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  • Writer's pictureJocelyn Birch Baker

Q&A Blog– Smooth Operating Vets for Vets Stay, Go, Diversify Downunder

1.) What is your background, and why did you diversify to create “Smooth Operating Vets”

By the time I graduated from the University of Queensland in 1983, 50% of vet graduates were women. I worked as a vet in the Central Queensland bush in my early professional years, moving to Rockhampton with my girls in 1997. I worked in nearly every practice in town until I bought a small animal practice.

Owning the practice showed me the tension between managing the business of the practice, leading staff, and continually improving the clinical work as Principal Vet. I needed to have a thriving and profitable business, so I had to choose.

As much as I love healing animals, I love looking after people. My choice then was easy: my experience on Boards gave me skills in leadership at the strategic level and in my practice, I had an opportunity to lead at the strategic level while maintaining close contact with the team.

If I look after my people, they look after sooo many more animals and clients than I ever could as an individual vet.

It’s worked so well! Our team of women work together to provide the service our patients and clients need in the way they, the vet team, need to work. Removing myself from the operational team for much of the time has forged solid collegiate cooperation for them to solve problems, be innovative, and make sure our mission is accomplished – smooth operating vets!

The team runs High Street Vets so well that I looked around for an opportunity to help other vet businesses to take advantage of what I learned in my journey so far. The most important aspect of my success has been recognition of the people who make up our profession and industry – predominantly women – and the opportunity to work effectively with their needs to make my business not just survive, but to thrive!

I founded Smooth Operating Vets based on these concepts and now am available to support other vet clinics to establish the pathways to recruiting and retaining part-time vets. To create mother-friendly practices that work!

2.) What proportion of the veterinary community identify as females and why is this important?

Eighty percent of new graduates in Australia are women. The graph below shows that the vast majority of vets younger than 54 years of age are women and the vast majority of working vets are under 54. That means that when you think of a vet, you need to be thinking of a woman. When you are trying to hire a vet, you need to be thinking of a woman. When you meet with the vets working for you, you are more than likely meeting with women.

This means that compared with when eighty percent of graduates were men, there has to be a fundamental change in the concept of a vet as a professional in a business.

Now, your vet at home has the biological life and traditional caring role of women. It’s important to balance these aspects with professional life if the business is to thrive, because your vet, while dedicated to quality practice, is no longer able to devote their entire being to satisfy the demands of their employer.

Today’s vet is more than likely looking to work full time for a few years, then taking time off to have a child, followed by a period of part-time work, maybe more time off for parental leave, more part-time work. Her work may also be interrupted by her partner’s career opportunities and moves and each day, she will probably have caring responsibilities like looking after a sick child, running them to day care, school, sports, the list goes on.

This being overwhelmingly the case in our profession, why are we still seeing the majority of vacant positions being advertised as full-time? The full-time vet employee is a myth! If we advertise for full-time positions, 3 out of 8 vets are not even interested.

3.) What are the key factors that create a welcoming environment for working mothers?

These are the things my Mum Vets told me:

When my vet tells me she is pregnant, she is letting me in on the most amazing thing happening to her: fearful and excited all at once. Valuing family and working mums reassures them they will always have a place in my clinic.

We set out a plan to cover pregnancy, keeping in touch through maternity and return to work, prepared in a way one would expect to handle an unpredictable beautiful thing: flexible and open-ended. Respect your vet by knowing that a first time Mum’s assertion that she will be back at work full-time, bub in care, within three months is likely to change!

My Mum Vets tell me they really appreciate being able to do the mum-things they need to do while at work and my having rules about leaving on time and having a proper lunch break. And with clinic flexibility, comes a big return: one of our Mum Vets does clinic every weekend so other vets can have the weekend off!

All the little things that need to happen in mum’s life are common to my Mum Vets so they can share time to attend to them – when they don’t work full time, they can fill in for a colleague, swap a shift, stay later so she can attend an appointment. Life is so much more flexible!

When we’re working part-time, we have reserves: of time, of love, of compassion, of goodwill and happiness! And many even find time for professional development – how cool is that?

4.) How is this linked back to Mental Health & Mindfulness?

This is all links back to mental health and mindfulness! Our mental health is most often interrupted not by the big things, not by grief, not by financial stress, but by the little things that happen to us day by day and often by stress at work. Not being able to fit everything into one’s day – the 50 hour weeks at work, being oncall, the caring, organising the family. And which one is hardest to manage? Full-time work!

If you work in a place with all full-time workers, there isn’t even a chance to swap a shift and you have no reserves for all the other domains of your life: family, sport, social, spiritual, and mental health.

Everyone at the clinic has a life beyond work. We need to work together and to support each other. We need to respect those who would work in our clinics and their needs.

There is no shortage of vets; just a shortage of vets who want to work outrageous hours to the detriment of their mental and physical health, family, and social relationships in businesses that don’t respect their needs.

To reduce the shortage of vets, stop trying to make them work 50 hours a week and then be on call! Then try advertising for vets to work hours and conditions that suit their lives. That will bring back many who have already left – maybe to have babies initially but the dearth of part-time work has kept them out. Bring back 1,000 vets working healthily, and there may well no longer be a shortage!

Mindfulness? Mindfulness to me is what I feel when one of my ladies brings a baby to a meeting she attends as part of our keep-in-touch program. The joy the baby brings to us is fantastic! Life-affirming! Children and animals remind us what life is all about.

5.) How can the approach also affect the future of clinical practice and employee retention?

It’s pretty simple: people who are happy at work don’t leave!

If they have the time and the autonomy to work in a manner that suits their lives, they can work to live, keeping their main lives in focus and enjoying their profession because it is not all-consuming. And all the while working at your clinic with your team and with your clients – happily! This is the key to employee retention. You won’t retain your people on your terms unless your terms align with theirs.

So the future of clinical practice looks like this:

Instead of two full-time vets with two sets of skills. Attended by three full-time vet nurses with three sets of skills and two full-time receptionists with their two sets of skills.

That clinic in the future has maybe five vets with five sets of skills, with five vet nurses with their five sets of skills and three receptionists bringing in three sets of skills. Work is scheduled, within the restrictions of emergency work, to meet available talent sets. Who wouldn’t want that?

The hours and days each professional works will wax and wane as their beyond-work responsibilities change. But they will be with your business longer than under the traditional model, learning and earning while giving your clients and their animals the very best care from the breadth of their skills and abilities.

So in this model of recruiting for the future, we provide respect, learning, and opportunities for happiness, where people are encouraged and supported to take on the work they love. Opportunities to leave to care for families and return to work now accommodate their changed circumstances and needs.

Our vet shortage is on notice: if we provide workplaces that respect families when Mum is at work with us, we will beat it! No bones about it!


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