Here are the reasons why flexible working is the key to retention in the veterinary profession

Veterinary recruitment and retention levels within the profession have reached a crisis point - it seems to be all practice managers and directors are talking about. In fact, staffing resources have become so stretched that the profession returned to the UK's Shortage Occupation List in 2019.

Now in 2021, the staffing cris has compounded - accelerated by factors such as Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2020 questionnaire found nearly half of the veterinarians who responded were likely or very likely to leave their employment within two years. Among those, it was newly qualified vets, those on lower salaries, and women who were more likely to plan to leave.

The profession’s retention and recruitment issues are complex, requiring a multi-pronged solution. Naturally, we need to look at areas like dissatisfaction in renumeration, poor management, workplace preparation for new graduates, and supporting good wellbeing. In the 2019 survey of the profession, the most cited reasons for wanting to leave the profession were: poor work-life balance, not feeling rewarded/valued, chronic stress and long/unsociable hours.

Offering more flexible working could positively impact all of these areas, and while it wouldn’t resolve all of the issues at hand, it’s a good start when looking to modernise how we work as a profession.

What do we mean by flexibile working in veterinary?

One person’s desired working pattern may not mirror another’s. For example, a parent with weekend childcare may prefer to work weekends. Another may not because they are the weekend childcare. One person may be a ‘morning lark’ and another a ‘night owl’.

Allowing differing working patterns may not only suit them, but also harness their most productive working times. Situations and temperaments are as individual as we are, meaning that communication and compromise between employer and employee benefit both parties. Circumstances do change, so it’s good to revisit people’s preferences every so often, too.

What are the benefits from more flexibility in your working schedule?

Becoming a first-time mum this year has increased the importance of flexibility in my own work - and I’m not alone. The gender balance of the veterinary profession has changed dramatically in the last 40 years. Once the minority, women now account for over 60% of practicing vets registered with the RCVS. Almost three quarters of vets aged 25-30 are female. We need to evolve working to accommodate this huge shift in demographics, and acknowledge that the profession is no longer male dominated.


Many parents struggle to return to the same role and hours they did before maternity/paternity, fitting in parenthood alongside late finishes, weekend working and nights on call. Many give up and leave the profession. Some will look towards the more regular hours of non-clinical roles. Those who stay, trying to be everything to everyone, face a real burnout risk.

Flexibility is not just for parents - the profession has changed from the James Herriot days. Clinics are fast-paced, advancement in diagnostic and treatment options means societal expectations (and access to information) has increased, and with it the fear of litigation. Flexibility may simply allow better management of mental health and wellbeing.

Chronic illness, maintaining other work commitments, being a carer, and countless other reasons mean some simply cannot work without flexibility.

We risk losing skilled workers, leaving future vets without role-models, mentors, and support, so the cycle of poor job satisfaction, and thus retention, continues.

Flexible working is a win-win situation for employee and employer

Flexibility is not just about the employee getting what they want. Research proves it benefits employers and businesses too.

Directly, flexible working may save building space if remote working remains part of the norm. It also may work better in resourcing for 24/7 demand. Most of the benefits are more indirect.

Veterinary job satisfaction

Workplace flexibility calls for trust, which is essential between employer and employee for employees to feel supported, depended on and confident. Employees who feel more in control are more engaged and have higher job satisfaction. Commitment levels and discretionary effort increase, allowing employees to reach their full potential. This undoubtedly leads to improved productivity.

Improved wellbeing and stress reduction for your clinic

Having control - particularly of your own work schedule - is known to reduce stress, so much so that giving ‘control’ forms one of the management standards set out by the HSE to support the Health and Safety at Work Act. Simple changes can positively impact a person’s mental health. For example, an employee who must drop their child off at school, and is tight on time, arrives at work stressed and harassed. This affects their mood, and that of those around them, impacting productivity for the whole day.

Allowing them to start 30 minutes later means they can arrive in good time, better using their energy and lowering chances of overwhelming the team.

Employees have a responsibility to request these changes, as employers are not mind-readers. Employers who ask, listen, and accommodate where possible, results in employees feeling valued and more likely to be loyal and stay long-term, reducing recruitment costs and morale-deflating change.

Flexible working can lead to a better work-life balance, allowing employees to manage their time better, freeing-up quality time for family, friends, and hobbies. They return to work feeling refreshed and ready for what can be an emotionally and physically draining profession.

benefits flexible working

Reduce clinic team absences and presenteeism

Incorporating flexibility in working patterns reduces stress, improves wellbeing, and positively impacts mental and physical health meaning employees will be less likely to take days off work.

When an employee is just a little under the weather, remote working may let them perform lighter duties, meaning more work gets completed. It’s appreciated by the employee, and prevents spreading bugs around the whole workforce. Similarly, a parent with a sick child can still get some work done at home while checking in on their child.

A blended remote consulting approach has shown its value over the course of the pandemic and is here to stay long-term.

Larger veterinary talent pool

A flexible work culture also unlocks a bigger talent pool. Only allowing managers to work full time may limit candidates to those without children or other commitments. Others may do the job brilliantly as a job share or flexible agreement.

Flexibility allows better management of chronic illness and disability, allowing people who may otherwise be unable to apply for rigid roles more opportunity while also allowing for better diversity and inclusion.

Easier recruitment; increased loyalty to your veterinary clinic

A 2018 survey of workers found that 80% of workers would choose a job that offers a flexible schedule over those that did not, with 30% saying they value flexible work over additional vacation time. The 2019 version of this survey found that 30% of respondents left their job because the company didn’t offer flexible work options. Even more telling, 80% of respondents said they’d be more loyal to their employer if they offered flexible work.

Companies offering incentives like work-from-home opportunities, app and remote solutions to make things easier for their team, and flexible working patterns show that they care. Employees feeling cared for are more likely to be loyal and encourage others to apply for roles. This is crucial since word of mouth is a common and low-cost way of recruiting vets.

The profession has undergone massive change over the past few years. With this change comes the need to think strategically and assess if our ways of working are outdated. Workload and flexibility are already one of the seven pillars of the BVA’s good veterinary workplaces policy. Are we doing enough?

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