In a recent Veterinary Woman readership survey, over one third of respondents stated a need for flexible working to make the veterinary profession more accessible. Whilst the majority of comments referred to the difficulty of juggling childcare with a veterinary career, many comments also noted that flexible working options would benefit everyone – regardless of gender, family or age.

The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly brought flexible working into focus, but veterinary businesses and practices have typically stayed open throughout. It’s not uncommon to hear remarks that it is just “not possible” to offer flexible working in a veterinary practice where daily caseloads are highly unpredictable – but is this insistence really true? And more importantly, is it not the responsibility of the profession to adapt to the demands of modern life? After all, the industry is experiencing a recruitment crisis and any incentive to attract and retain talent has to be taken seriously.

One person who certainly believes that flexible working is not only possible in veterinary practice, but highly beneficial, is Dr Jocelyn Birch Baker. Jocelyn is a veterinary surgeon, practice owner and, alongside owning and running High Street Veterinary Surgery in Queensland, is the founder of Smooth Operating Vets – an Australia-based organisation committed to creating ‘mother-friendly vet practices that work’. Smooth Operating Vets provides training programmes, webinars and podcasts aimed at training and encouraging vet practices to adopt and embrace part-time and flexible working.

We chatted to Jocelyn to find out more about her approach and the clear success of her initiative.

Thank you, Jocelyn, for sharing your experience with Veterinary Woman. Please could you start by telling us what inspired you to set up Smooth Operating Vets?

After working in the beef cattle industry for 14 years, I returned to veterinary clinical work with two children under seven years in my care. I had to update my knowledge and refresh my abilities quickly, learn on the run, and do postgraduate study. Although my bosses were kind and helpful, I was on my own for continuing education and structuring my learning. 

I also managed the children and their schooling and sport: horses, dressage and jumping. We travelled all over Queensland competing, and I am truly grateful that I had a veterinary degree that enabled me to do the work that I loved and raise my children. 

After buying High Street Veterinary Surgery, I had to work 24/7/365, or employ more vets. In a small practice, using the standard employment model of full-time employees, a move from two vets to three vets needs to be accompanied by a significant increase in regular work coming through the door. The model we implement allows us to flexibly schedule vets according to the workload. Being regional, vets come to this part of the world for another reason and then look for a position, not the other way around. At that time, I was lucky to find two fantastic vets to replace my wonderful vet who was leaving to go to the UK. 

Speaking to other women vets, their stories were similar to mine. They had taken time off to have a family and then found it difficult to get back into practice because employers wanted full-time vets. These positions didn’t even attract their applications because full-time work was not an option for them. They needed two things:

  • Mentoring and support to regain their confidence in clinical work.
  • Flexible work-life arrangements to manage their family and be a great vet again.

Looking at the demographics of our profession, it was obvious that women were already, and would continue to be, the majority of vets available. I needed to mentor and manage a flexible workspace if I wanted great vets. Using my newly developed systems, I am now fully staffed with six vets, all of us vet mums, and all employed flexibly across two to three full-time equivalent positions.  

“It was obvious that women were already, and would continue to be, the majority of vets available. I needed to mentor and manage a flexible workspace if I wanted great vets”

Having developed and achieved this for High Street Veterinary Surgery, I can now help other clinics do the same! My goal is to empower 1,000 vets to re-enter practice by supporting their employers to create a great workplace where they can flourish, and where the practice can be profitable and thrive.

Please could you share what services Smooth Operating Vets offers and whom it is aimed at?

Smooth Operating Vets works with veterinary business owners and managers who are struggling to recruit and retain great veterinarians. We work with these businesses to help them become fully staffed, and with a great culture in which team members and owners achieve their professional, lifestyle, personal, business and financial goals. We offer an eight-week program to walk practice owners and managers through the changes they need to make to their systems to accommodate back-to-practice veterinarians’ needs while maintaining a thriving, profitable practice.

Smooth Operating Vets’ primary focus is helping the owner/manager to create a workplace that is attractive to underemployed veterinary women. These are women who have sometimes even given up the profession because of the lack of work suiting their life needs. These are excellent and experienced vets looking for a workplace that will accommodate a work style that is more conducive to happy family life. 

We provide training and templates and many other resources so owners and managers can develop and implement systems to start attracting these excellent vets. There are modules on retaining these vets through their life experiences and managing after-hour considerations. Smooth Operating Vets is supporting practices to change from their traditional work model to the new sustainable, workable model.

“Each vet mum is different in managing her return to work. We value her plans and work with her.”
Credit: Jocelyn Birch Baker

There is arguably an international employee retention issue in the veterinary industry. Do you think that much of this could be solved by making clinical work more accessible to working parents?

Absolutely! The president of an Irish vet group says that women only have the opportunity to practise their profession for six to seven years and that we need to plan how to retain these vets after they have studied, worked hard, taken leave to become parents, and want to return to this wonderful profession. Eighty per cent of our graduates are women and they may need a career structure different from that formed around the full-time, 24-hour availability, work-for-life business model based on men. Which, by the way, is also out of touch with the needs of many younger men. It needs to accommodate their, and society’s, expectation that women will continue as the primary caregiver in their families.

