Do parents rule your practice?

January 7, 2019
Julie Carlson, CVT

Julie Carlson is a freelance author and certified veterinary technician in Phoenix. She is the founder of Vets for Vets Pets, a nonprofit organization providing supplies and medical care to the pets of homeless and at-risk veterans.

Not everyone working in a veterinary hospital has kids (or wants them). How can you, as a practice owner or manager, fairly accommodate everybodys work schedules?

Illustration by Roxy Townsend.

Sherry has two kids, ages 5 and 9. She's worked as a veterinary technician at Friendly Vet Clinic for five years. Kate has also worked at the clinic for five years as a tech. She's unmarried and child-free. Both Sherry and Kate want Christmas day off, but you need to have one more tech on staff that day. Who do you give the day off?

‘I made the choice, just like I made the choice to have kids'

Jade Frame, a student in a veterinary assistant program in Phoenix, Arizona, says, “I have three kids, and I'd love to have the holidays off to spend with them. But when I signed up for this career, I knew what that meant. I made the choice, just like I made the choice to have kids."

Kim Keller, CVT, disagrees, in part: “As a mom of six and being in this field for 20 years and with a background working emergency 24/7/365, I went into the job interview saying I have two holidays I want off: Thanksgiving and Christmas. In exchange, I told them I will work every other holiday. I realize that other people have family they want to spend time with, but for me, how I was raised, those were two holidays that were non-negotiable.”

Frame and her husband have found a compromise that allows them to both share the holidays with their children. “Being a Jewish and Christian household, I know I can't take eight days off for Hanukkah; we have to prioritize which holiday we want to have with the kids,” she says. “Sometimes we Skype when I'm on my break on holidays to pray with the kids."

Lauren Bryde, DVM, a veterinarian in Australia, says, “I'm child free, and I think it definitely needs to be split evenly. I like to compete [with] my horse, and often big competitions do fall on major holidays for those who have children. If I don't have a competition and a coworker has children, often I will offer to swap holidays with them so parents can spend the time with their children, but I want to be able to make that decision myself. Not to mention, even if I don't have children, I am still someone's child-it's been four years since I had the chance to spend Christmas with my mother.”

Emma Douglass, RVN, in Suffolk, UK, shares that experience: “I've worked the last three Christmases in a row-and this year will be my fourth-by choice. I've volunteered to do it, because I don't have children and other staff members do. I feel Christmas, whilst a time for families in general, is a bigger deal for children, and I want my coworkers who have them to enjoy this time while they're young and enjoy the magic of it all. I'm not saying I should have to work it because I have no children, but I offer to in order for them not to.”

Method 1: Let ‘em alone!

In a veterinary practice with healthy boundaries, good managers and supportive coworkers, team members can sometimes balance their own preferences for days off with both the needs of patients and clients as well as the needs of other team members. With whatever scheduling rules you want to set, empower team members to help each other out when it comes to getting time off. As Lauren Bryde, DVM, says, “[O]ften I will offer to swap holidays, so parents can spend time with their children, but I want to be able to make that decision myself.”

Some holidays on, some holidays off

Managers are oftentimes caught in the middle and are stuck trying to please everybody. Keller made the point that younger people tend to want New Year's Eve and other “party” holidays off, while people with children are more interested in taking off holidays traditionally spent with family, such as Christmas. She added, “When I was a manager, I did look to the people that didn't have children first, but the people with kids, I felt they should have Christmas morning with Santa Claus. I would oftentimes have them come in and work a half-shift or a swing shift. No one wants to work Christmas, but I did have some technicians come to me saying, 'I hate Christmas, I hate New Year's Eve, schedule me,' so I did."

Method 2: Pick your poison

Sometimes there are great team members hungry to work holidays or get overtime you won't mind paying to let others take holidays off. Or sometimes practices require folks to pick the holidays they'll work until the hospital is covered for the year. Even if you set the schedule, you can still be tuned into your team members and sensitive to their needs as well as set up a system that makes sure you're covered.

Kid-free and frustrated

I have personally experienced this conflict as I have no children. Up until I started teaching, I was required to work every holiday because, as I was always told, “the other technicians need to be with their families on the holidays.” It didn't matter that I also had family. I was expected to give up my family time to accommodate theirs because I wasn't a parent.

One tech in Walnut Creek, California, says she's been there: “I'm child-free by choice, and I don't feel that my time and experiences are somehow devalued because of it.” She added that everyone should share the work equally, or they should consider working in a field that normally gives workers the holidays off.

Lab technician and former veterinary assistant Tammy M. added, “It annoys me to no end that because I don't have kids, my schedule should be changed to accommodate kids. My plans are just as important to me. Now I'm not saying I wouldn't help out or change if someone was wanting a special time off because of kids, but I hate it when the assumption is, ‘Oh, you don't have kids so you aren't busy.'”

Anne-Marie Pletcher, RVN, living in Melbourne, Victoria, said, “I do feel people who pull the parent card frequently do need to be reminded about their terms of employment as resentment can create hostile workplaces.”

Sharron Gibson, a nursing assistant in a human hospital, said that the inequality is shared among their staff. “When someone from my department in substance abuse rehabilitation gets floated to help in a medical ward in the hospital, I usually get sent because the nursing supervisors say that people with kids shouldn't be around contagious people. Why should I be put at greater risk of illness because my kids are all grown?”

Kim Thompson, DVM, said that the conflict isn't unique to the medical field: “It's not just the veterinary industry. I worked in retail where I had to work Christmas day because I was the only one without kids. The fact that I was the only one who wanted to attend church on Christmas (I'm a Christian who goes to church every Sunday) was apparently irrelevant. Seeing as Christmas is about Christ and not about kids I was-and still am-very angry about that decision.”

Method 3: Be fair about family time

Every business is a little different, and some veterinary hospital owners and managers value parents over the needs of those without kids. These managers can forget that team members have needs to care for family and for themselves that don't involve parenthood. One way to avoid alienating team members without children is making sure their time off is valued too. Don't assume everyone is fine with giving up their time off and their holidays for someone else's family. That sort of sacrifice and camaraderie should come naturally, not be forced.

Practical tips for today's managers

While the debate is ongoing (and sometimes heated), it seems that as long as managers are willing to listen to their staff and respond equitably to their requests, team members respect their decisions.

Nicola Haglund, BVSc, a veterinarian and practice manager in New Zealand, has found a compromise that works for her staff: “Our clinic has a policy that staff with kids get preference for school holidays during the school year, but public holidays are shared evenly between everyone.”

At the former clinic of Christy Sleater, LVT, the manager posted the upcoming holidays at Halloween. Everyone was expected to sign up for at least one holiday. At her current clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, there's a rotating list based on seniority that's circulated in January and again in August. Team members are allowed to choose their holidays off one at a time and are expected to work the holidays they didn't sign up for.

Rebecca Highfill, LVT, said at her former clinic in Cedar Park, Texas, each staff member was required to work four hours on every holiday because they had a large kennel to care for. The manager there said that staff members always showed up for their scheduled shift on Christmas day because that was the only day he would hand out holiday bonus checks. She added that if team members want holidays off, they can get a job at a practice that requires no emergency or boarding help.

Managers are often given the impossible task of pleasing everyone in their hospital. By listening to team members' concerns and fostering an environment based on respect and fairness, they can create a better work setting where everyone comes out ahead.

Julie Carlson is a freelance author and a Certified Veterinary Technician.