A great time to be a veterinarian

Written by: Ben Sweeney
Published On: 26 Feb 2018

Happy vet

Image © visivasnc / Adobe Stock

It seems too often we read negative press about vets and VNs in the UK. For years we have heard about the stresses and strains we, as practising veterinary professionals, are exposed to – the high suicide rate, mental breakdowns, numbers of people leaving to pursue other careers and poor salaries compared to other medical professions.

But is it as bad as everyone thinks? We hear about problems, but rarely do we see solutions presented to us. Some remarkable people are doing incredible things with their endeavours – all with the aim of improving the profession’s health, well-being and enjoyment for us all.

Many like myself have decided to do other work alongside ongoing clinical veterinary work. My recent exposure to this was when a colleague from university set up a Facebook group for us to discuss our various ventures and the driving forces behind them – it is fascinating to see how we drive forward with our own individual dreams, but many have the improvement of the profession for the masses at their core.

For the love of animals

It would be safe to say, as vet professionals, we have an inherently caring nature (although some disguise it better than others) and if it was as simple as only caring for animals then we would have no problems. However, ultimately, we work for businesses that need to make money or no jobs exist, and if no jobs exist then we are all up the proverbial creek without said paddle.

We are in the advantageous position that vet practice is a service industry, so there will always be demand for our services. I am in the fortunate position that I love what I do, but, out of intrigue, I quizzed friends and colleagues in various roles – practice ownership, locum, long-term assistant, new grads, those approaching retirement, and those with varying lifestyles and home lives (single mothers, young families, travelling locums, single people and established families) – on the pros and cons of life in practice.

Pros and cons

When asked “what do you like and enjoy about being a vet?”, responses included:

  • client interaction and forming long-term client-vet relationships
  • the varied and stimulating workload
  • CPD and learning opportunities
  • being part of a team and the many laughs (and pieces of cake) that accompany it
  • making a difference to pets’ and owners’ lives

When asked what people disliked and struggled with, they answered:

  • the long hours and lack of work-life balance
  • the often unrealistic expectations of clients – especially those on a small budget
  • the blame culture that seems to penetrate through all levels of society
  • motivating themselves to do CPD in what little spare time they have
  • management and financial aspects of veterinary business
  • stress

What I found encouraging was 80% of those questioned (16 out of 20) would still choose vet practice as a career if they had their time again.

All fields around here

Regularly, I have heard colleagues pass comment about “the good old days”, but I would like to challenge this: were the good old days really that good? On call every other night, clients who never paid on time, the challenge of having to be a true general practitioner and go from a cow caesarean to an Addisonian crisis (although I have ultimate respect for anyone who can do this effectively) and no sat nav – not to mention balancing management, home life and clinical work. All this contributes to the massive mental strain we are palpably aware of.

Nowadays, the vast plethora of opportunities available in the industry means you can pretty much tailor any job to suit yourself and your lifestyle needs – full-time, part-time and even flexitime work is becoming more available along multiple different avenues.

I had the pleasure of speaking to final-year University of Liverpool students about CV writing and what to look for in their first jobs. What encouraged me most was all intended on going into clinical practice in the UK.

The important thing to note is we, as experienced colleagues and employers, acknowledge the shortfalls of the jobs in various roles and try to minimise these negative factors, with the long-term goal of retaining graduates in the profession. Some larger practice groups, such as Vet Partners – as well as some brilliant forward-thinking smaller independent practices – have new graduate schemes to support their development.

Work-life balance

If you were starting out in practice in the 1990s, or earlier, and looking for a job with no out-of-hours then you were pretty hard pushed. The vast majority of positions advertised nowadays have very little or no on-call compared to the one-in-one or one-in-two rotas of yesteryear.

That said, something we need to consider – especially in the early years as a practising vet – is whether these positions offer us the full range of clinical development we would see compared to a practice that does its own OOH.

The experience we gain dealing with the emergency cases is invaluable, and often incredibly rewarding. Indeed, in a new graduate job with no on-call and a four-day week, it could easily take someone up to four to five years before being considered “experienced” due to limited case exposure.

