News & Press: NZVA news

Flex yourself

Wednesday, 4 April 2018  
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VetScript Editor's pick - April 2018

Veterinary practices are finding they need to provide more flexible working conditions to retain and manage staff. But with the demand for veterinary services also growing, it can be a difficult juggling act, reports Jacqui Gibson.


Veterinary clinics throughout New Zealand are experimenting with more flexible ways of retaining and managing staff to keep up with changes in the profession, industry and society as a whole. Yet some practices say they need better access to practical tips, support and ideas, as well as human resources (HR) and legal advice, to make sure they’re doing it right.

At least, that’s the view of Adrian Evans, of South Wairarapa Veterinary Services.

Adrian is a part-time veterinarian, as well as the part-owner and director of four clinics in Wairarapa.

He says veterinary firms know they have to find new, more flexible ways of running their businesses to stay viable, which includes adopting more flexible work practices.

“We know the old Monday-to-Friday model is over; the evidence is everywhere,” he says.

“Clients today expect a 24-hour-a-day service, available seven days a week. Yet veterinarians simply aren’t prepared to drive themselves into the ground like they used to.

We’re more aware of the mental health issues. We know about burnout. Today, both men and women want the option of being hands-on, stay-at-home parents in their children's early years – at least for some of the time. Gone are the days of the veterinarian with two divorces under their belt, prepared to wade through three metres of snow any time of day or night to get to the job.”

That’s a good thing, of course, says Adrian. “But employers, particularly the independently owned practice owners without HR and legal teams, have a tricky tension to grapple with. On the one hand, we’re facing a greater demand for veterinary services. On the other, we have a workforce that needs and wants a healthy work-life balance. On top of that, it’s competitive out there. If we want to hire the best staff and keep them, then we need to impress prospective employees as an employer of choice,” he says.

Adrian and his colleagues started thinking through some of these issues a few years ago. Since then, they’ve restructured the governance and management side of the business to make it more flexible and responsive to change. They’ve also rejigged the way their staff work to provide greater flexibility, ensure an improved work-life balance and boost staff morale and the overall company culture.

Although all staff take on their fair share of weekend work and still need to be on call, half the clinical employees are now part-timers – Adrian being a case in point. The company has, he says, defined policies and practices for part-time options. Flexible and part-time hours can be offered to staff by negotiation.

“Rostering is a hell of a challenge in this new world,” says Adrian. “No-one really wants to work weekends or after hours – it’s the devil of our industry, to be honest.

But, like most clinics, we’ve found the demand from clients has shot through the roof of late, and it shows no signs of slowing down. It’s something we all just have to live with as best we can.

“We certainly haven’t figured out all the answers. In fact we’re still very much getting our heads around the current reality. All we know is that the traditional business model and old ways of working just don’t cut it any more. The question is: what are we replacing them with?”

University of Otago School of Management Senior Lecturer Paula O’Kane says companies such as Adrian’s are undoubtedly heading in the right direction, even if they don’t yet know the final destination.

“I think it’s an excellent sign. We know offering flexible working conditions and creating more flexible workplaces are good ways to deal with some of the changes we’re seeing in New Zealand society and around the world. While we’re light on New Zealand data clarifying the extent of the demand here, my gut would say the demand for more work flexibility is growing. It’s not to the extent of the UK. In the UK it’s practically the norm, whereas here you still find many employers who see it as problematic.”

However, the evidence is much clearer on the general benefits of workplace flexibility, says Paula. “We know, for example, that it helps people to remain in the workforce, prevents organisations losing key skills and may even work well for a customer base wanting access to services outside the conventional 8.30am to 5pm hours. We also know it makes organisations more attractive to new employees.

“In terms of understanding who the demand is coming from, the evidence shows there’s demand from new parents, and the expectations of greater flexibility among millennials is very real. Also, our latest research exploring ageing and employment shows Kiwi baby boomers are increasingly interested in the flexibility of working part-time. It’s safe to say being able to request flexible working conditions and to have an open discussion with your employer about how it can work for both of you is really important and can have huge benefits for both parties.”

When Callum Irvine, South Island Regional Manager for Pet Doctors, turned his attention to rethinking the work arrangements of Libby Leader, a highly valued, senior veterinary nurse on parental leave, he admits they had to make it up as they went along.

“We were breaking new ground in many ways. The whole idea of workplace flexibility should be seen as the norm in veterinary practice, but it’s certainly not common yet. But we managed. First, we talked about what each other wanted, and what we could each do to achieve our mutual goals.”

For Callum, those goals included having someone whom staff trusted and enjoyed working with come back early from parental leave to take on the role of part-time office manager. For Libby the additional income was useful, and coming back to work part-time in a less demanding role meant she could try balancing family and work responsibilities sooner than planned.

Libby says: “I knew I could do the [office manager] job efficiently and in half the time of someone else. And I didn’t want to put my baby in daycare until she was at least a year old. So it seemed like a good transitional option between having my baby and returning to full-time veterinary nursing.”

In the end, Libby and Callum agreed to Libby doing 20 hours a fortnight, split between home and the office, with Callum deciding to convert an unused mezzanine floor into a baby-friendly space. The refit gave Libby a safe, quiet space to feed her newborn and put her down for routine naps.

Rachael Fouhy is a part-time large animal veterinarian and shareholding director at Totally Vets Group, a company of five veterinary clinics based throughout the Manawatū and Tararua districts. She says she made the move from full-time veterinarian to shareholding business director and part-time veterinarian over several years, starting in 2012 when she had her first baby. At the time, she says, there were few rules on how to work more flexibly and there was practically no support in place to help employees work out their options.

“I just sat down with my employer and made up the hours that would suit us both. It worked so well we never changed it. Thinking about things now, I’d say we definitely need to create more opportunities for our industry to talk about flexible work and the options that are available.”

Rachael says over the years she’s trialled both part-time work and job sharing to suit the life stages of her children and the family farm obligations she shares with her husband.

“In my experience, working more flexibly doesn’t have to affect your career negatively. I was invited to become a company shareholder while working part-time,”
she says.

It’s been 13 years since Rachael graduated from Massey University with a veterinary science degree. Looking back, she says she’s probably happier in her career now than ever before.

“I still work really hard, but somehow the balance is right and I don’t feel overworked. At one point in my first pregnancy, I wondered if I needed to rethink my career options, but I’m pleased I didn’t. I’m pleased I was confident enough and my employers were open-minded enough to figure out an arrangement that’s worked for us both. It enabled me to stick with a career I’m passionate about. I feel lucky about that.”