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Excessive hours & demands in veterinary practice? What to do when your boss won't listen

Posted in 1. Mental health resources @ May 18th 2017 - By Dr Cathy Warburton, Make Headway
Excessive Hours Demands In Veterinary Practice

Things are changing in the veterinary industry - but for some it's not changing fast enough.

Things are changing in the veterinary industry and many, maybe even most employers are cognizant of their duty of care to the physical and psychological health of their employees. But there are a few recalcitrants that are dragging the chain and chronically place unreasonable demands on their staff.

What can you do if you work in a workplace that encourages a culture of overwork?

Some practices have an established culture of overwork. It can be super hard to be the person to put your hand up and say this is not right -  especially when it looks like everybody else is coping. It can feel like it’s only you and that you are a failure.

Many of us, myself included, have been in this situation – we know it’s not right, but our work ethic kicks in and we give and we give until there is nothing left to give and we reach burnout. And then we leave, licking our wounds - and head off maybe to a different practice or maybe out of the profession, thinking that the veterinary industry is way too hard.

Is there an alternative to leaving?

For many of us, the best thing to do is to walk away whilst our health is intact.

No job is worth your mental health and there is no shame in leaving – even if you have only been in the workplace a short time.

Others amongst us will display moral courage in this situation and make the incredibly brave decision to make a stand for what is fair and what is right.

'Louisa's' Story...

I know somebody, let’s call her Louisa, who decided to challenge the status quo at her workplace. Louisa is a highly accomplished and courageous veterinarian who worked in a large practice with a difficult culture – multiple competing demands, chronic understaffing and some complex egos with associated toxic behaviours. In the history of the practice many good people, just like Louisa, had arrived full of enthusiasm and excitement, worked themselves to the bone for little reward or recognition, and left, burnt out and discouraged.

Over time, the unrelenting pressures of the workplace exerted the expected negative impact on Louisa’s psychological health. Louisa, in true problem solver fashion, went to her employer and explained the overwork situation. She provided a breakdown of the things she was tasked to do and how much time each took. Louisa was doing the work of two people! The time needed to complete all that she was responsible for was way beyond the maximum weekly hours outlined in the Animal Care and Veterinary Services award, even allowing for reasonable additional hours.

With such a clear case, you would expect that things would have changed for the better for Louisa. But, guess what happened? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Louisa was told these were the responsibilities of her job and that nothing could be done to reduce her workload.

At this point, Louisa could have left like many people before her. Instead, she decided to fight. Louisa took medical leave, proving that workplace stress was the cause of the deterioration in her mental health. Unfortunately, Louisa needed extended leave to recover. This was a terrible time for her and it cost the practice dearly – they had to pay Louisa and also train and pay other people to take on her responsibilities. The hip pocket nerve was affected and the practice made some new commitments to increased staffing and better support of their staff to prevent this from happening to others.

The problem could have been averted...

It would have been so much better for all involved if the practice had responded to Louisa when she approached them.

It is sad but true that sometimes, the only way to make change is to mine the hip pocket nerve – making it more expensive not to do something than it is to make change.

So what should you do if you find yourself in this situation?

Here are my suggestions;

  1. Know that it is difficult to go against our natural human instinct to do what everybody else is doing. Be kind to yourself.
  2. Look for potential allies in the workplace who can help provide leverage.
  3. Document the hours that you are working and consult with an objective outsider to determine whether the demands truly are excessive. All workplaces have some busy times and some of these are unexpected.
  4. Practice the conversation you are going to have with your employer and consider what outcomes you want to achieve.
  5. Meet with your employer. Work with them to achieve a satisfactory resolution.
  6. If you don’t get the response you want, follow up with the details of your concerns in writing, stating that your health and safety is being compromised and that you want action within a two week time frame.
  7. Consult the Fair Work Commission or an employment lawyer if there is no response.

But, what of Louisa?

Well, ultimately, Louisa did leave this practice – it had way too many unhappy memories for her. She now works in a place that recognises and values her knowledge and experience and works with her to achieve balance in her life.

And, at her old practice, Louisa’s legacy remains as a reminder that one person with moral courage can challenge the status quo and make a difference. 

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About Cathy

Cathy is a well-being consultant and coach at Make Headway. In association with VetPrac, she runs a 6 week interactive on-line course on success and well-being that provide heaps of information, tips and strategies to improve well-being at home and work. 

Cathy is a coach and well-being consultant/educator with Make Headway.  Prior to this, she worked as a veterinarian, trainer and manager in private, university and corporate practices for 25 years.  Please visit her site at to make an enquiry about coaching or to find out more.



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