The workforce crisis part 1 - It’s time for a culture change

Posted on November 08, 2018 by Daniella Dos Santos

Ask the profession overall why we are facing a retention crisis, and you are likely to hear similar thoughts repeatedly.

“It’s because the youngsters don’t want to work the hours” “Too many women having babies and going part time”

“They’ve never had it so good: pay, no OOHs, 4-day weeks. In my day we used to work 12-hour days without a lunch break and 1 in 2 on call. They just don’t have the drive.”

The new report commissioned by BVA and carried out by the University of Exeter dismisses these presumptions and shows that it is time the profession takes a long, hard look at itself.

The James Herriot days are behind us, as are the days of our worth being judged by working long hours. With the passage of time veterinary medicine has progressed, as have client expectations, and what was the norm for the workforce decades ago no longer applies. It is time we face up to this as a profession and cultivate a workplace and workforce suited to the 21st century.

The study shows the need to enable vets to feel like they fit in at work and that they are valued. When we get these right, confidence, ambition and job satisfaction improve, as does retention.

This is not about employer needs vs that of the employee, the concerns and feelings are the same. It is about working together to improve our working life. Day-to-day workplace experiences have the greatest impact on vets’ sense of value and addressing and improving these will have a long-term positive impact for employers and employees alike. It is time to change the workplace culture.

Feeling valued

Ensuring vets feel valued is a team effort. Simple things such as a thank you for staying late to deal with the emergency, well done with the difficult case or the arrival of lunchtime pizzas goes some way, but the sense of value goes much deeper. It is vital to nurture a workplace where everyone’s opinions are heard and valued, not just those of a few regular members.

The study clearly shows that vets feel more valued if they are asked for advice on cases, enabled to share ideas or opinions, or if they feel their perspective is considered. This is known as distinctive treatment and facilitating a workplace where all vets experience this is an easy and effective way of helping the whole team feel more valued.

Employers can make a real difference for their staff by creating opportunities: vets’ meetings, morbidity and mortality rounds and CPD update meetings so all vets can share their knowledge (which helps gain more value from the expensive course!). Communicating and celebrating success that occurs at both team and individual level is another great approach for improving the team’s sense of being valued.

This isn’t just about employers, though. Peer support is also key and employees have a vital part to play here: engage with all your colleagues, value their opinion, and never be dismissive of them. Try to be conscious of whether you are always seeking the same person’s advice; there may be others in the team with valuable insights who would love to be asked.

Role models and the feeling that you ‘fit’

Feeling valued is also linked with feeling like you fit within the workplace team. As a profession, be it within private or corporate practice, industry, government or representative bodies, we need to look to the top and ensure there is a clear career pathway for everyone to become a leader or role model should they choose to. We need to make sure there is a wide demographic of vets in positions of responsibility, not just the “usual candidates”. If vets are seeing “someone like them” succeeding, they are more likely to have a greater sense of ambition.

Success should not be purely judged by those who work the most hours, or even by average transaction value: a surgeon needs a consulting vet to recommend surgery, the dermatology leads need internal referrals, and vets that work only weekends are meeting the requirements of a practice based on the needs of society.

Role models within a practice can have a range of different faces: a part time mother may well be the best new graduate mentor, and the consulting only vet may well have the best communication skills.

However simply introducing a better range of role models is not enough; if vets are to feel like they are truly valued they must be supported in every way. This means having a zero-tolerance approach to racism, sexism or homophobia from other team members or clients. How can a vet feel like they “fit in” if management allows a client to dictate which vet they see based on their race, ethnicity or gender? Are we really supporting vets when the response to inappropriate behaviour from a client is sometimes an apology to the client, not to the vet?

We all have a role to play in ensuring leadership and role models are available in the profession beyond the traditional players, in enabling a wider diversity of vets to become involved and in building the confidence of both our employees and our peers.

More information

Professor Michelle Ryan will be sharing further insights into this study and a follow-up study on gender discrimination in the veterinary profession at London Vet Show. Her session ‘A crisis of confidence? What’s happening to the veterinary workforce’ is open to all attendees and will take place in the BVA Congress Theatre at London’s ExCeL at 9.30-10.20am on Thursday 15 November. It will be followed by a panel discussion: ‘Creating a confident workforce’.

Daniella Dos Santos

Written by Daniella Dos Santos

BVA Junior Vice President and AWF trustee

Daniella is currently studying towards a CertAVP Zoological Medicine and is the Principal Exotics Vet at Park Vets Hospital. She is also BVA Junior Vice President, the current Chair of the BVA Ethics and Welfare Advisory Panel and a trustee for the Animal Welfare Foundation.