What is your nursing background?
I began my nursing career in 2006 when I joined Minster Veterinary Practice in York – which was then a large, mixed first opinion practice – as a trainee nurse. I was 18 years old and to say I was keen is an understatement – this is what I had always wanted to do.
I was a farmer’s daughter and had been “saving” wildlife – much to the distress of my dad – since I could walk. Unfortunately, my efforts were occasionally in vain, thanks to my sidekick – a predatory farm cat – which saw my attempts to create an animal hospital as an opportunity for a fast-food lunch. But it didn’t put me off and, after some persistence, I landed my dream job.
I trained for two years before attending college part time, qualifying as an RVN in 2011. I quickly decided I couldn’t sit still, nattered the life out of our head nurse to send additional responsibility my way and soon bagged myself a deputy head nurse position. It was a brilliant time for me, as I could learn the ropes in leadership and gain confidence as an RVN.
When our head nurse was promoted to practice manager, I too had the opportunity to step up. Much to my excitement, I was promoted to clinical nurse manager, supporting 22 nurses across various sites, including the main hospital. This was such a challenge, but I loved being part of the senior management team, dealing with maintenance or practice standards one minute and upset clients the next.
Most of all, I loved the clinical leadership and supporting our nurses with whatever they needed, even if it did mean the odd last-minute call on a weekend to cover a shift or offer guidance. To say I was passionate about my career, team and the practice I worked for isn’t really enough of an explanation – it was my main focus in life, and I loved developing and growing in an industry I honestly adore.
Why did you decide to move into HR?
The seed was planted in my mind following the arrival of my baby boy in March 2017. Although I adored nursing and the clinical leadership role, I had an overwhelming feeling – that I am sure most new mums face – of feeling unable to split myself into more than one piece. I was now a mum and felt I needed to give it my all.
While on maternity leave, I re-evaluated my career and thought about how I was going to fit my current role around my new-found passion. I knew I enjoyed the HR aspect of my role and it was an area in which I could progress to provide me with “family friendly” hours.
How were you supported by your employer in making this move?
I worked at a VetPartners practice, and was able to approach my managers and VetPartners central support team while on maternity leave. I openly and honestly discussed the concerns I had about returning to my clinical nurse manager role, and suggested options without risk of judgement, negativity or embarrassment.
The impact this had on my delicate well-being (I was on maternity leave, after all) was hugely positive and I felt reassured that being part of a bigger veterinary group meant a huge amount of opportunity existed to develop and grow, even though I was now a mum.
It was clear a place existed for the “new” me and we unanimously agreed it was a positive move that could absolutely be embraced. It was an incredible feeling. Without hesitation, I was encouraged to start a course I had researched, with a view to returning from maternity into HR in January 2018. The support I received from VetPartners at this time was immeasurable.
How does your current role differ from your clinical nursing role?
The contrast of working in a busy clinical environment to that of working in a busy HR department is huge. The pressure in the office environment is very different. Although busy and overwhelming at times, it is always controlled and professional, whereas in practice we battled with the unknown, not knowing what was coming through the door next, on top of a huge list of routines to achieve in the day.
We were outspoken and got through the day finding humour in what most people would probably find pretty grim jokes. It has taken me a long time to adjust, or perhaps the team has taken a long time to adjust to my practice ways.
Nursing was physically demanding; wondering whether we might make it to the tea room for a quick drink and a regroup. In the office, we are able to bounce ideas, queries and solutions off one another. As a side note, I have certainly gained a bit of weight since I am not doing an “all day workout” running around the hospital.
VetPartners’ central support team feels like family or friends and this is familiar to me, as practice always felt this way. I believe this feeling disseminates into our practices and I am proud to work for a company that promotes this, providing opportunity and security to practices and employees while allowing them to maintain autonomy and provide clinical care the best way they know how.
Sally Whitehead with her team.
What do you miss about your clinical role?
I miss nursing animals an awful lot and the interaction with clients. I miss using the clinical skills I am so proud to have obtained over the years. I miss the interest that members of the public, family and friends had in my work; I always had a cool success story to tell as a nurse and people are not quite as interested in office life.
I try to keep up with veterinary world changes by reading journals. VetPartners has supported me in maintaining my registration by allowing me to attend congresses annually and providing Veterinary Defence Society insurance cover and paying my registration fees. This has allowed me to work the occasional shift at VetPartners practices. This really helps maintain my skill set, and ensures I retain my confidence and identity as an RVN, which is important to me. VetPartners recognises and embraces this as an employer, making me feel valued as an employee.
Have you gained further qualifications as part of this career change?
While on maternity leave, I began studying part time online for a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development Level 5 Certificate in Human Resource Management qualification, which was supported by VetPartners through a training agreement.
I completed this recently thanks to the unwavering support of my line manager, who acted as my guide during the final modules when I was beginning to struggle with motivation due to a lack of spare time, thanks to my very fiery toddler.
One of my favourite aspects of work is being able to mix my two careers – I still get to practise as a nurse occasionally and I am developing my HR career. Our HR team uses my experience of clinical life when it is assisting practices with employee relations queries.
What does the future hold?
Long term, who knows? The opportunities within VetPartners are truly endless. I will continue to develop myself and my team in HR, and see where the progression of VetPartners takes us. I may decide to continue to develop in HR; I may decide to develop in practice management or become clinical again.
No matter what the future holds, I know I will find progression of any direction at VetPartners.