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How many hours of work a week is too many in your veterinary practice?

Posted in Management @ Mar 30th 2017 - By Dr Cathy Warburton, Make Headway
How Many Hours Of Work A Week Is Too Many In Your Veterinary Practice

In my simplistic view of the world, I consider people to be a lot like cars.

We put fuel in our cars and this allows us to drive where we need to go. Similarly, practising self-care (think adequate sleep, good nutrition, exercise and supportive relationships) and developing skills such as resilience and self-compassion, provides the resources or the fuel for human bodies and brains and then we use this fuel to drive, to meet the demands of our lives.

But what if we put resources in our tanks only to discover that the demands of our day are just so high and relentless that we can’t get through it all? It might be that we have our foot to the floor all the time, working at full capacity, and the fuel levels drop quickly. Or it may be that we are trying to drive the car further than the capacity of the fuel tank allows – we are trying to get 1000km out of a 500km tank.

Really, how much work is too much?

A recently released Australian study1 sheds some light on this question by investigating the relationship between working hours and our mental health. The study is derived from the HILDA or Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey which is a longitudinal study which has been collecting data from a nationally representative subset of people for some years.

The findings from the study are that;

  • There is a curvilinear (inverted U) relationship between working hours and mental health such that people working lower and higher numbers of hours have poorer mental health.
  • The tipping point at which mental health begins to decline with increasing working hours is an average of 39 hours per week.
  • The tipping point varies depending on the extent of caring and domestic responsibilities outside work. It drops to around 34 hours a week for adults with high responsibilities whilst those with few responsibilities can work up to 46 hours a week before their mental health becomes compromised.

A related HILDA study2, found that people who become newly time poor often reduce their exercise and eat a poorer quality diet. The link between high working hours and lower mental health may well be explained by having insufficient time to practice appropriate self-care.

So, what does this mean for us in the veterinary industry?

The HILDA study adds further weight to veterinary studies which have been conducted in numerous countries which show that long working hours adversely affect the mental health of the profession. Our award here in Australia, the Animal Care and Veterinary Services Award, specifies a 38 hour average working week. But we all know that there are plenty of people working way in excess of that – especially newer graduates, those with managerial responsibilities and high on-call loads, etc.

Employers, we know we have a problem with psychological distress in the industry. Here is somewhere that you can make a difference. Maybe you could consider;

  • Monitoring working hours (rostered + overtime + staying late plus on-call) of your staff and making adjustments where they are regularly over 39 hours per week.
  • Training your staff to prioritize and manage their tasks and expectations so as to keep their working hours below the threshold.
  • Providing time off in lieu soon after a busy period where people have worked extra hours so that they can catch up, breathe, exercise and eat healthily.
  • Rostering people for 30-35 hours per week in busier times of the year knowing that they will work more than this.
  • Rostering leaders and supervisors down hours knowing that there will be sickness and busy periods to cover.
  • Scheduling and enforcing lunch-breaks. Role modelling this to create the culture.
  • Assisting people to find balance between their paid and unpaid work.

But it's going to cost time and money?!

I know, I know. This is going to cost money and it sounds like it will take a lot of work. And running a practice is not easy. I have done it and I get it.

But employers, three things;

1. You have a duty of care to the psychological and physical health of your staff.

2. Unhappy and stressed people cost you money – morale and productivity go down; sick days, WorkCover claims and staff turnover go up .

3. Looking after your employers is simply the right thing to do.

Price Waterhouse Cooper research shows that for each $1 invested in creating a mentally healthy workplace, the average return on investment is $2.30. Yes, it will take time and money – and you will reap the rewards of the investment.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace is not solely the responsibility of the owners and managers. But it is extremely hard for employees to change their work conditions without the support of their leaders.

Managing the fuel consumption, the working hours and demands on your employees helps create mentally healthy workplaces which are better for your people, your business, and your bottom line. 

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. 


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