I often meet with aspiring vet mums who would love to return to the career of their choice, but they cannot get a foot in the door because they can’t fulfil these outdated expectations of full-time, 24-hour availability work. They can’t stay back after-hours to do a few extra jobs if they have children whose needs must come first for some period of time each day.

All vets are looking for an enjoyable lifestyle, particularly millennials and parents – and why not? It’s achievable, but not under work models belonging to the mid-twentieth century.

So yes, with better work systems for our profession, our vets will stay. 

Do you find that employers and industry leaders are reluctant to evolve or create new working practices? If so, why do you think this may be?

Yes, there is still the concept that “this is how we have always done it and how we should keep doing it”. This is genuinely ridiculous. So much has changed in our profession with technology, equipment, techniques and medications that of course our working systems should change as well. But change is hard.

Most of the practices and corporates are owned and managed by men. They generally do not have the primary care of their children, and possibly aging parents, to consider; nor do they understand that the changes many women require has to become an integral part of the running of their clinic. They may not know how to have the conversations necessary to attract and retain vets from the demographic available and aren’t sure what to do differently. Instead of changing the framework of employment, they continue to try shoehorning people whose lifestyles ultimately do not suit the 24/7/365 framework and to which they are not attracted. And so, the myth of ‘vet shortage’ continues.

“All vets are looking for an enjoyable lifestyle – and why not? It’s achievable, but not under work models belonging to the mid-twentieth century”

Employers and industry leaders have entirely overlooked a massive resource available. Women vets will return to practice when they are invited and where it fits their role in the family. We do this at High Street Veterinary Surgery and Smooth Operating Vets can help others do it, too.

You own and manage a female-led practice with structures in place to ensure women are happy and confident to return to work after maternity leave. How do you make this work alongside the unpredictability of clinical life?

Communication is gold. We discuss returning to work with our ladies when they talk about starting a family, when they are pregnant, and when they are on maternity leave. We discuss how they would like to return to us and ensure they know that they are valued, and that we sincerely want them to return. We have a ‘keeping in touch’ program while they are away to feel a part of our clinic. Each vet mum is different in managing her return to work. We value her plans and work with her.

On her return, we provide mentoring and onboarding processes to help her get up to speed quickly with any changes during her time away and to build her confidence. Childcare is organised, and child-raising decisions are respected; for example, breastfeeding and/or expressing are considered a regular part of our day.

We organise continuing education workshops to come to us so that our vet mums do not have to leave upset children at home for days while travelling and attending workshops. Continuing education is a priority to keep everyone’s confidence and skills up, and to increase the business’s capacity.

We manage our clinic so that it is infrequent for anyone to stay late, and if they do, it is because they are rostered on-call. That means certainty for their routines regarding care of children.

Time management is of the essence, and the ability to pass a case on to another vet with trust and confidence is essential – hence outstanding medical records and a quick chat with the next vet works well. Collaboration is the way we get great things done.

You returned to clinical work as a single parent. This can’t have been easy; how did you juggle your professional life with your family?

I always prioritised my family. I made this clear, to the point that at my first interview I had to take my four-year-old with me. She was a hoot! She told jokes and ate chocolate. But there was a shortage of vets in the regional areas, so employers were happy to take me on for whatever hours I could do. The nurses would even pick up the children when I worked late.

In the equestrian and friendship areas, I had a network of mums. We all looked after each other’s children and horses.

When the children were away, I worked every hour that I could. My children learned a great work ethic, how to communicate with a range of people, and how to organise their horses’ needs alongside a household and a career. They are both professionals now.

What advice would you have for someone looking to return to work after maternity leave, but who may be lacking confidence?

One of our returning vet mums is doing a ‘Return to Work’ online course here in Australia through the Australian Veterinary Association. Another of our vet mums completed a practical weekend held in Perth.  

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are now so many more online courses, and vet mums can often catch up on their continuing education using that medium. It’s so much more accessible for a vet mum than travelling to conferences and workshops with children.

Be proactive and look at the social media of the practices around you and find one that you like the culture of, or talk to your previous clinic. Ask if you can do a day, or half a day, to catch up and get back into the way of practising again.

Always remember that you are amazing, and any clinic would be proud to have you work with them. There are some fantastic mentors and coaches in this space. Follow them, listen to them and read their words. Join their groups and do their courses.

I have met some amazing women on my journey who are also working to help vet mums get back into veterinary clinics.

What advice do you live by to ensure the success of your work?

From my partner: “Don’t do the same as everyone else”. This is incredibly relevant right now. We cannot keep doing the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. It’s not working, we know it’s not working, so start changing now.  

We must change, and Smooth Operating Vets can help you change and provide great workplaces for so many more vets.

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One response to “Flexible working in veterinary practice: is it achievable? An interview with Jocelyn Birch Baker”

  1. Angela says:

    I’ve come away with many well articulated thoughts on veterinary workplace issues from reading this article- thank you.

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