What is making vets want to leave the profession, and what can we do about it?

Olivia Howard

Guest blog by Olivia Howard BVSc, BVM&S. Olivia graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2016 and worked in small animal practice before becoming a copywriter in the vet and pet sector.

Graduating as a vet is a huge achievement – with most vets studying for at least five years to earn their degree. Even after graduation, things will continue to be pretty hectic for most veterinary professionals, as new graduates try to work out what jobs they want to apply for, and how to settle into their new roles. However, once vets hit the five or six-year mark post-graduation, many will start to wonder – what’s next?

And therein lies the problem

Whichever way you want to look at it, veterinary is by no means an easy profession. It often involves working extremely hard, skipping lunch breaks and weekends, and working into or throughout the night. This is in addition to the ongoing pressures from management, challenging clients, the responsibility of challenging cases, the stress of surgery – the list goes on.

And, just when the profession is totally overwhelmed, the pandemic and Brexit are both added into the mix, making many veterinary workloads even larger and leading us to our current recruitment crisis.

All of these aspects of the profession can make being a vet feel pretty unsustainable. With the stress that vets face on a daily basis resulting in mental health issues and burnout.

Because of this, instead of looking for ways to progress in their career, many vets are looking to get out of clinical work altogether, resulting in a national shortage of vets. And even those who are looking to move up the ranks in their practice are often doing so not because they enjoy their job, but because it’s a way to increase their salary, or because their new role will replace some of their clinical work with less stressful administrative tasks.

The very same people who thrived at vet school, and were excited to start their veterinary career, are now ready to leave the profession altogether.

What can we do about it?

This won’t be the first or the last time you will have heard that the veterinary profession is in desperate need of change – but what can be done to make this happen?

To answer this question, it’s important to consider what makes vets want to leave a profession they once enjoyed:

  1. Feeling undervalued

This is a big one. Veterinary practices are often extremely busy and fast-paced, meaning it’s easy for management to start seeing front-line employees as a means to getting the job done.

Even the best of managers can become so overwhelmed that many of their employees become somewhat overlooked. But every employee deserves to feel valued and appreciated for what they do, and so it’s vital that managers are given the time and resources to regularly communicate with their team. This is not only crucial for staff wellbeing, but it will also increase the likelihood of retaining staff and can help to improve overall staff performance.

Employers should always aim to acknowledge the hard work and achievements of their staff, but general encouragement and positive feedback is something that is often severely lacking in the veterinary profession, and this can have a very detrimental effect on an employee’s overall wellbeing.

Many employers may feel they simply don’t have the capacity to make these changes at the same time as keeping their practice afloat financially. However, practice owners need to remember that, although regular meetings may take time away from a practice’s daily functioning, they are also likely to save time in the long run as they can really help to increase overall productivity and staff retention rates.

  • Feeling unsupported

Most of us have heard of the squeezed middle, but what about the squeezed graduate? Many practice management teams will focus the majority of their attention on new graduates, naturally, as these are the practice employees with the least experience, and who often require the most support. Then there are the employees who have been qualified for quite a long time (around the 10-year mark) who are normally somewhat self-sufficient and generally require less support.

But what about the graduates who qualified more recently, but are no longer classed as new graduates? These employees can easily become overlooked, but they will also often require regular support, especially when it comes to more challenging or unusual cases. Many graduates at this stage in their career will feel that a lot is expected from them – as they have some experience – but will struggle to access support where needed.

  • Work-life balance

Veterinary shifts are notorious for being very busy and stressful, often stretching way into the night. This means vets often end up missing evening and weekend plans with family and friends – something that is often very much needed given their stressful occupation.

In an attempt to combat this, many practices have transitioned to a four-day week, which has helped this issue to a degree. However, these new 10-hour shifts can often end up over-running, meaning vets are now required to work continuously for over 11 or 12 hours, often without a break. Again, this leaves vets feeling overworked and stressed, which in turn will limit the care they can provide for their patients, as well as having a huge impact on their overall mental health and productivity.

