Veterinarians: Do you want a job or a career?

“I don’t want a clock puncher, I need an engaged partner-employee who understands that a team environment in this industry doesn’t work without sacrifices.”

It’s a question I’ve never had to ask myself. I never saw veterinary medicine as anything but my beloved profession, my own brilliant career.

Nonetheless, “Do you want a job or do you want a career?” is the one question I’ve learned to ask any prospective associate, manager or credentialed technician. Because I don’t want a clock puncher, I need an engaged partner-employee who understands that a team environment in this industry doesn’t work without sacrifices.

Caution: Rant in progress.

If you wanted to stamp a time card, why didn’t you become a union welder? A Starbucks barista? Go be a pharmacist! Or at least a radiologist (joke!). Go anywhere but into my profession. Don’t infect it with your own brand of mediocrity.

I know that sounds harsh—it is—but it’s how I feel this week, anyway. After months of looking high and low for associates to meet the needs of my growing practice, I’ve been unable to find a “fit.”

Though I make liberal concessions for health care crises, cover for others whose last-minute vacation plans cut into mine and alter the practice’s schedule on a dime to meet the needs of working parents (even hosting in-house homework sessions when afterschool care falls through), I can’t seem to find associates who don’t want to practice like a 9-to-5 shift worker.

After feeling uncharitable and perhaps unduly resentful most of the week, I ended up pawing through years of online veterinary discussions by way of consolation. In the process I found many like-minded souls—veterinarians (not necessarily practice owners) who felt the same way.

Here’s a sampling of complaints. I’ve given reinterpretations for anonymity’s sake.

Case 1

“Why does my associate consider having to leave 10 minutes late a huge imposition on his quality of life? It’s 4:45 and he’s getting tetchy because his patient is still too sedated to extubate. Animals are not like machines; you can’t turn them off just because you want to meet your friends at the bar. And this is the guy who argued for a higher base because of his huge school-related expenses. How does he expect to pay off his loans with an attitude like that?”

Case 2

“She wants to spend two hours working up a case but doesn’t like that she doesn’t earn bonuses at her pace. I’ve talked to her about an internal medicine residency or ABVP certification as a possible career choice, but she claims she doesn’t have the time and can’t afford it. And this is someone who gets to work late every single day. How did she get through vet school?”

Case 3

“‘An emergency? It’s lunchtime, I have errands to run. Send them to the ER or let them wait.’ Might as well ask us to control the weather. How would she feel if her docs deferred to the ER whenever lunch interfered? If they did, that might explain why our health care system isn’t working.”

Like me, these veterinarians couldn’t understand why anyone would work so hard to get through vet school and still:

  • Chronically show up late to work.
  • Treat job interviews as if they were optional formalities.
  • Consider bonus-based pay a threat rather than an opportunity.
  • Generally harbor an attitude that suggests their days of sweat and service are behind them.

What’s up with that?

Though I’m sure some of you are relishing this tirade, others among you are reacting like some did to my recent cats-in-practice article: “If you hate the hiring process (cats) so much, why own a practice (treat cats)?” But that’s really not the point, is it? It’s not so much about hating on slackers (cats) as it is about pointing out problems that need to be addressed.

In this case, I’m deploring the culture of professional disengagement that seems increasingly normalized in our profession. Even our vocabulary has become contaminated with terms like “work-life balance,” as if being a member of a profession like ours could ever be an issue of black and white, work time versus life time, each the adversary of the other.

If this sounds heretical, it’s probably your contention that this definition of work-life balance is the only thing delivering us from eventual burnout. But I beg to differ.

Consider: The lion’s share of burnout has more to do with a lack of engagement than anything else. A 2014 Dutch study supports this contention, explaining that engagement is to job satisfaction as exhaustion is to burnout. Not surprisingly, it also found that self-efficacy and proactivity were positively related to work engagement.

To be sure, proactivity and self-efficacy are two of the most important qualities for any future veterinarian. Which brings me back to the earlier question: Why do so many veterinarians seem to assume, after enduring so much toil and sacrifice in school, that “work” and “life” don’t mix? That the weekends aren’t for journal catch-up as well as the Sunday Times? That kayaking can’t come after checking on patients?

Twenty years ago, veterinary associate position-seekers would wring their hands over bosses who would string them along with lofty promises of future partnerships and eventual buyouts, only to renege on their offers. These were the primary stressors for associates.

Back then, full professional engagement was expected. Most of us measured career success by our prowess in practice, our financial independence and by how much our patients, clients and communities adored us. In other words, success was measured by engagement. Burnout happened, but it wasn’t a major feature of the landscape.

Today’s general practice professional culture is different. Instead of bemoaning the lack of clinical opportunities, skill advancement or the chance to become more a part of the veterinary profession, the focus is on hours, vacation time and other forms of physical and psychological disassociation from it. Is it any wonder then that burnout becomes a feature for those who perceive work and life in veterinary medicine as mutually exclusive?

And here’s the kicker: If they perceive their profession as a safe harbor for some mythical separation of the two, they’re bound to be disappointed, stressed out and ripe for burnout. Alternatively, as their numbers swell and their demands are met—enter corporate veterinary practice—they’ll continue to advance the culture of mediocrity in veterinary medicine.

But if you think this is a generational issue, a gender problem or any other brand of us-and-them-ism, you’d be wrong. Though our culture is different now, the issue here is more about expectations, engagement, grit and commitment—not just to our profession but to our patients and our communities.

Because ultimately, this comes down to preserving a high standard of care, doesn’t it? It’s my contention that you can’t be a general practice veterinarian who serves anyone faithfully without making sacrifices.

Health care simply doesn’t work like other professions. The more we try to cram it through a cookie press, the faster the dough falls apart.

Dr. Patty Khuly owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News. 

Originally published in the November 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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