Great veterinary workplaces
Ratification Date: 20 Jul 2023
Note: The following policies should be considered as a group; together they provide a set of principles which underpin the AVA’s wellness strategy:
Great veterinary workplaces (2023); Safeguarding and improving the mental health of the veterinary team (2021); Animal welfare and human wellbeing – vulnerability of clients and veterinary staff (2023); Equality, diversity and inclusion (2017); Employment of new veterinary graduates (2023); Clinical veterinary internships (under review).
- Great veterinary workplaces are vitally important for a thriving and sustainable veterinary profession.
- To sustainably meet the needs of clients, patients and the business, great workplaces prioritise the opportunities, capability, health and motivation of their people.
- Great veterinary workplaces foster great practice by enabling:
- professional and ethical behaviour,
- strong team and individual performance,
- personal wellbeing and
- ongoing engagement with veterinary work and the wider profession.
- They achieve this by intentionally guiding management and leadership practices, training, resources and personal behaviours, according to 10 Key Pillars:
- Meaning and value
- Health and wellbeing
- Equity, inclusion and diversity
- Job design and demands
- Growth and Development
- Reward and recognition
- Proactive people processes
- Collegiality and connection
- Social and environmental responsibility
- Professional ethics and standards
- Employers and employees all have a responsibility to contribute to great workplace culture and by extension, their professional culture, through self-aware behaviours and continued personal and professional development.
Demand for veterinary services
Veterinary services are essential, and demand for veterinary services is increasing.(1-3) High quality animal health care, and its associated value to primary production, trade, biosecurity, scientific learning, the veterinary profession and public health and wellbeing, relies on a compassionate and skilled workforce that is both sufficient and sustainable.
Sufficiency may be achieved through increased labour supply; through more veterinary school places, greater recognition of international veterinary courses, and recognition in prioritised skilled migrant schemes. However, the public and private costs of training veterinary professionals are high, and despite a significant increase in Australian annual veterinary graduates over the past decade, and an increase of around 2500 registered veterinary practitioners between 2016 and 2021, recruitment challenges persist. Even before the additional challenges of COVID19, 44% of vacant veterinarian roles took over 6 months to fill.(4, 5) In 2021, 77% of vets worked in organisations that had advertised for veterinarians in the past year, and 30% of those positions were still vacant after 12 months. (6)
Professional attrition appears to be a significant concern, whether viewed as a reduction in hours worked by individuals within the veterinary sector, or specifically hours worked within clinical veterinary practice. Around 25% of veterinarians now work part-time. Alongside a trend towards non-clinical veterinary work, around 13% of the Australian veterinarian workforce are reportedly considering leaving veterinary work, with one third citing “disillusionment with the profession” as the main cause.(4, 6, 7) Mental health and working in a non-veterinary role were other main reasons. According to the 2021 AVA Workforce survey, 23.5% of respondent veterinarians were engaged in veterinary work for only some or none of 2019 - 2021, and 67% of those were not sure that they would return to veterinary work.
Insufficient skilled veterinary labour places increased demands on remaining workers, exposing them to higher risk of burnout. (8) In late 2020 almost half the profession typically worked more than 41 hours weekly, excluding any additional on-call responsibilities. (3) Vicarious trauma of witnessing colleagues struggle is an additional concern. Thus, increased supply without concurrent retention does not offer optimal return on education investment, may put more professionals at risk of distress and mental health problems and will not achieve long term sufficiency.
Wellbeing, motivation and engagement
Professional attrition as well as absenteeism, presenteeism, reduced professional growth, lowered productivity and poorer care quality are all symptoms of workplace disengagement and low wellbeing.(9) Conversely, people who are healthy and positive are more resilient and engaged at work, experience less absenteeism, burnout and lower turnover, make fewer errors and safety breaches, and are significantly more productive.(10) Wellbeing, motivation and engagement are intrinsically linked(11) and together, help to safeguard the immediate and long term health and satisfaction of workers, customers and patients. Thus, for the workforce to also be sustainable, strong engagement and wellbeing in veterinary professionals and teams is vital.
