November 28, 2011
Most of us have heard that there are more female students in veterinary school than male students. This preponderance of estrogen will likely have various effects on the profession, and many of them will reflect the reality that often it is the female who bears the brunt of starting a family.
The female of a couple is often responsible for a lot of the parenting. That’s not to say there aren’t “househusbands,” and this may be one trend we see climb in the veterinary profession.
But out of necessity or pure desire, Mom will need to make time for her family and begin the challenging task of balancing work and home.
As an employee, the female veterinarian who intends to have children must have a frank discussion with her employer as to what they each expect and will tolerate. This requires the veterinarian to determine what those expectations look like on her end, to see if an agreement is possible.
How much time off do you expect to need, depending on the ages and number of children in the household? What shifts can you work, and what times are reasonable for you to report to and depart each day? What days of the week can you work?
Keep in mind that the type of practice you are considering can make a big difference; your needs may be best filled by joining an emergency practice with the added shift options of 24/7 staffing, or best filled by a general practice that just has day hours and limited weekend work.
The important thing is to have a plan.
Map out your best-case scenario, before embarking on the job hunt or a change in employment. During the interview process or discussion with an existing employer, take time to discuss your expectations and learn about any and all company policies that relate to parenting and time off.
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What type of maternity leave, if any, is provided by the practice? Can you take more time off, unpaid? Does the practice have more than 50 employees and, therefore, fall under Family Medical Leave Act requirements?
Sure, you may have to compromise, depending on the practice’s needs, but it is a mistake to take a job if you know the schedule will not ultimately be sustainable. This delays your finding a good employment fit and postpones the practice’s ability to hire a long-term employee.
It’s also a mistake to leave an existing employer without knowing what flexibility exists, or to assume that the practice will accommodate your new needs.
Astute veterinary practice owners and managers are realizing that they need to be flexible and find ways to respect the work-life balance if they plan to stay in business and keep good people. That is the challenge they must meet, and society is forcing this hand sooner rather than later.
Practice owners also strive to find a work-life balance. Surveys have shown that female veterinarians are not pursuing practice ownership as often as their male counterparts did in years past, and it may be they are not aware of how to establish this balance.
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The effect of this trend is yet to be realized; who will own practices as the male majority of owners retire? On the other hand, owning a practice may make it easier to set your own schedule. Owners can hire associates and relief veterinarians to cover their time off, whereas employees must request changes to schedules and the decision is in someone else’s hands.
Associates considering going into business for themselves need to think realistically about the amount of work and time needed to start and maintain a practice. Practice owners need to establish times when they’re “the boss,” and then time when they can let go of the practice and relax as “Mom.”
This may mean hiring a good practice manager and a collection of various advisers and professionals to help run the organization.
This is good for business as well, allowing you to continue practicing as a veterinarian. As boss, you benefit the company more from earning revenue by seeing patients.
Whether you’re the owner or associate, veterinarians with a family must examine what they want from life and be honest with themselves as to what is most important.
Certainly a family needs an income, but a lot of jobs can provide a paycheck. The difference in veterinary medicine is that first, it is a calling, and we are likely not going to abandon veterinary medicine to seek another job. Plus, the nature of medicine means that even for associates, the day is not over when the front door is locked. There is work to do even after the phones shut off, and patient care cannot be moved over to the “to-do list” for tomorrow.
First, try to engineer the best-case scenario, which could involve staggering the doctors’ shifts so there is dual coverage at all times. You may need to have a buffer in place, such as closing earlier to provide uninterrupted time to finish cases and medical records.
At the very least, there needs to be a Plan B for when the kids have to be picked up from school at the same time a patient needs immediate care. This may involve a close friend or relative who can pick up the kids on a moment’s notice, but it shouldn’t occur so often that it becomes Plan A.
Then there are sick children. Ensure that the practice can handle flexibility when emergencies arise. Child care will typically not take on a sick child, and family is not always available, so how the practice reacts to these unexpected absences will set the tone for a family friendly attitude or lack thereof.
While accommodating unexpected family circumstances may be a top priority for the leadership of a practice, remember that others are affected by these interruptions in the normal routine—the other team members.
Management must consistently communicate the family friendly culture so that team members support each other, even those who do not have kids at home. Reinforce that when and if they do need those accommodations in the future, they will be given with the same open heart that is now helping the families of the other employees.
It does no good to accommodate the family life of an employee if he or she becomes resented by the rest of the team. Plus, the definition of “family” needs to be examined; do employees without children get time off for an ailing parent or emergency with a sibling? This falls under the same argument as smoking breaks; the nonsmokers will eventually resent that smokers are given more break time if a fair policy doesn’t allow everyone the same benefits.
As for maintaining a family friendly practice, everyone needs to support this part of the practice culture. After all, we may be raising the future of the veterinary profession.
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