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Unless you have been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the veterinarian and veterinary nurse/tech shortage.

All across the US, UK, Australia, and beyond, veterinary practices have been tearing out their hair while trying to find recruits to fill their ranks. 

According to the Society of Practicing Veterinary Surgeons (SPVS), 52.3% of veterinary businesses are short of veterinary surgeons, despite there being a high number of graduates. The veterinary profession has also seen a rise in vets leaving the industry entirely, with around 9.5% citing that they planned to jump ship soon1

At the crux of it all is staff retention. Veterinary medicine is seriously struggling with holding on to recruits- exacerbating an already tumultuous economic climate2.

But why are practices struggling to retain their staff- and what can they do about it?

Why Practices Are Struggling With Veterinary Retention

They’re Not Offering A Work-Life Balance

This will come as no surprise to many. 

In a BVA paper on veterinary retention, researchers found that 41.2% of vets planning to leave their jobs cited this as to why. When asked about the one thing they would change about their work, 29.6% referenced their work hours- complaining about excessive out-of-hour scheduling and overtime expectations. 

Although the concept of work-life balance is complicated and often misconstrued (find out why here), overworking can be seriously detrimental to our health. Overworking is associated with depression, anxiety and a number of sleep conditions3. It is also associated with health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease4.

Many practices struggle to offer sufficient downtime for vets due to understaffing. This is particularly problematic as it is a self-perpetuating problem. As staff leave, remaining teammates must work longer and harder, leading to decreased morale in practice and burnout. 

Practices need to look at their systems and evaluate how they distribute work throughout their businesses. Although this is not a simple solution, measures must be taken to manage work-life balance if employers hope to retain their staff. 

Step one is to stop the rot. Step two is to rebuild from a more solid core. Does this mean radical short-term service ‘right-sizing to help teams cope? According to VetX CEO and practice owner Dr. Dave Nicol, the answer is yes:

‘We simply cannot keep cranking the pressure up in the face of a huge increase in pet ownership – those chasing short-term profit are risking the long-term viability of their practice as staff exit.’

They’re Not Focusing On Management 

Around 36.9% of vets cite leaving their job because of management-related problems. Issues surrounding organization, autonomy, and regulation were all cited as drivers for quitting. 

Practice managers play a central role in several areas and are responsible for managing employee’s workloads and schedules. Mismanagement of these areas can create a toxic work atmosphere that drives employee dissatisfaction and resentment. It can also affect workplace relationships, a cornerstone of veterinary gratification. 

Although management problems are a primary cause of employee dissatisfaction, many practice managers are unaware of this. When veterinary managers were asked in a survey why they thought employees would leave their place of employment, many cited eternal factors (such as family) rather than internal factors related to management (factors commonly cited by vets). 

This research suggests that managers are failing to understand the needs of their workforce. This disconnection is likely exacerbating turnover problems, given that employers don’t seem to have a clear understanding of what their employees want.

Practices, therefore, need to communicate and listen to their employees to learn what they value in practice. If business owners work on creating practices capable of meeting these needs, they stand a far better chance of encouraging employees to stay.

Veterinary retention

They’re Not Offering Salary Incentives

In countries such as the UK and the US, salaries have stagnated, causing a real problem for veterinarians. 

‘Based on my own experience, new hires are being compensated at about roughly the same level I was, two decades ago, at the outset of my career.’ said Dr. Nicol.

‘My basic pay was lower, but I benefited from the addition of a car and a house in which to live, rent-free. Plus, I got a bonus cheque on top of that. Factor in inflation over the past 20 years, and you quickly realize that new hires are receiving a lot less than new vets did circa 1998. Their buying power has degraded by approximately 25%’.

According to the BVA, around 33.8% of vets were considering leaving their job because of this. This highlights a real discrepancy between employer and employee pay expectations. 

Many vets feel there is a discrepancy between the demands of the job and the wages offered. The issue isn’t necessarily whether vets can afford to live on existing wages- the problem is whether they think the work is worth it. Additional stressors within the profession (such as work-life balance) have created an effort-reward imbalance, driving many out of practice5

Unless practices can create a better work-benefit balance, this is sure to be a persistent problem in the future. 

What Does This Mean For Veterinary Retention In The Future?

Although veterinary retention is a problem, it’s not all bad news for practice owners and managers. 

Though some vets want to leave the profession entirely, many are just bouncing from practice to practice. This is good news for employers, as it means that vets still enjoy their work- they just are not satisfied with where they are doing it. 

This allows practices to capitalize on poor employment experiences. By working on workplace culture, practices can offer vets a unique environment where employee values are recognized. This can help attract and retain veterinary candidates, significantly easing hiring headaches in the future.

Happy teams are frequently better performing, so in theory, at least, there should be more profit overall- further increasing your attractiveness to staff. 

If you want to learn more about improving your practice culture, check out this article on the: Three Ways To Maximise The Happiness Of Your Veterinary Team.

References:

1- ‘Investigation of factors affecting recruitment and retention in the UK ….’ 31 Oct. 2020, https://www.bva.co.uk/our-journals/vet-record/vol-187-issue-9/investigation-of-factors-affecting-recruitment-and-retention-in-the-uk-veterinary-profession/. Accessed 15 Jul. 2021.

2-  ‘Recruitment and retention in the veterinary profession – News – BSAVA.’ 15 May. 2019, https://www.bsava.com/News/ArticleID/2613/Recruitment-and-retention-in-the-veterinary-profession. Accessed 15 Jul. 2021.

3-  ‘Investigation of factors affecting recruitment and retention in the UK ….’ 31 Oct. 2020, https://www.bva.co.uk/our-journals/vet-record/vol-187-issue-9/investigation-of-factors-affecting-recruitment-and-retention-in-the-uk-veterinary-profession/. Accessed 14 Jul. 2021.

4- ‘The Effect of Long Working Hours and Overtime on … – NCBI – NIH.’ 13 Jun. 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6617405/. Accessed 15 Jul. 2021.

5-  ‘Investigation of factors affecting recruitment and retention in the UK ….’ 31 Oct. 2020, https://www.bva.co.uk/our-journals/vet-record/vol-187-issue-9/investigation-of-factors-affecting-recruitment-and-retention-in-the-uk-veterinary-profession/. Accessed 15 Jul. 2021.

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