Support for UK Veterinarians Seeking Work-Life Balance
Work-life balance for the equine veterinarian who’s also a parent requires planning, patience, good boundaries, and, in many cases, a flexible employer. Support and insights from people sharing the experience can help, too. That’s why four equine practitioners in the U.K., all horse doctors and parents, launched an initiative called MumsVet in 2016.

MumsVet’s founders endeavor to equip practitioners grappling with issues related to pregnancy, parenthood, and general work-life balance with tools available on the British Equine Veterinary Association’s (BEVA) website and access to a private Facebook group.

Today’s Equine Veterinarians Want Work-Life Balance

“(BEVA does) a member survey each year, and it was interesting to see that the greatest change from 2016 to 2017, the most important things members were worried about last year, was work-life balance,” says Victoria M. Nicholls, BSc (Hons), BVetMed, Cert. AVP (EM), Cert. AVP (ED), BAEDT, MRCVS. “I think that’s really changed.”

Nicholls, a mother of two, is coordinator of equine postgraduate professional studies in the University of Liverpool’s Veterinary Postgraduate Unit and was BEVA president 2017-2018. She and co-founder Lucy Grieve, MA, VetMB, MRCVS, believe the shift in work-life-balance concern reflects the current demographic in equine veterinary practice. Women outnumber men—as is the case in the United States—and generally place more emphasis on such balance due to raising families.

Dr. Vicki Nicholls with her children
“Men are not as attracted to the equine veterinary profession as they used to be. We’re attracting more women now,” says Grieve, a mom of two, part-time associate at Rossdales Equine Surgeons, in Newmarket, working with racehorses and pleasure horses, and member of BEVA Council. “We’ve got a problem in that the job is not highly compatible with family life, so by the time they are five years qualified or so and thinking of having a family, some women are leaving the profession.”

Why isn’t equine veterinary medicine attractive to male graduates in the U.K.? Risk of injury, says Nicholls—horse veterinarians in the U.K. were seven times more likely to have a career-ending injury than a firefighter—and poor compensation for the physically and mentally tough daily workload, which, unlike small animal medicine, usually involves a brutal after-hours commitment. “Who would want to be a vet when a banker or doctor earns many times more and, although no one is disputing the heavy workload, at least they won’t end up on crutches and can plan to retire early?” she says.

Nicholls, Grieve, and their co-founders want to help equine practice owners envision how to make their businesses more compatible with work-life balance and family life.

“With MumsVet we’ve been really keen to work out why these people are leaving,” says Grieve. “I think we know the answer, but we need to put some figures to it, and (determine) how, if possible, to make it more attractive to stay in the profession.”

“We’ve developed tools for employers, showing them the diversity of what you can do with these employees,” says Nicholls, who considers the practice she used to work for and her current employer, the university, great places for parents to work.

“Perhaps not enough is spoken about pregnancy timing—some practice partners see it as an inconvenience,” she adds. “There’s no reason why people can’t have their kids and go on working for another 30 years. You don’t have to shut them off; (pregnancy is) not a disease.”

Equine veterinarians can find guides on the MumsVet page about pregnancy, geared both toward the employer and the employee.

Dr. Vicki Nicholls

Subtle Shifts in the Right Direction 

Grieve is a six-year member of the BEVA council, a trustee, chair of its Ethics and Welfare Committee, and a member of its Equestrian Sports Committee. And though she still finds achieving work-life balance difficult, sometimes spending hours on the phone with clients while her husband maneuvers kids’ baths and bedtimes, she says she’s pleased with her practice arrangement.

“Rossdales have been amazing—they are a big practice and have accommodated my child care arrangements, second pregnancy and maternity leave, and have made each transition seamless and apparently effortless. They’ve been fab—I can’t fault them at all,” she says. “Over the practice’s 59 years it has succeeded in changing with the times.”

There are other encouraging changes within the industry: Nicholls describes an equine veterinary practice owner in the south of England who brought on a veterinarian who’d taken a 15-year break to have a family. He gave her time and support to get comfortable practicing again. She also recalls a retiring large animal veterinarian who has set up a cooperative of self-employed female practitioners who were juggling families with work and now practice with backup from each other

“(It’s important to) show others how it can work so that practices and employees are more aware and accepting of the options available to them.” says Grieve. “Quite often it is very positive and productive for the practice to employ part-timers. There is evidence out there that in many cases the employer benefits from increased productivity per man hour paid.”

