Last minute veterinary vacancies: how to fill those rota gaps – By Katy Ellison MA VetMB MRCVS

Updated: Aug 2

The veterinary profession is facing a recruitment crisis like never before and the whole veterinary team is being stretched to breaking point. Veterinary job vacancies are at an all-time high, rota gaps mean that receptionists are trying to magic appointments out of nowhere and practice managers are losing sleep over staff shortages and rota gaps.

If you are trying to find vets and nurses to join your practice team, hen’s teeth may spring to mind. In the past, shortfalls were typically filled by EU veterinary surgeons, but Brexit has largely put paid to that. The COVID pandemic and the boom in UK pet numbers has caused a backlog of work, which even under normal circumstances would put pressure on veterinary practices. Add to that the mental health challenges facing the profession, lockdowns giving people the opportunity to reassess work-life balance, IR35…. it's little wonder that the veterinary profession is facing a tough time.

With a multitude of factors added to the melting point, there are no quick fix solutions. Maybe we need to train more vets, open new vet schools or more importantly stop the exodus of vets from the profession. But that won’t make any difference to the staff who are in the thick of it now. What do you do when you are two vets or more down and the phones won’t stop ringing? Read on for our top five tips on how to fill those gaps in the rota.

1. Pay staff overtime

In many other industries, paid overtime is a given. In the veterinary profession, being paid to stay after closing time is often the exception rather than the rule. While staying late to treat a collapsed dog, or unblock a cat’s bladder is all part of the job, should the expectation that vets and nurses do this for free be relegated to history? Staff need to be suitably compensated for their time, whether that is in paid overtime or time off in lieu.

2. Manage the diary

A well-managed diary makes all the difference.

· Cancel routine appointments on days when an already stretched veterinary team has a colleague off sick. Squeezing elective surgeries in when capacity is not there benefits no one – pets, owners, or veterinary staff.

· And how about communicating with neighbouring practices? Maybe another local practice has spare capacity. Now is not the time for competition and an ethos of community will benefit all.

· Leaving up to a third of appointments as ‘book on the day’ and a limited number of vaccine appointments helps ensure capacity for urgent appointments. Emergency slots should be non-negotiable so when the critically ill pet walks through the door, there is a place to put them. No emergencies? The slot allows breathing space and catch-up time. Making sure the whole team is on board with appointment booking dos and don’ts will help to keep everyone happy.

· Booking time for breaks is just as important as juggling appointments. Lunch time should be protected. While there will always be exceptions on the days when three emergencies come in at midday, making sure staff get a chance to recharge and refuel is key to wellbeing. Everyone hates being called back from lunch, so have a lunchtime rota in place to share the load.

· Reassess opening hours when diary tweaking just isn’t cutting it. Late evening clinics, or Sunday surgeries increase pressure on staff and lengthen the working day that needs covering. Closing branch surgeries temporarily can increase efficiency too.

3. Embrace flexible working

Flexible working means more than just offering part time veterinary jobs. When the diaries are booked up with no wriggle room and vets and nurses are thin on the ground, a flexible approach may seem counter-intuitive, but looking after staff has never been more important. Rather than the existing one-size-fits-all approach, maybe the time has come for the veterinary profession to embrace flexibility:

· Staggered shifts

Stagger staff start times to ensure the whole day is covered, with the added benefit that staff on the early shift may be more likely to get away on time. Or why nor think about flexitime with agreed core hours, say five hours in the middle of the day to catch up on routine ops plus some extra consults to take the pressure off evening surgery.

· Offer flexible day length

Staff may prefer to work four longer days rather than five shorter days. Three days away from work can make the day-to-day pressures easier to manage.

· Term time working

Juggling family life with a veterinary career is often challenging. Why not consider term-time working for parents. At first sight it may not seem like an attractive option but surely working some of the year is better than none at all. Routine work could be booked where possible to correspond with extra staff hours, enabling some ‘catch-up’ on the backlog.

· Give and take

Allowing time off for school events, and other commitments, goes a small way to compensating for those late finishes or missed lunches.

4. Adjust consulting hours

Do the evening staff ever finish on time? Nine times out of ten the answer to this will be a resounding ‘no’. Finishing appointments at 6.45pm rather than 6.15pm for example, schedules half an hour of time into the end of the day for late-running consults, phone calls, or even an early finish if all is quiet.

Flexibility doesn’t just apply to the working day, how about team structure too? While most veterinary nurses are just as busy as veterinary surgeons, they are not always doing the jobs that they are highly trained to do. Veterinary care assistants (VCAs) can help take the workload off RVNs, freeing up nurse time for consultations, second vaccines, blood sampling, nursing in-patients, triage…….

5. Virtual consults and video triage

Over the last two years, virtual consults have been a feature of practice life for most in the veterinary profession. While the temporary RCVS remote prescribing dispensation has ended, video consults can still have their place. Allocating an RVN to do a morning of video triage, can help filter out pets that need to be seen, from those for which advice and reassurance is all that is required. Tapping into the flexible working philosophy, video triage could be carried out from home.

Polish your veterinary recruitment process

There is no doubt that the ideal solution for practices up and down the country is recruitment and finding the right staff to slot into your team. Recruitment can be time-consuming and in the current climate, somewhat unrewarding. Veterinary recruitment agencies, such as JHP Recruitment, have a thorough understanding of the veterinary industry and expert knowledge of the recruitment process, which maximises chances of success. To start the search for your new team member, get in touch here.

Katy Ellison is the Account Manager for Companion Consultancy. Katy is a qualified vet who has worked in clinical practice for 22 years. She started her veterinary career in a mixed practice in rural Cambridgeshire before moving to a small animal practice on the Norfolk/Suffolk border in 2003. It was while working here that she started to cultivate a love of writing, starting out some years ago by penning short articles for the local media on behalf of her practice.

Katy Ellison MA VetMB MRCVS