Wellbeing, motivation and engagement in veterinary workers is influenced by public factors (such as realistic expectations of service and treatment, adequate finances, trust, accepted owner responsibilities, respectful behaviour and feedback), professional factors (such as ethical and patient advocacy load, emotional burden and trauma, responsibility versus remuneration, collegiality, and regulation) and individual factors (personality, skills, knowledge and capabilities, attitudes, beliefs, values and rest-of-life demands).(8, 12-16) Therefore, activities such as public and practitioner outreach, regulation and advocacy, and personal development through undergraduate and continuing education can assist veterinary engagement and wellbeing at various levels.(17)
The workplace – leadership, management and culture
Notwithstanding the above, individuals’ experience of veterinary work and the intersection of all these factors principally occurs within their workplace. People’s ability to prevent or sustainably navigate challenges and to find satisfaction, wellbeing and motivation in veterinary work is influenced by both a person’s individual characteristics, social psychological elements, and the workplace management choices, leadership styles and culture which frame their daily personal experiences.(18, 19) For example, veterinarians’ decisions to stay at or leave their current workplace are strongly influenced by remuneration, flexibility, leadership and skill progression, reduced after hours work and better work-rest-of-life balance.(6)
The systems and culture of an organisation also contribute directly at every career stage to a person’s work engagement, satisfaction and wellbeing, for example through an individual’s job demands and their perceived capability and resources to cope with those demands.(20, 21) According to the AVA Wellness report, nine of the top ten contributors to Australian veterinarians’ mental health conditions, and almost all the common and veterinary-specific risk factors for such problems, relate to workplace management, leadership and culture.(8)
Wellbeing and engagement strategies
Although reactive support interventions are important, (such as Employee Assistance Providers and Mental Health First Aid), activities which prevent harm or which detect and reduce issues early are more effective in improving wellbeing.(22) Preventative and mitigative wellbeing strategies include flexible workplace practices, altered workplace structures, redesigned jobs, appropriate conflict resolution processes, peer connection, and supervisor and team support. As performance is a product of motivation, capability and opportunity(23) such management and leadership practises are also highly influential in achieving satisfying results from work efforts.
Established theories highlight the elements required to optimise workplace motivation and engagement, including McClelland’s Needs, Vroom’s Expectancy, Equity, Locus of Control, Self-Determination, Herzberg’s, Hackman-Oldham’s Job Characteristics model, and Agho et al.’s findings (24-29). Importantly, an absence of dissatisfying elements is not enough; motivating elements are also important to maintain engagement.(27, 30) This means that “hygiene” factors such as a safe environment, fair and expected pay and time off, fair and reasonable rules, and the equipment and facilities to do one’s job should be accompanied by an appropriate load and variation of work, personal growth and development opportunities, a sense of connection and community, professional ethics and purposeful, values-driven work towards an aligned vision.
For a motivated, engaged workforce, the Job Characteristics Model and Self Determination Theory outline people’s need for skill variety, task identity and significance, autonomy, adequate knowledge, skills and resources, responsibility for outcomes, meaningful work, knowledge of results and other feedback, and the opportunity to meet personal growth needs.(28, 31) Additionally, supportive and collaborative relationships with colleagues, work systems which support effective teamwork, and systems and cultures which foster a sense of agency through employee voice and leader responsiveness, are also shown to reduce burnout and increase engagement, job satisfaction and commitment to organisations.(18, 32-37) A focus on workplace management, leadership and culture therefore poses a practical and effective opportunity to enhance wellbeing and engagement and thus veterinary workforce sustainability within the veterinary sector.
Compared to increasing labour supply, preventing professional attrition also offers additional business benefits. Organisations perform better over time (customer satisfaction, productivity, quality, efficiency when personnel are sustainably engaged, motivated and healthy, and low staff turnover occurs.(9, 38, 39) There is also increasing consumer and labour market demand for corporate social responsibility, including ethically sound leadership and management behaviours which align to consumer and employee values.(40-43)
Ultimately, it is both inefficient and unethical to “churn and burn” human resources. People at every stage, in every role within veterinary workplaces, want, need and deserve to thrive. Wellbeing, motivation, engagement, opportunity and capability are important foci for veterinary workplaces to support high performing teams which can sustainably meet personal, peer, employer, professional, regulatory and public needs.
