The workforce crisis part 2 - It’s not about millennials or women

Posted on November 12, 2018 by Daniella Dos Santos

The report commissioned by BVA and carried out by the University of Exeter explores a wide range of factors behind the ‘leaky bucket’ retention issues the profession is currently facing and it could not be complete without addressing work-life balance. This is not as simple as vets not wanting to work long hours: if a vet feels like valued member of staff, they are more likely to accept compromises when it comes to work hours, weekends and OOH rotas. It is very easy to forget the impact on employers trying their best to provide for their employees. Often the toll on the practice partner goes unnoticed: every team member is entitled to a good work-life balance.

Late closing and missed lunches should be the exception

The study showed that most vets feel they are working “about what is expected of them” but this is not an excuse to turn a blind eye to what may be long working hours. In some business situations there is no way round a 10-hour day, or in rural areas the extra hours spent covering an OOH rota, but there are ways employers can look at improving the work-life balance. We vets need to stop seeing our ability to work long hours as a badge of honour and stop judging our worth to the team by the ability to do so. We need to stop believing that not getting a lunch break is just “part of the job”, or that working beyond closing time is “normal”. These situations will occur but should be the exception. No vet will begrudge staying late for a genuine emergency, but if no lunch break and unpaid overtime is a regular occurrence for most employees in a practice, the problem is not with them but with how the business is managed.

Managing staffing and managing clients

Of course, a veterinary practice is a business, and client care and satisfaction are a vital part of it, but their expectations also need to be carefully managed. Clients who are double booked may know they will have a wait, but if it is happening regularly for a non-emergency reason, it will take a toll on the vet’s day-to-day working life. Shorter or no lunch break, no time to make phone calls, rushed inpatient care. These situations are heightened by the workforce issues, but employers should acknowledge when their client base is getting too big for their team as an indication of success and seek to staff the practice accordingly, and if necessary consider temporarily stopping taking on new clients. This ensures that clients and patients receive the care they are entitled to, whilst supporting staff members until the staffing situation has improved. This will also provide relief to a practice partner, who very often takes on the extra hours: acknowledging these factors will improve working life for the whole team.

Flexible working is not “just for mothers”

Work-life balance can also be improved by flexible working. Traditionally it has been seen as women going part time to look after a family, and more recently there is a claim that it is about vets not wanting to work beyond 5pm. Changing needs of society influence veterinary businesses, but if a vet doesn’t feel valued, they will have no desire to accommodate the hours the business needs.

I know of a vet that asked only that they could leave 30 minutes earlier on a fixed day once a week to get to an exercise class but the request was rejected on the basis that “it wouldn’t be fair to the others”. The consequence: the vet turned the job down and started locuming to accommodate the exercise class that meant so much to their mental wellbeing. This short-sighted mentality is rife within the profession and is having serious consequences. In this case would the loss of the vet performing 2 consults a week have as big a financial impact on the business as the continued recruitment costs and potential locum costs?

We need a team approach to managing flexible working: job sharing, part-time, split shifts, a fixed day off or evening/weekend-only are all examples. This is not just about having a family to care for, this is about wanting to have a life outside work to maintain our mental wellbeing.

Is this just about women?

The report gives an incredibly helpful new perspective on why so many vets may be leaving the profession but more importantly it has some really helpful suggestions for changes we can make. If we treat vets in a way that they feel valued, they are going to experience greater ambition, career satisfaction, less burnout and importantly are more likely to stay. Undoubtedly some may suggest this is all a result of the feminisation of the profession and the perception women are being ‘too sensitive’. So, is this just about women? Not directly. There were reported differences in the way men and women are treated at work but most of the factors affecting women’s feelings of burnout and desire to leave were mirrored among their male contemporaries.

The study showed that male vets were more likely to receive distinctive treatment leading to them feeling more valued and ultimately influencing the likelihood of staying in the profession. This demonstrates there is an unconscious bias within the profession leading to gender discrimination. Our follow up employers’ study, due to be launched at BVA Congress, explores this question of gender discrimination in more detail. With increasing numbers of female vets, we are not going to be able to fill the “leaky bucket” unless we as a profession accept this is an issue.

But the changes we’re proposing following the report aren’t just for the benefit of women; men too want to feel valued and to have their desire for a work-life balance accommodated without judgement.

What do we need to do? Look inwards at how we treat each other in the workplace and work together to change the culture.

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.

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.