Both vets feel more changes are on the horizon that are essential for serving both the needs of the horse-owning clients and today’s equine practitioners.

“At the end of the day, people will vote with their feet when it comes to employment,” says Grieve. “A close-minded, prejudiced practice, who is unwilling to negotiate, will struggle to recruit going forward. Whereas the forward-thinking practices are already making changes to their working structures to accommodate the current workforce and the fact that it is no longer just men in the profession who have nannies or wives that stay at home and do a majority of the child-rearing. It must not be forgotten that many men are now also seeking a greater role in the child care and, so, different ways of working are necessary to cater for all.”

Dr. Lucy Grieve

Veterinarians Seek Sensible Schedules

Some of MumsVet’s tools show practice owners how they can be flexible with scheduling in a profession known for its long hours. The group has provided blog posts, podcasts, relevant continuing online education, and links to job opportunities that offer flexibility.

“I don’t think I ever met a part-time equine vet until a few years ago,” says Grieve, noting that even now, with more practices offering four-day weeks and flexible working, veterinarians serving in this position can face a degree of judgment.

“Whilst I haven’t directly experienced this, it is frequently cited that people assume those individuals are not serious about their careers or their progression in the practice, and that’s not just coming from partners but other associates and, sometimes, clients,” Grieve adds. “This is what I’ve heard a lot listening to other equine vets in my age range.

“It’s just about reeducating society and the profession,” she says. “You can’t get child-minders who will come and sit with the kids for three hours in the night while you tend to a colic. I think (the critics) need to realize this major mismatch between our working hours and those of the child care industry. It’s not just those individuals trying to get out of that end-of-the-day colic or avoid extra out of hours duties, it’s a genuine lack of child care options and avoiding abandoning one’s children more than necessary. Most of these people trying to continue working whilst raising a family, are especially passionate about their jobs and want to work because, to be truthful, it would be less hassle to just give up juggling the two things!”

Veterinarians Seek Advice, Support

Aside from the mechanics of their schedule, sometimes vets just need someone to read or listen to their struggles with work and parenting. Grieve and Nicholls say these vets love their jobs and are seeking ways to make them compatible with family life. This is where the MumsVet Facebook group, almost 400 members strong, comes in.

For example, recently a practitioner posted that she’s returning to work after maternity leave. Such logistics are challenging in themselves, but one of her children is teething and the dog has had a bout of gastroenteritis.

Other vets rally around her with posts of encouragement and entreaties to enjoy solo trips to the restroom—without children calling from outside the door—and plenty of coffee.

Indeed, MumsVet Facebook conversations surround everything from the everyday hiccup to the dire conundrum, with members sharing encouragement and insights from their own experiences:

  • A new mom learns to manage breastfeeding, client visits, and inevitable calls from daycare when her baby gets sick.
  • A woman working in an all-male practice has just announced her pregnancy, and her employer and colleagues aren’t taking it well.
  • A recent vet school graduate who is pregnant has not been able to find a position at any practice, much less an equine one.

Then there are the common sentiments Nicholls and Grieve say they read from veterinarians who are parents:

  • I don’t feel supported by my practice, I feel invisible.
  • Nobody wants to be flexible to employ me.
  • Child care is proportionally too expensive for my salary to enable me to work.
  • When should I begin my maternity leave?
  • I feel pressured to perform potentially dangerous procedures while pregnant.

“I think for me, that’s the bottom line of MumsVet: knowing there are other people out there having the same problems as you,” says Grieve, “people juggling getting to an emergency, picking up their kids, and generally running a household.”

“There’s huge generosity in the veterinary profession, and people are willing to help and share their stories,” says Nicholls. “You’ve just got to realize that and ask them for help, and I think as vets we’re not very good at asking for help.”

Grieve adds, “It’s normalizing the issues to make people realize it’s not just them, because I think the worst thing is feeling isolated, and then doubt creeps in. I think those things can’t be cured, and they will always be there, but realizing others are going through the same problems makes it a little less lonely and a little bit easier to deal with.”