Veterinary Staff Turnover: Burnout, Benefits, and Breaking Points

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employee burnout

After graduating from veterinary school, Dr. Colleen Orta experienced a breadth of practice environments. She worked in oncology, emergency, and referrals, and found herself not quite hitting the mark on what she was seeking. It wasn’t so much about the pay (though her student loan debt would argue otherwise) or the benefits, or even the workload. For Orta, the decision to work for a specific practice came down to one thing: culture.

Culture as it pertains to the workplace is an interesting concept. Before, the biggest priority for a young, graduating vet was to find a practice that they could buy into in hopes of creating a sustainable career. Incoming vets would eventually take over more responsibilities from their predecessors until the senior vet was ready to retire. But now? It’s all different.

Yes, pay and benefits are important — but it seemed all of Dr. Orta’s options lacked a healthy workplace culture, a sense of work-and-life balance. This, she says, is one of the greatest struggles of the modern vet, and it may be the downfall of many practices that struggle with high rates of staff turnover.

“There is a real undercurrent of toxicity in the workplace in the industry,” Dr. Orta commented. “The culture of the clinic has become more and more important to me as a vet, more than the pay or the benefits.”

Dr. Orta speaks of this incoming generation, the one saddled with student debt and seeking the elusive concept of work-life balance. Instead of seeking out practices to buy into, younger vets are now seeking a culture that allows them to step away from the on-call shift and gives them the empowerment to help their patients. When these intangible elements are missing, things begin to sour.

According to the 2016 American Animal Hospital Association Compensation & Benefits report, turnover in veterinary practices averages around 21 percent. In comparison, an unrelated study on LinkedIn reported a “worldwide turnover rate” of just under 11 percent based on data from 2017. Why is this number comparatively high within the veterinary industry?

Burnout and stress are two words commonly associated with the veterinary industry today, an unfortunate side effect of the intensely emotional aspect of the profession. Do these factors contribute to a high level of staff turnover within veterinary practices? Absolutely.

Burnout, Dr. Orta says, is one of the most common causes of employee dissatisfaction and turnover. “Some vets at smaller practices are expected to wear many hats,” she said. “They have to be the vet and the assistant and the manager, simply because the practice owner does not want to hire appropriate staff. I’ve worked in many places where this happens, and the level of burnout is extremely high.”

Reasons for separation from a job can include termination, injury, burnout, or overall job dissatisfaction. Compensation is also a factor, and according to a study of paraprofessionals such as veterinary technicians, 38 percent of turnover was due to insufficient pay.

Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that staff turnover is a costly issue in any business. In the veterinary industry, staff turnover can have a far-reaching impact on the longevity of the practice. It’s important that practice owners take turnover seriously, monitoring the circumstances surrounding turnover as well as keeping track of employee morale. This will to reduce cost as well as maintain a healthy working environment.

In addition to the productivity and morale cost to the practice, the actual financial cost of staff turnover can be staggering. Money can be lost in the form of severance pay, paid out accrued vacation, and human resources costs to re-fill the position, and the figures add up quickly.

Employee turnover in a veterinary practice can be managed in a variety of different ways. However, some turnover will be unavoidable — and no matter what, there is both a financial and a productivity cost. Let’s delve into the details of turnover cost.

Financial Cost of Employee Turnover

The cost of replacing an employee, particularly a valuable one, is one of the biggest. The longer tenured an employee is, and the more complex their work is, the more it will cost to replace that individual. The financial hit taken by a practice can be larger than originally assumed, as the combined costs of losing an employee and subsequently replacing them add up quickly.

In fact, a template created by Sapling HR puts the average turnover cost of a departing employee earning $71,000, the median salary for a staff veterinarian in the U.S., at over $16,000. As a rule of thumb, turnover can be calculated to cost 22 percent of the departing employee’s annual salary. If turnover is high, that figure multiplies quickly. Let’s say your practice sees five employees leave in the course of a year. That works out to cost over $80,000. What may seem like a minor inconvenience at first can quickly collapse into a financial hole.

As this calculation shows, the financial burdens of replacing a lost employee can add up quickly, and in unexpected ways. For example, time spent on the clock training a new employee is money that could have been spent on more productive work. Time spent interviewing prospective employees is also a cost.

Productivity Cost of Employee Turnover

Likewise, there is also a hit to the office’s productivity when an employee is lost. For example, the loss of a technician may cause appointments to run over due to inadequate staffing, or if a front desk employee leaves it can cause confirmations to go unchecked, increasing no-shows. This can cause a snowball effect and should be carefully monitored.

Dr. Orta recalls a stint she did working as an emergency vet in Virginia. “Turnover is a huge problem because a revolving door of employees causes us to not be on the same page,” she said. “If I was in an emergency surgery in the middle of the night and had an all-new staff who wasn’t properly trained, it could compromise patient care. Having to constantly train new people makes us take a hit as well because now we’re having multiple people perform one person’s job.”

Another factor to consider is morale. Many employees who voluntarily terminate their own employment will cite dissatisfaction with the workplace or, often, the management. Their absence may negatively impact the morale of the employees who are left picking up the slack and working extra hours.

For this and many other reasons, it’s important to not let important positions sit vacant. Replacing an employee can help offset productivity costs, but morale may still be low. Practice owners and managers must take a look at the whole picture in order to proactively respond to a problem before it gets bigger.

Preventing Employee Turnover in Veterinary Practices

In addition to financial and productivity costs, it can reflect poorly on a practice if turnover numbers are high. An employer who is constantly listing the same position after just a few months may raise red flags with applicants. So, what is the best way to prevent turnover? 

For starters, let’s look at the numbers. This study is again referencing veterinary techs, but the concept can be applied to the entire office. Of the respondents, 20 percent cited lack of respect from the employer as their reason for leaving, 20 percent cited burnout, and 14 percent said a lack of benefits was the biggest problem. And don’t forget the 38 percent who said they simply were not earning enough.

Investing time and resources into maintaining a healthy work environment will save the headache and costs of turnover. With this goal in mind, here are some ways to combat poor morale that may lead to turnover.

Pay and benefits: Is there a way to increase base pay? What about incentives or bonuses? And do your employees have the most competitive benefits package you can afford? Do some research — numbers showing average earnings in each state and populated area are available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics each year. How does your practice stack up?

Employer respect: How do the employees in your practice get along with each other? How do the lead veterinarians and managers treat lower-ranking employees? Is there a general feeling of respect and camaraderie, or is there a lot of drama and gossip? One way to help identify the feelings in the office is to conduct surveys. These can be anonymous if needed, but can reveal things about the environment that may not be noticeable to the naked eye.

Burnout: Is your weekly schedule of working hours overly demanding? Are you running too lean on staff? Are your employees tasked with too many responsibilities, leading to disorganization and frustration? Do a thorough audit of the day-to-day operations of the practice and find ways to streamline, support the staff, and manage expectations.

In the event of an employee leaving, conduct an exit interview. Regardless of the circumstances, exit interviews can be instrumental in identifying red flags or opportunities for improvement.

At the end of the day, effective communication is paramount to earning — and keeping — the respect of employees. The entire team must work together in order for any business to succeed, and it’s up to management to ensure they’re providing the best possible working environment to prevent turnover.

Employee turnover has more costs than simply lost time and wages. The effects of a high turnover rate, particularly in a profession in which mental health is a huge concern, can be far-reaching and difficult to recover from. With this in mind, a proactive approach is best to keep turnover to a minimum.

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