Over the past few years, hundreds of vets and vet nurses have chosen to turn their back on permanent jobs in favour of doing locum shifts.
Many have cited a desire for more flexibility, better work-life balance and the ability to earn more as the main reasons behind their decision. Increasingly, however, those who have made the move to being self-employed are concluding that the grass is not as green as they expected it to be.
Louise Littler is one such vet. She left a permanent role at Vets Now in 2011 to take up locuming before leaving the profession altogether a year later. But Louise has since returned to a full-time vet surgeon role in our Wrexham clinic after determining that locuming was not the fix-all she hoped it would be.
In this searingly honest account, Louise admits she lost both her voice and passion while working as a locum and has no intention of returning.
UNLIKE many vets, I didn’t grow up knowing what I wanted to be. I was not a James Herriot-reading, vets school-watching, vet to be. I grew up on a council estate in a less desirable part of town, with a cracking view of the River Mersey and Liverpool docks but a scarcity of wildlife and farmland.
I did, however, have a natural talent for science, with a keen interest in both biology and physics.
After my GCSEs, I decided to go to sixth form college and pursue a career in veterinary medicine. The desire to become a vet was made greater by my career officer’s suggestion that I’d be more suited to working in kennels or mucking out stables ‘given my background’.
I worked tirelessly for two years seeing practice with local vets, working on farms, in kennels and stables. I finally secured a place at the University of Liverpool in 2001, graduating as a fully-fledged vet in 2006.
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As a new graduate, I worked in mixed practice. It was a role that should have been amazing. Travelling the countryside, visiting farms and equine yards in the morning, and treating much-loved pets every afternoon.
However, a mixture of 10-minute consults, frequent nights spent away from home on call and a lark-like schedule meant the reality of daytime practice just wasn’t a great fit for a night owl like me.
Having worked nights throughout vet school as a nursing assistant in a large referral hospital, I developed a passion for out-of-hours emergency work. The fast-paced nature of it was invigorating.
Having the constraints of 10 minutes per client removed allowed for a more thorough case work up, more time caring for each patient and greater opportunities to make life-changing differences to both owners and pets. When an emergency vet vacancy came up locally, the move to OOH seemed like a perfect fit.
I worked for several years for an emergency service based in Liverpool, which I thoroughly enjoyed. For the first time in my veterinary career, I felt like I was winning. I was finally fulfilling my overriding wish to help people in their time of greatest need (yes, I said people!).
I know many vets who do the job purely for the love of animals, and yes, I do love them. But what makes pets special to me is the bond they share with their owners. The client interactions have always been one of the most enjoyable parts of my role.
Working with a small team of nurses and animal care staff was also good fun. The level of understanding and communication a small emergency team needs to have is vital to saving lives.
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This bond was strengthened by a 14-night on, 14-night off schedule which meant for half the month I spent more time with my team than I did with my then fiancé (and now husband) Mark. With the arrival of our first child, I felt this nightshift rota was unsustainable.
Following my maternity leave, I decided to move to Vets Now, largely because the company had such a fantastic reputation for high clinical standards. I initially worked as a permanent member of staff but found that locuming provided a higher level of flexibility and control.
Being able to pick the shifts that worked best for me and having days off as and when I wanted was refreshing. I also got paid a bit more too. Win-win, right? Not quite.
It’s no secret that over the last few years, vets have been leaving clinical practice in ever-increasing numbers. On veterinary social media groups, many vets are sharing their stories of awful experiences as new grads, unsustainable workloads, unrealistic client and employer expectations and relentless pressure. The inevitable consequence of this is poor mental health, burnout and, in the most extreme and tragic cases, suicide.
Those who are brave enough to share their concerns are often greeted with a wealth of information and guidance, coping strategies and, increasingly, the suggestion to leave their current practice and take up locuming.
For vets disillusioned by inflexible managers or working for practices which simply cannot bend without breaking, due to financial constraints, this must feel like sage advice. A feeling of not being heard coupled with a lack of appreciation and a perceived (or real) lack of support leaves many vets feeling ‘trapped’.
Surely locuming is the best way to free oneself of these constraints? Being your own boss and making all your own decisions is the answer? But for me, locuming proved to be a double-edged sword.
Without doubt, it gave me more flexibility and control than I’ve ever had in my veterinary career. In gaining that control, however, I lost my voice. I no longer had a say in how my team should work, how my clinic should be shaped.
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I had little access to management, training, the company, and no way to shape the environment around me. I had no power to improve the service provided, no room to innovate and, most importantly, no way to shape the future for the new vets who were still graduating in their hundreds with no idea of the future struggles they would face.
I had essentially isolated myself. My salary for each shift became a form of compensation for doing a job I had lost my passion for. The busier the clinic, the more money. The more a shift inconvenienced me, the more I felt I should be paid for it. This didn’t sit right with me.
I know for many, locuming is absolutely the right decision. If it keeps you in the profession in a way that allows you to maintain your mental health, that’s amazing. Ultimately though it wasn’t enough for me and I left the profession altogether when my son was born with a rare medical condition.
For several years I chose a different path, I started the national charity for his rare condition, Food Protein-Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome (FPIES). I did so on a voluntary basis managing a team of fellow volunteers.
Supporting hundreds of families, touring the country. Educating doctors, nurses, dietitians and teachers on the condition. Creating resources for families and raising funds to support much-needed research. It was a privilege to work with so many amazing people in a role that fed my soul if not my bank balance.
I still have no idea what prompted my return to veterinary practice. I remember having a conversation with a vet school friend in the October where I said without doubt or remorse; I’d never go back.
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I was happy in my role, running the charity and co-managing the family business with my husband. By December I had applied to the Vets Now Refresh Your Edge programme and been accepted.
I started the programme in March 2017. I was nervous I’d forgotten all things ECC, but it all came back with relative ease. The distance-learning course was terrific and helped lift my confidence and reignited my passion for learning. I began working in the Liverpool clinic shortly after that.
On starting back, it was apparent Vets Now had made great strides in terms of clinical excellence since my departure. When I contacted management to offer some feedback, I was surprised to receive a reply from CEO Mark Ross. He wanted to talk and was keen to hear my suggestions. I’d found my voice again.
The training offered to Vets Now permanent staff is amazing, with a generous CPD allowance and encouragement and support to achieve certification. I feel the pros now outweigh the cons in terms of being a full-time employee, and I’m happy being a part of the Vets Now family.
With the opening of Vets Now in Wrexham, I now have a shorter commute. I can pick the kids up from school each day and have dinner with the family before work which is great. I’ve recently made the step up to full time from part-time, and I’m proud to say that I work in a clinic with a focus on both clinical excellence and employee wellbeing, hopefully providing an example to others within the profession and a great working life for those who work alongside me.
So, no, I don’t think I’d ever locum again for Vets Now or anyone else.
Are you a locum vet considering returning to a permanent role? Do you want to benefit from industry-leading CPD and a whole range of other benefits? Give our recruitment team a call to discuss your options on 01383 841181 or click here.