Paid parental leave is undeniably helpful but employers would do well to also offer returning staff flexible work conditions and other forms of support. Deepa Gopinath reports
Most veterinary clinics in Australia do not have the capacity to provide their employees with paid parental leave (PPL), a benefit that is enjoyed by employees of many large corporations.
As with much of the developed world, veterinary clinic ownership in Australia is becoming increasingly corporatised. Corporate veterinary groups can leverage their resources to offer greater employee benefits when compared to individually owned clinics. Furthermore, the value of non-monetary parental benefits to both the employee and the business should not be underestimated.
In the US, corporate veterinary clinic group Banfield Pet Hospitals offers five weeks of paid maternity leave at 70 per cent pay. In addition, they offer discounted rates to their employees at certain childcare centres. Parental law legislation in the US only stipulates that businesses with more than 50 employees should receive 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave.
The Australian Government’s parental leave offering is more generous, at up to 18 weeks paid leave for those who qualify. Thus, there is less pressure on Australian businesses to offer PPL. One of Australia’s largest veterinary clinic groups, Greencross Vets, does not yet offer company-funded PPL, however chief veterinary officer Dr Magdoline Awad confirms that change is imminent and necessary. “Our vets are predominantly female and are now graduating after having spent longer studying at university. Many are considering having families after a relatively short time in practice,” Dr Awad says, adding that the company’s employee benefits offering is currently under review.
Monetary support is undeniably useful, however, the need for flexible work conditions upon return to the profession seems to be increasingly front-of-mind. Sydney-based veterinarian Dr Radha Ravi has recently had her third child. In Dr Ravi’s opinion, open discussion around return to work timelines, roster expectations and the ability to review them regularly are imperative and helps to ease some of the pressures placed on working parents. Training support structures should be effectively utilised, including ‘keeping-in-touch days’ which allow the employee to return for training purposes while on parental leave. “Unpredictability of the job is a unique challenge faced by veterinary staff,” says Dr Ravi, who supports new and recent veterinary graduates as Early Talent manager for VetPartners ANZ. “For example, emergency cases can make it difficult to leave work on time. Particularly as we are a service industry, flexible work conditions need to work well for both the employee and the business, should be dynamic and guided by open communication.”
The need for early and frequent communication to manage expectations is paramount, according to Dr Ravi, whose two older children were born when she was employed in clinical practice. “Ultimately, it is appropriate communication to clarify the needs of both the business and employee before and during parental leave that is going to make the difference,” she says.
Challenges around returning to clinical practice should not be underestimated. Dr Jocelyn Birch Baker, owner of High Street Veterinary Surgery in North Rockhampton feels that the profession falls short on strategies to help vets return to work gradually. “We should support returning vets and nurses as well as we support new graduate vets. There is often a loss of clinical confidence after a career break, as well as new products and techniques to learn,” says Dr Birch Baker, who is concerned that the profession loses many experienced veterinarians to this loss of confidence.
Dr Awad agrees that it is essential to support vets returning to work as confidence can be a barrier, adding that Greencross Vets’ Return to Work program addresses this to a significant extent. The program offers a series of clinical and non-clinical study modules to vets resuming clinical practice after a break for any reason, including for the purpose of raising a family. “Additionally, some vets that have been in clinical practice want to further their careers in areas outside of clinical practice. We offer a Diploma of Leadership as well as a Leadership Intelligence Program,” Dr Awad says. “I am a very big advocate of not only supporting women in leadership roles but also challenging the mindset that you can’t do this with a family.”
There is another change in mindset that has occurred in the last two decades. Vets and vet nurses that return to work after taking time out to raise a family are increasingly valued as an asset to the profession rather than being viewed as potentially less effective. “They are happy to be here doing the work that they love with people that they like and respect. They are so responsible and dedicated, and their time management is fantastic!” says Dr Birch Baker, who has raised two daughters, both now in their twenties. “There are many more ways we can support working parents, such as providing childcare at professional conferences.”
Dr Ravi suggests veterinary businesses should consider offering vets on parental leave access to a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) allowance, as well as salary increases in line with CPI. “It is a small outlay which shows employees that they are worth investing in. In turn, the practice gains the benefit of an employee who is engaged and up-to-date.”
While the offer of company-funded PPL may be out of reach for individual practices and smaller groups, it may be on the horizon for larger, corporate veterinary groups. Linking paid leave to a minimum period of employment may aid in employee retention and solidify return on investment.
Furthermore, non-monetary benefits such as flexible working conditions and return-to-work training are now being recognised as necessary forms of support. An employee who is valued by the business is a happy and productive employee. As Dr Awad says, “If we make efforts to support the working parents on our team, we get back a segment of the profession that we cannot afford to lose. Their expertise, experience and wisdom are something we all value highly.”