  • Difficult clients

There is often a lack of awareness of veterinary professionals amongst the general public, with many believing that the veterinary salary is much higher than it actually is. There is also often a lack of understanding, or perhaps disregard, for the length of the shifts and stress that veterinary professionals are constantly under.

On top of this, clients are naturally very attached to their animals, meaning they are often more emotional and stressed when they interact with veterinary staff. Because of this, vets often have to deal with extremely emotional – and sometimes downright abusive – clients, which again adds to the ongoing pressure vets face. 

Is the situation worse for women?

Currently, there are a few factors that may make being part of the veterinary profession more stressful for females. For starters, there are greater numbers of men in leadership roles, meaning that more women are on the previously mentioned ‘front-line’. There is also a lack of flexible, part-time veterinary roles, and even those that do exist will normally extend beyond the typical 9-5 hours, meaning that it can be very difficult to manage childcare. Again, this makes being part of the profession more challenging for females, as the majority of childcare is normally still carried out by women1

Female vets also face issues such as client discrimination, particularly for farm vets, meaning that lack of managerial support is likely to have a more detrimental effect on females2.

What can be done to help veterinary professionals?

It’s easy to highlight the negative aspects of the profession but coming up with a solution is unfortunately not quite so straightforward. However, there are a few changes that would make a significant difference to the profession, and a lot of these are related to changing the perception that ‘vet life’ involves long shifts, zero breaks and constant stress.

Shift regulation

Ensuring that shifts are monitored, and that missing breaks and leaving well after finishing times isn’t happening regularly, would make a massive difference to the health and wellbeing of veterinary professionals. These changes will need to come from the practice management team, who would need to ensure that there are set protocols on case handover and that they are always followed correctly. It is also often seen as ‘normal’ to skip breaks in practice, which is something that is often highly unnecessary and could easily be solved by ensuring vets have adequate time for surgeries and appointments. This could be achieved by booking additional empty slots to help them to catch up if they fall behind, and there should also be rules in place to prevent reception from overbooking staff. It’s also important that veterinary staff don’t feel pressure from their employers or management team to skip their scheduled breaks.

Increase support offered from the rest of the team

Another change that would really benefit the profession would be checking in with managers more frequently, as well as ensuring that all members of the veterinary team receive positive feedback regularly – in addition to constructive criticism where necessary. As previously mentioned, it’s important that all veterinary staff (especially senior staff and managers) are given the time to offer help and support to colleagues, regardless of what stage of their career they are at. ‘Offer’ is a key word here, as many vets will feel they are unable to ask for help due to time constraints, or because they feel it will make them incapable. Because of this, support should always be offered to all employees – rather than staff always having to ask for it.

This support also extends to supporting each other when dealing with difficult clients. It’s vital that the veterinary team work together in these instances and that colleagues feel they are being backed up by their team – especially those in management positions.

Not enough time or finance?

Many practices will argue that they don’t have the time or finance for these changes. However, when you look at the money most practices are having to regularly fork out for locums because they are unable to retain permanent staff, it will most likely be above and beyond the cost of making the changes explained above – which could help to dramatically reduce the staff turnover that vet practices currently experience.

Currently, the profession seems to be putting a bandage over the problems within the veterinary industry, by hiring locums and making their teams work even harder, rather than dealing with the wound itself – which consists of unhappy and overworked vets.

Most of the changes required will filter down from the top. Practice owners and management teams must make these changes now to avoid the profession from continuing towards a serious crisis.


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References

  1. BBC (2021). We need to reflect on why women still do most of the childcare. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-56414051
  2. BVA (2018).  Gender discrimination in the veterinary profession. https://www.bva.co.uk/media/2988/gender-discrimination-in-the-vet-profession-bva-workforce-report-nov-2018.pdf

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