Support in the workplace and beyond is important to ensure you don’t have to sacrifice your career or time with your children
Managing a family along with a veterinary career is undoubtedly a challenge. According to a 2020 American Veterinary Medical Association survey, approximately 30% of companion animal veterinarians said they wanted to work fewer hours to improve work-life balance and mental health.1 In the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons 2019 Survey of the Veterinary Profession, 23.4% of veterinary surgeons were working part-time, and nearly half of veterinary surgeons taking a career break were on parental leave or looking after children. For female veterinarians, this is the main reason for a career break.2
Returning to work after maternity leave can be tricky. New parents can find it difficult to predict what will be manageable around childcare. On-call rotations, increasing workloads, and lack of flexibility from employers can challenge new mothers. They may still be nursing and experiencing new circumstances in their home lives, and they might feel they have changed substantially as individuals. “I feel constantly guilty that I’m compromising either my job or my children,” says Fiona, an English equine vet with 2 young children. “It feels awful if I’m leaving earlier than the rest of the team but equally awful if I don’t see my kids because of a long shift.” It can also be daunting to return to practice when coworkers, procedures, and drugs may have changed. As children get older, school and extracurricular activities can add to the pressure along with the omnipresent challenge of finding suitable childcare during the school year and school holidays.
Finding an employer who offers flexibility—whether part- time hours, shorter shifts, reduction of off-hours work, or school year contracts—can make it easier to manage a family and enjoy a rewarding work life. It is vital to find a practice that embraces a positive culture and values employees.
“My practice was really accommodating when my children were small. They allowed me to work flexibly, doing blocks of consults in the middle of the day,” says Katy, a small animal vet from Suffolk. “That was balanced by me being as flexible as possible and offering to cover whenever possible. My practice manager made it clear that making temporary accommodations while children were small was worth it to keep valued staff.”
Many organizations and continuing professional development providers offer learning tailored toward veterinarians returning after maternity leave or a career break, both to gain confidence about managing a family alongside a veterinary career and to update on changes in practice and refresh skills and knowledge in key clinical areas.
Good support is essential for childcare and from family, friends, and colleagues. “Covering evening surgery was a big issue,” says Katy. “I was lucky to find an accommodating [babysitter] who was able to work in the evenings and didn’t mind if I was late.”
Support is not just about the practicalities of ensuring children are safe and cared for, but also about coping with the mental load, gaining emotional support, and facilitating personal time to maintain health and well-being. “It’s really important that practices respect that work is work and home is home,” says Fiona. “Managers can help by ensuring that everyone is aware of staff’s working hours and needs.”
Katy sums up: “In our practice there was a real atmosphere of teamwork so that we all supported each other and worked together to cover the workload. It’s so important to have that attitude that we can make it work for everyone.”
Jenny Langridge is acting editor of Veterinary Woman, a resource encouraging women to aspire to be leaders in every area of veterinary influence. She also works for Companion Consultancy, a United Kingdom–based veterinary public relations, marketing, and communications company.