- Veterinary organisations should seek to develop, support, connect and motivate everyone within them. Their people, facilities, systems and culture should help everyone to understand the organisation’s purpose, how it seeks to achieve that, what actions support these goals, and how individuals contribute to that purpose and community. To support a positive experience for everyone, workplaces should develop appropriate collective knowledge, capabilities, systems and attitudes to support the Ten Key Pillars (see: Policy section 4). The AVA Great Veterinary Workplaces Guidelines further explain these pillars and provide examples of how they can be achieved.
- Employers, leaders and managers are highly influential in establishing cultural norms and setting up ways of working in the veterinary sector. They should therefore enable effective, sustainable teamwork and motivating personal achievement and connection within and beyond the workplace. They should do this through empowering, strategic and responsive leadership, modelled workplace values and culture, and intentional and well-informed management practise. Examples of ways in which employers, leaders and managers should support the ten pillars of great veterinary workplaces include:
- Understand their operating environment to inform sound business decisions and sustainable business models, including but not limited to the evolving needs and wants of the business owners, customers and workforce;
- Collaboratively and consultatively develop and maintain the organisation’s vision, systems, processes, policies and cultural elements;
- Facilitate alignments between organisational and personal goals, boundaries, values, capabilities and rewards;
- Ensure organisational practices are compliant with relevant legislative and regulatory guidance;
- Provide access to the appropriate and various human, physical, financial and knowledge resources to support all staff and customers towards agreed goals;
- Measure and monitor the efficacy of their leadership and management, including through two-way feedback processes and measurement of engagement and wellbeing.
- All individuals should contribute to their workplace and profession with behaviours that are considerate, professional, constructive and encouraging. Individuals’ actions should help bring people together towards shared goals centred on OneHealth and OneWelfare objectives, including animal health and wellbeing. For example, irrespective of their role individuals should:
- exercise their professional judgement and be accountable for their decisions and behaviour;
- collaborate respectfully and be open to learning: for example within workplace management decisions, feedback processes and professional discussions;
- develop self-awareness of their own attitudes, behaviours and values and current personal capabilities, priorities, boundaries, motivators and goals;
- be kind and open-minded in listening to others’ needs and ideas;
- undertake continued personal and professional development aligned to their unique purpose, goals and challenges;
- understand and comply with relevant workplace and regulatory requirements.
- Industry-level bodies and educators should aim to support workplaces and their individual constituents by providing resources, support and education aligned to these ten pillars. To support strong, inclusive participation, industry associations should guide their value proposition and accessibility to meet the contemporary needs of the veterinary sector.
- The public plays a crucial role in ensuring the sustainable provision of essential animal health services to their own animals, and to their local, national and global communities. The public should be conscientious in supporting human, animal and environmental health within and beyond veterinary workplaces by:
- seeking to understand, plan for and deliver the practical and financial requirements of responsible animal ownership;
- developing effective working relationships with veterinary service providers, through mutually respectful, open, honest and constructive communication and conscientious teamwork;
- respecting and supporting the physical and psychological safety of veterinary team members in all contexts, requests and communications;
- respecting the many considerations that guide veterinary workplaces and team members in their professional decisions and actions, including legal, financial, regulatory and ethical responsibilities.
This policy, and its supporting Guidelines are intended to provide reflection points and educational guidance towards sustainably healthy, ethical, productive and satisfying veterinary workplace systems and cultures.
This policy can be used by:
- organisational leaders and managers in creating workplaces which attract and retain productive, thriving personnel in order to efficiently and professionally meet client and patient needs;
- prospective and existing employees, as an industry-specific qualitative benchmark for workplace practices;
- veterinary professional organisations and service providers, to identify continuing education areas where further knowledge and skill development would help individuals to improve their workplaces and to guide public education about the animal owners’ roles in sustainable veterinary service provision.
Related AVA policies
- Employment of new veterinary graduates
- Safeguarding and improving the mental health of the veterinary team
- Equality, diversity and inclusion
- Clinical veterinary internships
- Veterinary Internship Guidelines
- Climate change and animal health welfare and production
- Animal welfare & human wellbeing – vulnerability of clients and veterinary staff
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