According to a Veterinary Woman readership survey, over one-third of respondents stated a need for flexible working to make the veterinary profession more accessible. Many comments also noted that flexible working options would benefit everyone – regardless of gender, family or age.
The recruitment and retention crisis in the veterinary profession is well recognised, and practices are realising the strong demand among the workforce for flexible working options, but 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. 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, there is a strong incentive to attract and retain talent, and finding solutions must be taken seriously.
Building in flexibility
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 and, alongside owning and running a veterinary practice in Queensland, is the founder of Smooth Operating Vets – an Australia-based organisation committed to creating “mother-friendly vet practices that work”.
Jocelyn was inspired to set up the organisation after returning to veterinary clinical work as a single parent with two children under seven. Although a shortage of vets in her region meant she found a position and her bosses were supportive, she had to update her knowledge and refresh her abilities quickly, and felt she was on her own with organising CPD and structuring her learning.
Speaking to other women vets, Jocelyn found their stories were often like hers – 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. They didn’t even apply for these positions 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
When Jocelyn first bought her veterinary practice she realised she would either have to work 24/7/365 or employ more vets. As the majority of the veterinary workforce is female, Jocelyn concluded that if she wanted great vets in her practice, she needed to mentor and manage a flexible workspace. Developing new systems, her practice is now fully staffed with six vets, all vet mums, and all employed flexibly across two to three full-time equivalent positions.
‘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’
“Having developed and achieved this for my surgery, I can now help other clinics do the same!” says Jocelyn. “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.”
Support for practices struggling to recruit
Jocelyn set up Smooth Operating Vets, which works with veterinary business owners and managers who are struggling to recruit and retain great veterinarians. She works with these businesses to help them become fully staffed, and with a culture in which team members and owners achieve their professional, lifestyle, personal, business and financial goals. An eight-week programme is offered to walk practice owners and managers through the changes they need to make to their systems to accommodate back-to-practice vets’ needs while maintaining a thriving, profitable practice.
Jocelyn firmly believes that making clinical work more accessible to working parents could help to ease the international employee retention issue: “We need to plan how to retain 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’
She continues, “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.”
Jocelyn explains how she often meets with aspiring vet mums who would love to return to the career of their choice, but can’t get a foot in the door because they can’t fulfil the expectations of full-time, 24-hour-availability work.
“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-20th century. So yes, with better work systems for our profession, our vets will stay,” she concludes.
A need to evolve
Jocelyn comments on the reluctance among employers and veterinary leaders to evolve and create new working practices. “There is 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.
“Practices and corporates 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.”
Employers and industry leaders may be overlooking a significant resource available to them. “Women vets will return to practice when they are invited and where it fits their role in the family. We do this across both the businesses I run,” Jocelyn states firmly.
So how does Jocelyn manage a female-led practice with structures in place to ensure women are happy and confident to return to work after maternity leave? And how does she make this work alongside the unpredictability of clinical life?
“Communication is gold,” she affirms. “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’ programme 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.
‘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.”
Jocelyn’s practice organises CPD workshops on-site so that vet mums do not have to travel overnight to attend workshops, easing the burden of finding childcare and managing young children’s needs. CPD is considered a priority to keep staff’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,” Jocelyn explains. “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.”
Returning to work
Jocelyn has some advice for those looking to return to work after maternity leave but lacking in 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.”
She recommends being proactive and looking at the social media of local practices to check out whether the culture will be a good fit, then asking about the possibilities of working a day, or half a day, to catch up and get back into the swing of practice again.
“Always remember that you are amazing,” she urges, “and that 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.”
Jocelyn has been inspired by her partner’s words: “Don’t do the same as everyone else.” She finds this particularly relevant at the moment. “We must change, and I want to support employers to provide great workplaces for many more vets. 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.”