Veterinarian Interests   04/22/2022

Staff Shortages and Veterinary Team Management Issues

By Jonathan Decker

Staff Shortages and Veterinary Team Management Issues

Vets and vet techs enter the field to make a difference. Now they’re leaving it to retain their physical and mental health. Here’s how to deal with morale issues and the resulting staff shortages.

The vet shortage has been well documented for years. However, current data reveal just how severe the problem is and how much worse it’s likely to become.

Veterinary medicine is 3,000 to 5,000 vets short, say industry experts. A study from Mars Veterinary Health, found that vets were barely able to keep up with consumer demand. Then COVID-19 struck, leading to soaring pet ownership and a 6.5% increase in 2021 vet appointments.

With strong growth in the veterinary market projected through 2029, Mars says the business will likely be incapable of keeping pace. It only produces 2.7% more vets each year, but loses 2,000 to retirement. Given the expected influx and outflow of vets, the industry will likely be 15,000 vets in the red by 2030. This will leave 75 million pets without care by the end of the period.

Making matters worse, there’s also a vet tech shortage and a lack of veterinary-care intermediaries such as the advanced practice nurses and physician assistants in human medicine. The result? Veterinary professionals have too many pet patients to see, not enough time, too much stress and for many, dwindling passion for their work.

A long-term problem with many facets never has easy solutions. But there are several avenues for mitigating staff shortages. They include operating more efficiently, strengthening workplace culture and sweetening compensation packages.

Getting More Efficient

Managing with fewer people requires higher efficiency and productivity from those who remain. Here are some helpful techniques:

  • Step up cross-training so existing staff can handle multiple functions. For example, you might train your kennel workers to do more front-office duties such as holding pets while vet techs draw blood.
  • Outsource some phone calls to an outside service. It can handle after-hours or overflow calls involving answering pet-parent questions, making appointments or gathering data before handing off to an on-call vet.
  • Avoid doing tasks twice. Having a tech begin taking a pet’s history and then having the vet do more history taking doesn’t make sense. Better to have the tech do other tasks while the vet takes the entire history.
  • Do a morning or pre-shift huddle to review everyone’s assignments. This will help you anticipate staffing problems and arrange for workarounds before starting your patient schedule.

Most importantly, make sure your staff is well trained for their primary roles. This assures they will hit the mark the first time around, rather than makes mistakes that demand wasteful re-work.

Strengthening Your Culture

A weak veterinary culture contributes to staff turnover. It also makes it harder to hire replacements. In recent years, vets and vet techs have complained more forcefully about toxic workplaces and expressed their desire for a more supportive and collaborative work environment. Many practices, clinic and hospital leaders are taking their wishes to heart by implementing cultural reforms. These efforts typically include these steps:

  • Define your practice’s purpose, vision and values. Answer the following questions. Why does our team do what it does (mission)? What do we hope to achieve by coming to work every day (vision)? What do we care about as a team (values)? And what is our culture code (the rules we all play by)? By answering these questions and securing staff buy-in to them, you’ll make the work more meaningful. This will help your employees become more resilient in handling stress.
  • Make staff communications a priority. Your people deserve clear and frequent communication so there’s never confusion about policies and protocols. There should also be ample opportunities to share concerns and be heard. Communication should also be a high priority with pet parents. Having a well-defined process for updating owners about their in-patient pets, responding to their calls during the day and handling emergencies are all crucially important.
  • Provide regular individual feedback. Always stay in close touch with your team to discuss job performance, both good and not so good. Communicate that they matter and that you care about them. This also serves the practical purpose of mitigating performance deficiencies before they cause quality issues with potential malpractice implications.
  • Assure work/life balance. Vet and vet tech burnout has become endemic. With longstanding staff shortages, employees cope by working harder and longer, despite fatigue and ill health. This is a self-defeating strategy. The worse staff shortages get, the more stressed employees become. Eventually, they burn out and quit. Solution? Require all staff to take their vacation time, as well as daily lunch and breaks. Time away from their jobs will recharge their “batteries” and allow them to return to work refreshed and ready to see patients. Also, consider instituting non-traditional hours to accommodate staff who have issues at home. 
  • Encourage skill development. Give your people opportunities to grow their skills and to work with new technology. Provide them with a budget for continuing education, so they can remain current on core skills. By investing in your team, you will send the message that you value them and that you want them to remain on your team.

Sweetening Compensation

Just increasing vet and vet tech wages isn’t the answer. That’s because sufficient pay doesn’t produce job satisfaction. It simply creates a lack of dissatisfaction. To produce true satisfaction, you must address working conditions broadly, while creating a compensation model that promotes teamwork rather than cutthroat competition.

Designing financial and non-financial incentives is a complicated matter. Make a mistake and your well-intentioned moves may have unintended consequences. But failing to update your comp plan will mire you in the past.

Before you change your compensation structure, think hard about what your new pay policies will actually reinforce. Will putting more emphasis on production-based incentives reinforce behaviors you’re trying to reduce (for example, avoiding time off because they don’t want to lower their production and pay)? To avoid making compensation mistakes, solicit feedback from your staff, other vet practice/hospital owners and consultants in the field. Better to move deliberately when it comes to pay than to create more stress and dissatisfaction that lead to more resignations. That’s a hamster wheel no one wants or needs, especially you.

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