You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, and yet we’re still forcing a huge number of square pegs through holes that just don’t fit because we’re stuck with the same old rigid peg board. For years, veterinary practices have forced the workforce to bend, stretch and restructure individual lives because we need the practice hours to be covered, regardless of the discomfort this may cause. The lack of flexibility in the system means veterinary professionals are liable to experience high stress when there are gaps in the rota at short notice, especially through illness.
The nightshift is leading the way
Of course, we have a duty to provide consistent, reliable and round-the-clock access to good care for our patients and clients. However, this does not necessarily mean we have to stick to the traditional practice rotas of eight to six with late opening a couple of nights a week. In fact, we’ve already seen the reimagining of out-of-hours care.
We have a duty to provide consistent, reliable and round-the-clock access to good care for our patients and clients. However, this does not necessarily mean we have to stick to the traditional practice rotas
When I graduated, it was the days of working through the day and into the lottery of a night on call. The idea of a separate out-of-hours provider was a bit radical, and there was much scepticism about whether it would work. Nowadays, following the pattern in small animal practice (Vets Now) to equine (Equicall) and, most recently, farm animal practice (Farm24), out-of-hours is increasingly and routinely outsourced to dedicated night teams. Outsourcing reduces the pressure on day teams to cover the overnight rota.
We reimagined nights, now how about the days?
The big (practice) picture
Dealing with flexible working requests on a case-by-case basis can lead to challenges around ensuring fairness across the team while also meeting the practice requirements. Taking a whole-practice view which clearly defines the non-negotiable needs of the practice and then mapping the requests of all the team against these requirements will highlight areas of flexibility.
Being open and discussing this across the team, asking them to help find solutions to meet areas of challenge and workshopping how this may impact other team members and the practice as a whole will give your team agency and help create workable solutions. (Flexee has some great tools for individuals and practices to work through together.)
Taking this a step further, could we start creating the rotas around the working patterns of the team? For example, nowadays, if I want to arrange a routine appointment with my GP, I get taken to an online portal where I’m triaged as non-urgent through a series of questions. I’m then invited to view the different clinicians and their particular specialisms, qualifications and areas of interest. This system allows me to choose whether I see a particular doctor and view their availability or take the next available slot that’s convenient for me.
I’ve never had to memorise the opening hours of the doctor or dentist or relied on them fitting into a particular schedule. Instead, I simply want the reassurance that I can be seen in an emergency or make an appointment at a convenient time.
Dynamic automated rotas could enable us to accommodate flexible working patterns that offer a better working life for our team members
What if we offered this more commonly in our veterinary practices? Dynamic automated rotas could enable us to accommodate flexible working patterns that offer a better working life for our team members. It would empower our clients to book appointments at a convenient time and, where possible, select the vet or nurse best placed to help.
Hybrid workplaces – the best of both worlds
Rather than considering our workforce as driving for and desiring more hybrid working opportunities, why not think of our workplaces as hybrid?
Moving certain types of appointments, such as triage and post-operative checks, to virtual consultations, either through the practice team or dedicated telemedicine providers, opens the door to working-from-home opportunities while reducing the time pressure within practice. Indeed, it’s often more convenient for owners, less stressful for pets and better for the environment.
Fostering a sense of belonging
One of the major pain points I felt (and I know I’m not alone) when returning from maternity leave was the change from being a full-time team member to a “part-timer”. From feeling fully integrated into the social fabric of the practice and up to date with all the people and policies, the challenges of parenting made it hard to join practice socials, develop relationships with new team members and get to grips with the new practice management system.
When this conversation was expanded in the Vet Mums mastermind session at London Vet Show in 2022, it became apparent that those feelings of isolation – of being judged for not being “a fully committed member of the team” because you have to dash off for childcare – underpins the constant feeling of being a bad parent and a bad vet. This exacerbates not only the guilt that you cannot give 100 percent to both, but the isolation you can feel at being a bit side-lined in practice life.
The British Veterinary Association Motivation, Satisfaction and Retention Survey highlighted that a feeling of belonging is key to garnering motivation and satisfaction at work (Begeny et al., 2018). Motivated, happy team members perform better and stay longer – reason enough to inspire action in practice leaders.
What can I do?
There is a lot we can do to help “part-timers” feel like they are valued members of the team and truly belong:
- Raise awareness: simply raising awareness throughout your team about how it feels for those who are juggling life and work (often uncomfortably) opens the door to understanding
- Encourage empathy: understanding then opens the door to empathy
- Help people feel valued: one of the biggest dampeners to great performance and happiness at work is feeling undervalued. Be sure to celebrate what each individual brings to the table and champion them in their career and life development
- Welcome the whole person: as the key to workplace motivation and satisfaction, belonging means being able to turn up as your truest self at work and feeling accepted as you are
- Create a social culture: try to arrange social times during every working day, with shared tea and lunch breaks. This is especially vital post-COVID-19 to foster a collective social capital that can see us through similar challenges. Encourage people to put their phones down and converse. Themed sessions can work well for this – you might try “guess the smoothie ingredients”, bake-offs, show and tells (you’ll be amazed at people’s hobbies and talents), random fact sharing, etc
- Change your language: Using phrases such as “part-time” or even “flexible worker” can make it sound like there are two tiers of staff (“fully” versus “partially committed”). Try using language that removes any distinction, for example saying people are either “on shift” or “off shift”, keeping the language the same for all
Veterinary practice rotas have always felt like a complex jigsaw puzzle – trying to move around the pieces (the staff) to fit the whole picture. But how about taking the pieces – the availability and skill set of the individuals – and fitting them together to build a different picture? Think as if you’re engineering the holes to fit the pegs, square or otherwise. Through enabling technologies, including virtual services, AI chatbots, wearable devices, smart rota tools and dictation software, there are more potential time savings and efficiencies to be realised.
With all these advancements in technology, workplace culture and mindsets, there has never been a better time to reimagine veterinary practice to suit the needs of team members
With all these advancements in technology, workplace culture and mindsets, there has never been a better time to reimagine veterinary practice to suit the needs of team members while optimising the service we provide to the animals in our care.