Welcome back to Ethos Exchange, our veterinary practice management series. Our second topic of 2021: gig workers in veterinary medicine.
According to this Harvard Business Review article, the “gig economy” refers to the growing segment of the workforce who have left organizational life to work independently (contract work, freelance, etc.) In the veterinary industry, this would be equated to the per diem staff (such as relief veterinarians) who cover shifts but aren’t full-time hospital employees.
Although the article is from 2018, it is relevant now more than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the veterinary industry in many ways, one of them being staffing. As we’ve faced severe staffing shortages, relief doctors, technicians, and support staff have been (quite literally) lifesaving in many animal hospitals to cover sick employees, support changed workflows, and keep up with the increased patient caseloads. There’s also been an influx of veterinary professionals looking for per diem work because of flexibility, competitive wages, and reduced hours at primary care hospitals. With sites like Relief Rover, it’s easier than ever to find jobs or find relief veterinarians.
As Ethos and many other veterinary hospitals begin hiring more per diem employees, we must figure out: how does per diem work fit into our industry? Is it sustainable on a larger scale? How does it affect our full-time employees?
The Benefits of Per Diem Veterinary Work
- Flexibility: the ability to make your own schedule has been especially useful during the pandemic with changes in childcare availability.
- Pay: doctors/techs who pick up more desired shifts (hours that are difficult to find coverage for) can often receive higher pay. In turn, hospitals get coverage for difficult shifts to support seeing patients without overextending full-time employees.
- Moving around: per diems often pick up shifts at multiple hospitals and learn new things while expanding their skills and network, which also brings new knowledge into each hospital.
- Reduced burnout: if they have a bad week, or even a bad month, per diems have the freedom to decide to step back and recover. This refreshed mindset brings in a more positive and efficient vibe to the team and improves client interactions.
The Drawbacks of Per Diem Veterinary Work
- Stability: for per diems, there are no guarantees for finding work or benefits. On the flip side, hospitals that rely on per diems can find themselves in trouble if none are available to cover a busy shift.
- Routine: per diems can disrupt workflows. Adjusting to and learning new SOPs, records systems, and team idiosyncrasies at each location can be difficult and slow hospital functions, which can be frustrating for everyone.
- Continuity: per diems come in, get their work done, and go home until their next shift at that hospital. This “hit it and quit it” mentality can be liberating for them, but problematic for hospital teams in ensuring continued patient care and follow-up.
- Patient care: patient care can be negatively affected by per diems if their way of communicating, practicing medicine, etc. doesn’t reflect that of the hospital. Being detached from the hospital (or company) culture & core values can cause inconsistencies and diminished levels of patient care.
So just as the article found with freelance workers, the stakes are high for per diem veterinary workers but the rewards are fruitful. It seems like a veterinary hospital that relies too heavily on per diem employees cannot work. But, there is a valuable place for per diems in our industry if managed appropriately.
How Can Per Diems Successfully Fit into Veterinary Hospitals?
The article suggests that gig (per diem, for our sake) workers maintain a “holding environment” that allows them the freedom they seek, while also binding them to a loose stability. To do this, they establish “liberating connections” in their work which are: place, routines, purpose, and people.
If a veterinary hospital hopes to successfully incorporate per diem doctors or staff into their schedule, we must take these four connections into consideration.
Place: A Hospital Environment That Works for Everyone
While the article mostly references working from home, veterinary professionals mostly don’t have that option. But, it is important to make the hospital environment work for both per diem and full-time employees.
This may include establishing something like a buddy program, where there’s a consistent fulltime employee who helps remind per diems of where things go, how to operate software, etc. It’s also important to have a dedicated place (office, desk) set aside for per diems so they feel they belong when they work a shift. For veterinary hospital groups, it could also be offering shift options at multiple nearby locations so that the per diems don’t feel confined to one place.
Routines: Setting Expectations for Per Diems
While routines may seem like something per diems are trying to avoid, the article did find it is important to gig workers in their own way.
Routine can be established by setting expectations. Some of our hospitals require their per diems to work a certain number of shifts every 3-6 months. If they’re not regularly working, we don’t keep them in the pool. At Mass Vet, we have our per diems commit to specific days of the week so that we can always count on them for that specific day when the needs arise. This has helped with scheduling and PTO planning. Lowering the barrier to entry also creates these expectations:
“We provide a stable routine so that when they do come in, they have an idea of what to expect in terms of SOPs. When they jump in and jump out, they’re not trying to relearn a whole new process every time and they can feel more empowered.” – Lauren, Anesthesiologist at Massachusetts Veterinary Referral Hospital.
Purpose: More Than Just another hospital
Per diems want to feel purpose too. Veterinary medicine is already purpose-driven (given the meaningful work with animals) so there must be purpose beyond that for them to fit into the hospital.
At Ethos, we hire per diems that still represent our culture and values. This helps them feel connected and a part of something bigger, while also reinforcing our own purpose.
“It’s important to have someone that represents the Ethos brand and is able to get themselves into the culture of the team so that it’s a good fit for them, but also for the team that’s working with them.” – Matt, Assistant People & Organization Practice Partner.
People: Harmony & Belonging
Even though per diems aren’t attached to any one team, it’s still crucial that they can work harmoniously with the full-time staff and feel like they’re a part of it.
Many of our hospitals ensure that our per diems don’t feel like they’re just per diem by including them in team get togethers, email check-ins, and training opportunities.
“We started a fun committee for WVRC Waukesha recently. We have a list of per diem emails and they’re included on those kinds of emails so that if they pick up a shift that day, they’re aware and can be involved as well. I schedule the per diems for check-in meetings just like I would the rest of my team. And if they can help train new team members, I try to include them in that too so they can share their knowledge and skills while they’re here.” – Kellie, Hospital Service Manager at Wisconsin Veterinary Referral Center – Waukesha.
Another component of this is balancing the needs of full-time employees. Paid time off (PTO) is so incredibly important for our veterinary staff. It’s not just offering it; it’s ensuring they are taking it without the guilt of leaving their team short or finding coverage. Utilizing relief staff for this, while also having managers and supervisors recognize when someone hasn’t taken PTO or seems like they should, can help.
“I can start to see when they get itchy. I’ll look back and see when was the last time they took PTO and recognize it’s been a little while. Even though it’s ‘forced’ time off and they do it begrudgingly, when they’re back they’re productivity and creativity noticeably increases.” – Jared, Talent Acquisition Manager.
What Does the Future Hold for Veterinary Staffing?
As we move toward a post-pandemic future, we expect the need and the allure of per diem to remain. Just as many people have tasted the fruits of working from home, veterinary professionals have discovered the benefits of per diem work. They will likely continue to look for those opportunities.
We must find solutions in keeping consistent per diem staff while also keeping a consistent majority full-time staff. One solution our Portsmouth, NH team has found is reimagining the idea of concierge while we face staffing shortages:
“We’ve taken all non-medical tasks that the technicians and doctors would normally have to do and given them to the specialty concierge to handle throughout the day. This allows our medical teams to focus on having their hands on the patient.” Mackenzie, Hospital Service Manager at Port City Veterinary Referral Hospital.
It will be innovative solutions like this that will continue to drive us forward as we navigate the waters of our ever-changing and ever-challenging industry.
We’re Hiring Per Diems
Interested in per diem or relief work for Ethos? We have openings for veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and client care across the country. Search “per diem” and apply here.
Next topic: employee engagement.
Petriglieri, Gianpiero, et al. “Thriving in the Gig Economy.” Harvard Business Review, 11 Apr. 2018.