News & Press: NZVA news

Taking time out

Tuesday, 27 June 2017  
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VetScript Editor's pick - June 2017

Extended career breaks for family or travel were once seen as detrimental to re-entry to the veterinary profession. But attitudes are changing – and for good reasons. Matt Philp explains.

When Helen Beattie took time out from veterinary life to have children some years ago, she didn’t let herself become professionally isolated.

As the co-owner of a Dunedin-based practice she continued to attend clinic meetings, and as the partner of a practising veterinarian she kept up with developments in the veterinary world. Even so, when she returned to working life, it wasn’t without self-doubts.

“Having that ongoing contact is not the same as being at the actual coalface,” says Helen, the current President of the NZVA Companion Animal Veterinarians branch (CAV). “It’s totally the fear of not being good enough.”

The anxiety of re-entry is an increasingly common phenomenon of veterinary careers, not least because of changing demographics.

Anecdotally there’s a sense that younger veterinarians are less inclined than their predecessors to work themselves into the ground – and that includes being more open to taking career breaks.

Arguably even more significant is the ongoing demographic shift of the profession, which suggests that a growing number of veterinarians will take time out to have children, experience life overseas, and for those who are immigrants, take extended leave to ‘go home’.

Leaving aside the broader ramifications of such shifts for now, what’s the experience of re-entry like for clinicians and clinics?

Michele Garry, a director of veterinary recruitment specialist VetStaff, reckons she spends as much time advising people about taking time out as she does on placing them.

“Many are concerned they’ll lose their places on the career ladder,” she says, adding that there are also issues for employers when a veterinarian takes a year or two out.

The ease of returning to practice life depends on circumstances, in her experience. Veterinarians who take breaks during the first decade of their careers “generally come back without any difficulty at all”, while those who disappear on their OE commonly continue to do some locum work and also tend to make smooth re-entries.

It can be more of a struggle for someone who is looking to come back after a decade on civvy street, or has hit the pause button while in the first flush of their career.

“I’ve placed veterinarians who took time out when they’d only been graduated for a year, and of course it took them longer to get up to speed.

At the other end of the spectrum, I can think of a veterinarian with 20 years’ experience who hadn’t practised in two years, but who within a very short space of time was back on top of their game.”

If there are going to be concerns for a returning veterinarian, they will usually be around surgery, she adds. “It’s very easy to practise veterinary medicine again and feel confident and back to the level you were beforehand. Surgery is the area in which we see them lacking most confidence when coming back.”

That was certainly Helen Beattie’s experience. Getting back into the medical side wasn’t so difficult – although there were always things to brush up on. “But surgery is another thing. It has a technical side where if you’re not doing it you get rusty. Getting back into the swing of surgery, and potentially working with different anaesthetic drugs and protocols – that can be challenging.”

How can the re-entry experience be made better for everyone?

Michele says it starts with agreeing on an arrangement that suits both parties, and that will often include an acceptance of part-time work. It’s an area in which the veterinary world has traditionally struggled.

“The concept of job sharing is well established in the corporate field, but in many respects it is comparatively new in a structured way in veterinary clinics. So what has often happened in the past – and it still does to an extent – is ‘We’ve held the position open while she’s gone off and had a baby, as we’re required to do, and now she wants to come back, but only part-time, so we’ll try to ‘bodge’ it’.”

Nevertheless, she believes that veterinary employers are becoming more flexible and pragmatic, helped by the advent of large veterinary groups with dedicated HR teams.

“Clinics are realising increasingly that what you need [to say] is, ‘Okay, she wants to come back and do two days a week, and he wants to come back and do two days. We can structure that as one job and have a regular routine and roster'."

Once both parties have agreed terms, the next step is to ease the re-entry with plenty of collegial support, she says.

“Historically, it’s been a case of, ‘You’re back; here’s your full list, get on with it’. But for someone returning from a significant break of 12 months or more, assuming they’ve done no practical veterinary work in that time, you need to structure their re-entry very much as with a new graduate.

“Ideally they’ll have a mentor assigned to them who is an experienced clinician, someone they can meet once a week just to talk through cases.” (The NZVA Mentor Scheme is another source of support and advice for those who have been out of the workforce for a while.)

“The other thing clinics need to be aware of, particularly for returning veterinarians (who left to have children), is that young families are exhausting.

“The vast majority of veterinarians are dedicated, empathetic, deeply committed people, and they care so much about their work... Both sides, the clinic and the clinician need to keep an air of reality about this. Life isn't the same as it was before."

Gaps in knowledge may also need to be plugged – and confidence boosted. For several years, CAV has offered an online refresher course, described by Helen Beattie as a “security blanket” for all veterinarians.

“When you’re in practice and doing it all the time, it’s front of mind,” says Helen. “With anaesthesia, for example, you are familiar with all the drugs and interactions. But that stuff gets put behind a bit when you’ve spent a couple of years away.”

The course is also a handy way to brush up on new clinical developments, she adds. “The basics don’t change, but the details do. A vaccination is a vaccination, but there are protocols and new products that you may have lost touch with.”

The fact that the course is online allows people to refamiliarise themselves without fear of embarrassment, says Helen, who notes that veterinarians tend to be ‘Type A’ personalities, loath to concede any weaknesses.

She also stresses the importance of networking. “It’s always nice to know you’re not on your own, particularly with this ‘Type A’ thing. You may be fearful of not meeting the standard, and finding others who feel the same way is a comforting thing – that was really important for me.”

All of this tends to frame career breaks and the subsequent re-entry as a problem to be solved. But it’s important to stress that there are great benefits to veterinarians taking time out. As NZVA President Caroline Robertson remarks, “Different life experiences make you a more rounded person, and better able to cope”.

In a VetScript column earlier this year, Caroline suggested that the profession still hasn’t fully embraced the value of such breaks, particularly in relation to parental leave.

“A young veterinarian taking an 18-month OE is seen as a positive,” she wrote, “whereas a veterinarian on six to 12 months of parental leave is often seen as a negative. I suggest that both greatly enhance an individual’s life experience, skill set and coping mechanisms.”

But this is an issue not only for the veterinary profession, says Caroline.

“Society as a whole has to reframe what we mean by people taking time off, and be more flexible and open to people having a lot of different experiences. We probably also have to reframe how we think about commitment.”

In any case, the nature of people’s career expectations and the workforce itself is shifting inexorably. “Change is coming whether you’re ready or not,” she concludes. “We really have to say that it's all positive and embrace that change.”