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Columns, Featured, Leadership

Paycheck Chatter and the Need for Time Off

Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward answers your questions.

Paycheck Chatter and the Need for Time Off
Team members tend to know each other’s pay, particularly within their job role.

Q: I own a four-doctor clinic and recently overheard our new associate veterinarian complain about her paycheck to a couple of technicians. She told them that most of her classmates received a higher percentage of revenue and better benefits. We have a written policy of not discussing compensation with other staff members. What should I do?

A: There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’ll focus on a veterinarian complaining about money in front of staff. In my opinion, it’s highly insensitive, destructive to team morale and unprofessional. Chalk it up to her inexperience, but you’ve got to tell her that what she did was inappropriate, pronto.

The vast majority of veterinary staff, especially licensed veterinary technicians, are severely underpaid and overworked. What the associate perceives as poor pay is probably a jackpot for most technicians. Additionally, the techs might see the young veterinarian’s production revenue as something they did most of the work for yet received no benefit. (I think that’s reason No. 17 for why I never bought into production-based pay schemes.)

The time to complain about remuneration was before she signed an employment contract. Tell the associate that if she’s unhappy with her pay, you’re eager to help her prove her worth. Agree on ways to collaborate, establish future financial milestones and earn appropriate rewards. Maybe it’s a bump in salary, CE or additional benefits. This is the proverbial carrot, which leads me to the importance of avoiding the stick.

Be sure to approach the impressionable veterinarian in a non-threatening manner. She’s new to practice and is still learning to be a doctor. The goal of the conversation would be to build a healthy relationship, not bigger walls separating you. Gently inform her of her misstep — we all make mistakes — and explain how her words can carry consequences. Stress to her the importance of being empathetic to colleagues and not triggering workplace discord.

When younger veterinarians confide in support staff, the opportunity arises for someone to step up as a mentor. Over the years, I’ve found my regular check-ins with associates to be incredibly impactful.

Your veterinarian is probably beginning to feel the tremendous emotional burden of student debt. Your support could carry her forward.

And your written policy? I have one, but I understand that my staff tends to know each other’s pay, particularly within their job role. Still, talking about money in front of others is impolite.

Q: I’m an associate veterinarian who returned from a desperately needed five-day staycation. My boss granted me the time off, no questions asked. But when I returned, she kept saying things like, “We’ve got to make up for when you were off” and “This is why I haven’t had a vacation in five years.” I returned refreshed but now feel guilty for leaving my team. Can you ever truly take time off?

A: Good for you for taking the time to recharge and bad for anyone making you feel guilty about it. This sort of subtle shaming, particularly by superiors, is one of the leading causes of professional burnout. Passive-aggressive behaviors and sarcastic digs can undermine the desire for self-care by creating self-doubt and self-reproach, leading to an abandonment of work-life balance and healthy habits. Even worse, it appears you’re blamed for your boss’s lack of a vacation. As if your feeling of guilt for taking time to heal yourself wasn’t bad enough, now you feel responsible for hurting your employer.

The short answer is that with a clear conscience, you can and should take time off. We must lift each other and celebrate whenever colleagues can improve themselves. We need to realize that veterinary practice is a marathon and then pace ourselves appropriately. Humans can’t sustain months and years of incessant stress and strife without causing serious, sometimes permanent, emotional and physical harm.

Tell your boss that her comments hurt and could affect the rest of the team. Explain that you and your coworkers can maintain a higher level of energy and enthusiasm by taking time off, leading to greater productivity and practice loyalty.

Q: A 1986 graduate, I can’t believe how you go on about self-care and work-life balance. The truth is that those folks need to be grateful that they have jobs and food on the table. It’s not my responsibility to babysit adults. I expect that once these young veterinarians and technicians get a taste of the real world, they’ll forget such nonsense and get to work.

A: I graduated only six years after you — apparently an eternity based on how we see the issue. My best response is to get used to it; the sentiment is here to stay. And I applaud it.

You and I entered a veterinary environment proud of 80-hour workweeks and 24/7 emergency calls — the pager alarm still triggers me — and one that allowed anyone and everyone to walk all over us. It literally killed some of us and broke the spirit of countless others.

In 1993, at age 26, I decided to start a practice and do things differently. I established systems that allowed me to provide the best patient care and client service, pay the best wages, and enjoy my work for the next 20 years. I realized that hard work wasn’t enough to stay productive, healthy and enthusiastic over the long haul. It took a lot of self-care. Now is the time to accept it, adjust to it and hopefully embrace it. We will always care about work-life balance and our support teams.

Q: My manager is overbooking to make up the income lost during the pandemic. We’re working at least an hour past closing, clients are waiting and complaining, and the team is exhausted and short-tempered. As an associate veterinarian, how can I explain the need for change?

A: Sounds like a case of “Make hay while the sun shines or until you have a heart attack and die from heatstroke.” OK, I made that up, but I hope you get the point. While overbooking makes the cash register ring louder, doing so can come at the expense of losing clients due to poor service and losing staff due to stress.

Tell your manager of the need to examine the practice’s appointment capacity. In the simplest terms, decide how many and even what kind of appointments the practice can handle at any given time based on:

  • The number of staff members present.
  • Everybody’s experience and abilities.
  • The number of exam rooms and the infrastructure.

This exercise is designed to provide insight into how many cases you can adequately handle. It allows for the analysis of potential limitations and solutions. For example, an experienced team of two veterinarians and four technicians using two exam rooms can probably outproduce four new veterinarians and two technicians in four rooms. In both scenarios, you can potentially improve efficiency and productivity by critically reviewing processes and abilities, leading to greater revenue.

Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward (drernieward.com) is an award-winning veterinarian, impact entrepreneur, book author and media personality. When he’s not with family or pet patients, Dr. Ward can be found contemplating solutions during endurance athletics and meditation and on his weekly podcast, “Veterinary Viewfinder.” If you have a question about practice life, personal well-being, leadership or veterinary careers, email [email protected].

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