In this blog, Alex Taylor shares why she thinks some veterinary practices have a more positive workplace culture than others, and the effects this can have on staff and her experience as a locum RVN.
Working as a locum RVN for the last five years means that I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly side of many veterinary practices. I have met some brilliant and dedicated veterinary professionals along the way, but I have also seen some staff members become exhausted and demoralised because their workplace culture is poor. From my understanding, this stems from employees not feeling valued and a poor work-life balance, resulting in talented employees becoming burnt out and eventually leaving the practice, or leaving the profession altogether.
On the flip side of this, I have also worked in practices where the teamwork is slick, and the practice runs like a well-oiled machine. Staff in these practices are, for the most part, happy and engaged in their work, resulting in good staff retention and a positive workplace atmosphere. So how is this type of working environment achieved and why is there such a difference between one workplace culture and another?
I do not think there is an easy answer to this, as the perfect practice is like a unicorn – it does not exist. I also believe that different practices suit different people, and sometimes it is just a case of finding a practice that has similar values to your own. However, there are some practices that just seem to ‘get it’ when it comes to retaining motivated and content staff.
Positive and negative workplace culture
Workplace culture is defined as: ‘the shared values, belief systems, attitudes and the set of assumptions that people in a workplace share’. When I start as a locum nurse in a new practice, I usually pick up on the workplace culture quickly. I think a positive workplace culture starts with people entrusted in leadership roles, such as clinical leads, practice managers and head nurses, but everyone has their role to play.
One of my favourite places to locum at is a practice that I have worked at on and off for several years now. The lead vet is a kind and compassionate person, who is genuinely interested in her employee’s ideas, be it improving clinical standards, client care or staff morale. This vet is also protective enough of her staff to send letters to abusive clients asking them not to return to her practice, which I think helps staff feel valued. This type of leadership helps to maintain employee wellbeing, as does showing gratitude for work done well and giving rewards and recognition for achievements, either academically or within the workplace itself. Depending on the situation this could vary from a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘well done’, to a pay rise, but recognising someone’s hard work goes a long way by providing a morale boost, lifting spirits and creating and more productive workplace.
The two main causes of staff anxiety and frustration I’ve seen when working as a locum are a lack of time to fulfil the job role properly, and staff not being given the autonomy to work to standards they feel comfortable and safe with. Staff members can experience chronic anxiety due to fear of the consequences of what could happen to them or their patient should something go wrong. If employees are constantly put into a situation where they feel their values are compromised and their career is at risk, this can be a major source of stress and have a profoundly negative effect on workplace culture.
Having the time to take regular breaks is important too, as this allows staff to hydrate and recharge. Workplaces where employees work continuously without a break have tired staff, who feel resentful and are more likely to make mistakes. One of the practices I work at schedules a break for all vets and nurses at around 11am, and you can really notice the difference in staff morale. It also gives the staff a chance to chat about topics not related to work, which forges a closer bond and improves teamwork once they return to a clinical environment.
Some of the practices I work in are flexible with their staff, employing more people on a part-time basis and allowing different shift patterns. I think this works well because it gives employees a better work-life balance and the practice is less likely to be short-staffed, since more people are available to help with cover – I am needed much less often at these practices!
I always say that if I could take all of the great parts of each practice I work at, I could create the ‘perfect’ practice, but the reality is nowhere is perfect and there is always room for improvement.
As a locum RVN, there is nothing better than going to practice for the first time and instantly picking up on a happy vibe. If I am working somewhere where staff are kind, inclusive and we can all have a good laugh together then I will always return, as these types of places are a joy to work in.
To help improve your workplace culture, take a look at the BVA’s resources on Good veterinary workplaces
If you are stressed or anxious at work, take a look at the Vetlife website for tips on dealing with this. If you need to speak to someone in confidence Vetlife Helpline is available 24 hours a day, everyday of the year, on 0303 040 2551 or you can send an anonymous email via the website.
 Agarwal, D., 2018. How To Create A Positive Workplace Culture. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/pragyaagarwaleurope/2018/08/29/how-to-create-a-positive-work-place-culture/?sh=41776b854272 [Accessed 29 November 2020].
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