Employee Retention

A growing concern in our profession is the trend of high employee turnover, seen in associate veterinarian positions as well as veterinary technicians and support staff. There is no denying that – in even the healthiest of practices – some degree of turnover is expected, even necessary, to maintain workplace harmony and standards of care. However, there’s also concern about the costs of what might be considered a pathologic rate of employee turnover – direct and indirect costs to the practice owners, clients, patients, and the profession as a whole. While there will always be instances where it is in the best interest of employers and employees to part ways, adopting strategies focused on strengthening the relationship between team members will not only improve staff retention, but also help our practices and patients thrive. Onboarding, cultivating strong interpersonal communication skills, encouragement of an individual’s professional growth, and an openness to respond to modern trends are essential to team preservation.

It’s arguable that retention begins even before an employee’s first day, with a strong onboarding process. Thoroughly planned onboarding programs help to ensure that clear expectations have been identified for both employers and employees, and provide a strong foundation for the relationship to build. Nurturing clear communication skills early on during an associate or staff member’s tenure is essential to establish the open dialogue necessary for identifying arising concerns before they become deal-breaking problems.

Communication in the workplace should be approached from multiple avenues to ensure all parties are able to assimilate and interpret messages genuinely. Miscommunication among team members is a common link to dissatisfaction and may plant the seed of unrest that separates a staff member from the team. Institute both passive and interactive modes of communication in the practice as a way to ensure everyone feels included and has a sounding board to voice their concerns. Passive communication tools might include bulletin boards, digital workspaces (such as private social media groups or group emailing lists), or office mailboxes. These tools allow one member to communicate information to another, even if they don’t share shifts or have time to meet face-to-face during a particularly busy day. Interactive communication requiring the presence of multiple parties can be utilized in one-on-one meetings, team meetings, or even telecommunication with phone or video conference calls. One pitfall of interactive communication is the challenge of finding a time to suit all team members’ needs. Consider scheduling these essential meetings for a particular day each month, utilizing daytime hours to respect the needs of employees’ personal time.

Employee reviews are another essential facet of the communication between team leaders and their associates, technicians and support staff. These reviews should consist of a give and take, allowing team members to voice their opinions and concerns about the practice as a whole while also allowing reflection on how their impact is perceived. During these exchanges team members should be allowed and encouraged to express their personal and professional motivations and goals so that these can be included in any decisions made while moving forward. Knowing if a team member desires further experience developing a particular skill set or continuing education for specialization may help determine new task assignments that will enrich his or her experience with the team. Along the same lines, while it’s inappropriate to ask direct questions regarding family, etc., acknowledging new family obligations that may be on the horizon will help the team prepare for and troubleshoot scheduling challenges before they become major conflicts should a team member bring these to your attention.

It simply can’t be ignored that our lives outside of the office affect the ways in which we are able to practice. Compensation, scheduling and on-call duties, benefits such as time off allowances and health insurance all directly impact our lives outside of work. Therefore, our lives outside of the practice play an integral part in whether or not someone joins and stays within the team. A modern practice needs to recognize the need for work/life balance and strive, within reason, to make it attainable for its employees to avoid burnout. Family-friendly practice cultures are becoming more highly sought-after places of employment in the veterinary profession – which should come as no surprise with the changing demographic our field has seen in the last few decades. Practices that are able to plan for and accommodate maternity leave needs, have schedules that take into account available daycare hours, offer an office-based daycare program or nanny-share, or offer competitive compensation to offset the cost of childcare will likely experience a higher rate of retention in employees whose families are growing. There are a growing number of success stories among the veterinary private practice community in which childcare sponsored by the practice has made a huge positive impact on employee retention. In our state, collaboration with the Washington State Department of Early Learning is the first step needed to explore this option for your own practice. Long hours that interfere with the ability to reliably pick up children from daycare, lower wages relative to other professions with similar education requirements, and healthcare plans that don’t meet the needs of support staff have become some of the driving factors behind support staff leaving their places of employment, or the profession in general. A movement to negotiate change in these status quos has already begun to take hold in Washington state.

Our industry has recently seen a return to the discussion of unionization among veterinarians and veterinary technicians – something that has garnered mixed feelings throughout the profession. Regardless of where a practice falls on its stance of unionization, the modern veterinary team needs to recognize that this movement has gained traction in response to the same issues causing the exodus of our support staff. If the modern practice wishes to retain valuable employees, it must be willing to become more educated about the organized movements within the profession and develop ways to respond that will gain mutual respect for both management and support staff roles.

For more information on employee retention, please visit the following sites/articles: (Note: some sites may require membership to view materials.)

Top 5 Reasons Team Members Stay at a Practice — Veterinary Team Brief
Stop the Revolving Door at Your Veterinary Practice — DVM360
Improving Veterinary Employee Retention with Flexible Benefits — MWI Animal Health
Veterinary technicians: Opportunities, but at what cost? –VIN News

Creative Solutions to Common Problems:
Adapting to the Technician Shortage — atdove.org
Clinic devises a novel approach to employees’ child care conundrum – JAVMA
Information for Child Care Providers – WA State Dept. of Early Learning
Tools to Strengthen Your Veterinary Team – AVMA Future Leaders

Unionization in Veterinary News:
Labor union for veterinary workforce makes national push – VIN News
Veterinary workers explore forming a union – JAVMA
Unionization FAQ – AVMA
Union label within the veterinary profession? – Veterinary Practice News
Unionization for Staff at Seattle Blue Pearl – WSVMA