Sustainable veterinary careers

The hope for the not-for-profit charity, Sustainable Veterinary Careers, is that it will spark an industry-wide cultural shift resulting in greater job satisfaction, improved mental health and increased staff retention among veterinary professionals. By Phil Tucak

The veterinary profession in Australia is currently enduring a range of significant pressures and challenges.

Some of the problems facing the profession are not new—long hours, low pay rates, compassion fatigue and navigating the financial ability and expectations of pet owners. Now with COVID, a surge in pet ownership coupled with people spending more time at home with their pets, has seen demand for veterinary services increase even more.

Moreover, social distancing and other pandemic-related safety and personal protective equipment requirements often slows the rate at which work in the veterinary practice can be accomplished; veterinarians and nurses are stretched working long tiring days. There’s also minimal back-up available, as the impact of international and interstate travel restrictions has seen availability of both locum and permanent veterinary staff dramatically reduced.

This perfect storm of challenges, alongside other more persistent factors, has seen some veterinarians reduce their working hours, and others leave the industry entirely. Many are tired, frustrated and at risk of burnout and other mental health concerns.

Having witnessed the problems facing the veterinary profession over recent years, Victorian veterinarian Dr Kate Clarke wondered if they couldn’t be better tackled through collaboration, innovation and strategic solutions. To this end—and supported by a committed and skilled team—Dr Clarke is leading the development of the not-for-profit charity organisation, Sustainable Veterinary Careers, with the goal of helping veterinary professionals thrive.

Taking shape

“We’re aiming to bring together, support and deliver existing initiatives from within and beyond the veterinary sector in a very strategic, evidence-based way. There’s lots of established knowledge about what motivates and engages individuals, and what helps teams to function really well. We also know that everyone is unique,” says Dr Clarke.

“Based on the existing challenges of veterinary work, we believe that building diverse capabilities and opportunities will help vets, nurses, managers, and students to grow, achieve, lead and connect in more satisfying, sustainable and authentic ways. The necessary paradigm shift in workplace and industry culture ultimately comes from evolving own our decisions and behaviours.”

Based on the existing challenges of veterinary work, we believe that building diverse capabilities and opportunities will help vets, nurses, managers, and students to grow, achieve, lead and connect in more satisfying, sustainable and authentic ways.

Dr Kate Clarke

The idea for Sustainable Veterinary Careers was born out of Dr Clarke’s own experiences of collaboration and education.

“I’d discovered that my own experiences of work-related anxiety and emotional disengagement were widely shared by many clinical vets and nurses, who often couldn’t see distinct alternatives in other workplace options. But in 2017, an empowering and motivating experience which skilfully collated non-veterinary, non-clinical resources, knowledge and connections made me wonder if the thoughtful and diverse veterinary profession mightn’t collectively achieve something similar.”

Dr Clarke continues: “Just one example is that many of the traditional leaders across the profession are trained and experienced as vets and nurses but need opportunities to develop complementary leadership and management knowledge and behaviours to help them shape empowering, rewarding workplace systems and cultures. We wouldn’t plate a leg without the right tools and training, yet historically we’ve managed the brains and hearts of our precious teams without such resources. Understanding how we bring ourselves to our jobs and what makes us hum is also critical to finding long-term satisfaction.”

Seeking input

A key component of the Sustainable Veterinary Careers approach is the implementation of a publicly paid, wholesaler levy that will fund and measure the impact of non-clinical education and resources. “We’re thrilled that many wholesalers have recognised the benefits of this and are conceptually supportive,” says Dr Clarke.

The idea for the levy was raised by veterinarian Dr Oliver Liyou, who courageously shared his personal mental health struggle as part of SBS Television’s Insight program in 2020.

“Oliver knew of my passion, knowledge and experience and approached me to lead development of his funding idea, including developing an appropriate governance model and evidence-based comprehensive framework for fund use. Ultimately, we seek to spark an industry-wide cultural shift to deliver stronger mental health, inclusion and retention of veterinary professionals long into our future,” says Dr Clarke.

Changing the fight

Veterinarian Dr Hubert Hiemstra is working with Dr Clarke to progress the development of Sustainable Veterinary Careers’ engagement with the veterinary profession.

This will be a mammoth job and will require ongoing effort and support from across the industry, but we believe that the solutions are there and that the time for change is right.

Dr Hubert Hiemstra

“To date much of the work that’s been done to address some of the issues facing the veterinary profession is focused on increasing the skills and resilience of the individual,” says Dr Hiemstra. “While this is an important aspect of the work that needs to be done, it brings to my mind the trenches of World War I, where soldiers were sent ‘over the top’ of the trenches in waves of attack, only to run into a barrage of machine-gun fire. Simply focusing on better training of these individual soldiers would not have changed the outcome. What needed to change was how the war was fought.

“We’ll shortly be sending out a solutions-focused survey so that the whole veterinary community shapes how this endeavour is funded and governed and ensures that it meets peoples’ needs. We encourage everyone in the veterinary industry to assist this by taking the time to complete the survey and to encourage their colleagues to do the same.”

Time for change

With support from across the professions, Sustainable Veterinary Careers’ goal is ambitious, yet those leading the charge for change know that together, small actions can create big results.

“This will be a mammoth job and will require ongoing effort and support from across the industry, but we believe that the solutions are there and that the time for change is right,” adds Dr Hiemstra. “Just like the perfect storm of problems, there is also a growing movement for positive change. The elements to bring about these changes can be seen all over the industry, like pieces of firewood scattered throughout a field. What Sustainable Veterinary Careers is aiming to do is to collect all the wood in a huge pile and hand out a box of matches.”

Dr Clarke agrees that now is a unique time to change the veterinary profession for the better.

“Looking externally, scientific advances, food and biosecurity and an increased societal demand for veterinary services means that the world needs vets and vet nurses more than ever before. Internally, we’re increasingly recognising the costs of veterinary mental ill health beyond suicide, such as the variable job satisfaction and professional attrition highlighted by the challenges of recruitment and staff retention in many areas and businesses,” says Dr Clarke.

“COVID-19 has magnified these issues. Right now, our extraordinary profession is both exhausted and highly motivated for positive action. The exciting part is that everyone has a role to play in making that happen. While we recognise the need for collective industry improvement, our workplaces and professions are ultimately made up of thousands of individuals whose non-clinical knowledge and capabilities influence the behaviours and decisions which shape our vet culture. It’s time to create an empowering new normal.”

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