Related content; Part 1: The widening of the gender divide and Part 2: Mental health – why we have to act now

Let’s get one thing straight; part-time work is not the gateway to an easier life for the feint-hearted. Flexible working as a vet and coming home to a demanding life outside of work is no walk in the park. True, the majority of part-time workers are women. However, it is by no means the ‘weaker sex’ electing to spend more time at home with the ‘easier’ role of household and caring responsibilities. Nor is it the apparently well sufferer of chronic illness who’s putting their feet up because they’re enjoying a relaxing time. Often in these circumstances, work is the more enjoyable time – it’s just not possible to dedicate more time to it. Indeed, many of the motivators and drivers for self-esteem and satisfaction are easier to find in the workplace than in the often mundane, thankless and relentless demands at home.

Flexible working is thrust upon us as a needs-must solution to ensure life actually happens, over and above any sense of work-life balance. It’s important we start to talk more about the challenges this presents for individuals and businesses – and take the learnings from Covid lockdown to shape more sustainable working life in the future.

Flexible working for vets is no panacea

The benefits of flexible working have been much championed and discussed, with potential gains for both veterinary employer and employee.1,2 I recently took part in the Global Veterinary Career Summit panel discussion titled, ‘What have we learned about flexible working through Covid?’ To my own mild surprise and dismay, I found myself quoting papers and statistics about the negative impacts working flexibly has had – on women in particular. Now, as someone who is usually a staunch advocate of facilitating flexibility in workplaces and careers, it somewhat jarred to be talking about the drawbacks. There are some very important messages we need to pay attention to, in order to support flexible workers and mitigate the effects of the pandemic driving the wedge of gender divide even deeper.

The part-time penalty

Part time workers are often relegated, regrettably, to second class status. We may be labelled a ‘snowflake’ who isn’t robust enough to survive full-time employment. We may experience pay and career stagnation, reduced training opportunities and even a slashed CPD budget. Thanks to an oft-perceived lack of commitment there may be less likelihood of consideration for management or leadership roles. Plus, the immediate and long term impacts on personal finances.

Mitigating the negatives of flexibility in veterinary practice

I’ve already mentioned some of the drawbacks of flexible working and home-based work. It’s harder to foster that all important feeling of belonging as a primary motivator. There are less opportunities to develop strong client relationships, progress in career and training, and move into senior roles. These can all affect job satisfaction.

The shift to remote client consultations and virtual work meetings can compound feelings of loneliness and isolation. It’s vital to maintain regular contact and engage team members in practice news and discussions remotely. As a SPVS board member I have written guides on what you can do as an employer and as a practice to support the wellbeing of staff, plus tips for individuals on how to stay healthy in mind and body.

Creating boundaries working from home is difficult if work is only a laptop-lid flip away. The distractions are endless. Indeed, a study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and University College London highlighted the fact that parents are now often doing at least two activities at the same time.3 It’s multi-tasking on steroids! But it has enabled many to keep working when they otherwise would not have been able to, e.g. due to caring responsibilities or shielding. It can be a career lifeline for some, and done well is a helpful option.

Facilitating healthy remote working

Teaching the art of remote consultation and client communication with reduced body language cues is key to making the adoption of this method work well for all parties. Remote consulting will help to retain talent within the workforce, for example working parents when childcare provision is disrupted.

Apparently, only 7% of practices are intending to continue with some form of teleconsultation once normal service is resumed. I would counsel the 93% to canvass opinion from both staff and clients. Properly charged remote services can provide opportunities for staff to work in a more flexible home-based role. In addition, it offers clients the potential to have a ‘consultation’ with their regular practice when on holiday, or if they move away and value continuity with their former practice. It’s also easier for those with time and transport constraints, or difficult or aggressive pets.

We have to train ourselves to work smart and healthily within the new normal. For many, this may involve clear and robust boundary setting. This goes hand in hand with presenteeism – where our mind is somewhere other than the task in hand. Learning how to create clear temporal and mental divisions between the different demands on our finite capacity is key to maintaining efficiency and control. This can be a learned skill and something we should be making as easy as possible to develop.

Importantly, staff must be actively engaged in practice communications and discussion, whether they are furloughed or having to self-isolate. Checking in and making sure people are okay is vital when we’re seeing a downturn in mental health across much of society.

What are the hopes for women during this crisis?

There are numerous positive socioeconomic outcomes which have the potential to emerge post-pandemic:

  • Increased opportunity for flexible working for all career stages.
  • Increased familiarity with and acceptance of virtual consultation, meeting and communication methods.
  • Increased opportunity to work from home.
  • Increased social acceptance of flexible working / working from home.
  • Reducing the north-south employment divide.

Working from home is likely to become more socially acceptable, which could foster more gender parity in role sharing in the long term. Employers are also habituated to flexing rotas and offering flexible alternatives as we move through the phases of gradual reopening.

Geographical limits are not presenting the same barrier as they were before lockdown. We’re getting used to remote working and virtual meetings. Businesses are reassured that staff are able to work from home professionally and productively. This realisation opens up the potential to unleash talent from individuals nationwide. Already, I’ve heard of London-based organisations taking on new staff from the north, whereas previously they’d restricted themselves to the commuter belt. This includes veterinary practice staff in office roles. This could help to even the north-south divide.

Why not apply the same logic for women in work? We should be actively looking to facilitate not just a status quo part-time role, but career development and progression. Whether that’s remote teaching roles, teleconsultation, or practice managerial roles. And can we please, PLEASE look at increasing accessibility of residencies and specialist training to those who are unable to put life on hold for three or more years? It’s simply outdated as a method of training – utterly out of sync with the demands of modern life.

My flexible working panacea

Here’s a few of the suggestions and changes I’d like to see to make flexible working the solution it needs to be for the healthy future of our profession:

  • No discrimination – an understanding that a part-time worker is an equally valued member of the team
  • Equality of pay and benefits – especially when it comes to salary increases and progression.
  • Financial planning – awareness of the long-term pension and retirement implications, to make it the norm to plan around financial independence in old age.
  • Flexible training e.g. for clinical residencies and PhD’s. To work to facilitate these positions for working parents. (Spreading training over a longer period is one element of the NHS Improving Working Lives initiative to boost retention).4
  • Equal opportunity for career progression and a recognition that part-time does not equal lack of commitment.

I appreciate someone has to pay for some of this. But surely it is more economical for practices to encourage career development and staff retention than it is to lose a talented pool of experienced workers. The proportion of men and women looking requesting flexible working has increased dramatically in recent years. Covid has acted as a catalyst and – in some ways – an enabler. There’s never been a better time to innovate and introduce sustainable working practices for the future.

Be part of the solution

Awareness is the first step to addressing problems – so thank you for reading! We want to hear your experiences and ideas how we can better facilitate women in the workplace. To be representative we need diverse representation, and would like to invite women from across the industry to get involved. Follow our facebook page and contact us if you would like to share your story or contribute in any way.

Further reading: You may also be interested in reading about the Flexee Vet project, exploring sustainable flexible working for the profession. Read more here.

References:

1 https://jobs.vettimes.co.uk/article/flexible-working/

2 https://inpractice.bmj.com/content/37/9/477

3 https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/14860

4 https://www.bma.org.uk/pay-and-contracts/contracts/consultant-contract/consultant-part-time-and-flexible-working