Employers are getting better at acknowledging vets and VNs need balance in life, and recognise having a happy workforce is more productive for business. Don’t get me wrong, no job is perfect and there will always be aspects bosses and employees differ on, but an agreeable compromise often goes some way to pleasing all parties.

Flexible working hours

Many jobs are available that are part time – or, more increasingly, job shares – for those with young families to juggle. Often, employers are happy to tailor a package to suit the right applicants’ requirements as it makes more sense for them to have a stable and established long-term team than to have ever-changing faces for the clients. Of course, it would be foolish to think you can walk into any job interview with a list of demands for the prospective employer and have them pander to your every desire; some give and take has to take place from both parties.

Alternatively, increasing demand for locum provision exists, which offers people the chance to work where and when you want to. As long as your clinical skills and client management are up to scratch you will never be short of work.

If clinical practice isn’t for you then alternative avenues that still use your skills in industry are becoming more common. Many of the corporate and group practices have management ladders for people to climb, should they want to take that path, whereas a leap into industry as a technical vet can open a different career path that can be incredibly rewarding. However, of my friends who have stepped into industry, they do point out these jobs are also not 9am to 5pm, with lots of time spent travelling and away from families or up late preparing presentations and reports.

Suffice it to say, whatever balance you want to have, jobs are out there suited to everyone, but sometimes you have to lift the rocks up and look under them to find what you want.

Corporate ‘problem’

We have undoubtedly all been privy to “the problem with corporates…” conversation. Let’s be clear here – no business is perfect. However, for many years I have seen fantastic clinicians grow more and more disillusioned with the profession as they have become less clinical and more managerial on the road to practice ownership or partnership, until finally they are completely fed up with “being a vet” (written with a hint of irony, as it isn’t the actual vetting they dislike often) and can’t wait to get out. After years of supplier discussions, paperwork, practice management, client complaints and staffing stresses, they have had enough.

So the influx of “the corporate” practices over the past two decades goes some way to alleviating factors we as clinicians at our cores often grow to detest. These groups have their own HR, media/PR and accounting departments. Consequently, we can often focus on the job of being a vet and providing exceptional client services. As mentioned, they also have multiple career paths, should you decide to move into a teaching, management or advisory role.

Help

Generally, we are a profession saturated with high achievers. The situations we encounter daily often contribute and exacerbate our stress levels and, in some cases, push us to our limits. The longer we have been in practice, the more likely we are to have had experience of a colleague or friend caught in the trap of depression and even suicide. The sad part for me is depression has almost become an accepted component of veterinary life, and we regularly read about vets being in the top five of multiple surveys for stress, depression and suicide.

The good news is depression in modern society is less of a taboo. It is more widely understood and more help is available. Years of “bury your head and get on with things, and they might just get a bit better” are gone: charities such as Vetlife and Samaritans are at our disposal and I would encourage those with trials and tribulations to use them. There is no shame in asking for help and it could be life-changing.

Variety

I am a walking advert for the variety a vet degree presents, having started in mixed practice before completing a certificate in equine practice, then deciding I wanted to try small animal practice and, after a car crash of a first job in small animal work, working at a large busy centre.

My time as a locum led me to start a vet-to-vet recruitment business, where we help vets and VNs find the right locum and permanent work, and match practices and candidates suited to each other‘s needs – hopefully maximising that working relationship and everyone’s satisfaction.

My driving factor has always been when I stop enjoying a job, I move on – largely because I don’t want to drag those around me down by my mood, but also that my (perhaps naïve) thoughts are life is short; if you don’t like what you do, change it. This may not be a reasonable approach for those married and settled with families, or partners in our practices. But moving on from a job doesn’t have to mean relocating.

My point is, should we find ourselves in a job that makes us unhappy, we have copious chances for change. Thousands of jobs are advertised annually – teaching, industry, part-time, full-time, OOH, the list goes on. I never forget being told at university we should have one bad job in our career to appreciate the good ones. I think this rings true for many, though I do envy the few that fall into their perfect job (yes, this does still happen).

In 2,000 words, there is only so much you can discuss, but I hope some ideas have been thought-provoking and edifying for those of you disillusioned with the profession. The right job for you is out there, I promise.