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Not driving home for Christmas? The highs and lows of Christmas on call

18 Dec 2023


It’s that time of year again, for reflection, celebration and being on call. BVA Junior Vice President, small animal vet and wildlife specialist Liz Mullineaux shares her advice for vet teams working over the festive season.

Not driving home for Christmas? The highs and lows of Christmas on call Image

Over my years as a vet, I’ve done all types of being on call, in mixed and small animal practice, by myself and as part of a bigger team, and outside of what people might consider to be traditional vet practice. It’s hard to know which option feels best. Lone working at any time is not much fun and this inevitably feels worse at Christmas, but working in designated emergency practice as part of a bigger team can be so frantic that it sometimes feels like there is no time to acknowledge your colleagues, yet alone acknowledge that it’s Christmas.

Christmas in practice is undoubtedly a funny old time and we must be the only profession that starts to associate the smell of chocolate and mince pies with vomiting dogs. A small prep-room collection of things that look like they might have been discarded gifts from crackers are actually post-op foreign bodies. Client reactions can be lovely, varying from being over the top with appreciation (usually when something terrible has happened to their pet) to leaving you wondering ‘do they know it’s Christmas time at all’ (usually when there’s nothing wrong with their pet).

So, how do we manage all this. It’s probably a bit late for you for this year, but a considered rota is essential. The rota needs to be fair but it’s important to remember that some people, for personal reasons, would prefer to work Christmas rather than be alone or even with family. Others, especially those with small children, are likely to be desperate to be at home. Up here in Scotland, staff are often much more excited about having Hogmanay off than Christmas itself. Either way, some discussion and give-and-take, rather than a rigid rota, can work well for individuals in your practice team.

Try and acknowledge that it is Christmas at work, do little presents, nice food, silly hats, whatever works for you. If you are quiet enough, then try and take a break together and have some Christmas food. At the wildlife charity I work for, all the staff stop for an amazing Christmas lunch cooked by the charity’s founder and her family. This is especially nice as many people working are not local and would otherwise have nobody to celebrate with. In your veterinary practice make a special effort to try your best to look out for others, however busy it is, at this time of year. Remember that the work pressure on the non-clinical team, such as receptionists and animal care assistants, can be great as well; try and make sure everyone gets breaks and feels supported.

It is one of those times to remember that it’s OK to not be OK and be kind to yourself. Christmas is a time where emotions can be magnified and difficult relationships seem worse, and this can extend to work as well as home. If you were already fed up, struggling with a colleague, or with you work life balance, now is probably not the time to have those conversations or make life-changing decisions. Let the Christmas fairy dust settle and revisit things in the New Year. And remember that the lovely team at Vetlife are always available to listen if you’re having a hard time.

And once your shifts are done, take it easy. I’ve done far too many late shifts followed by a long journey to see family and arrived in not the best of moods. I’ve also cooked Christmas dinner for family whilst being on call and that didn’t go too well either! While it’s lovely to catch up with everyone, they want to see you relaxed and happy, and another time might work better. Try and have some proper down time, open a bottle of fizz, put on a Christmas movie and put your feet up. Go for a run, or a lovely walk with the dog, or get out the yoga mat and practice your downward facing dogs.

Whatever you do, have a quiet time on call and a very Happy Christmas and New Year!

To speak to someone in confidence, Vetlife Helpline is available 24 hours a day on 0303 040 2551 or email via



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