As we head into December, the Christmas mood is taking over, with extravagant streetlights, festive window displays and Santa’s grottoes becoming ever - more prominent.
Christmas has even appeared in my workplace, with decorations being set up in the waiting room, and Christmas toys for pets on sale. Last week, I heard my first “Have a lovely Christmas” from a client who comes in for a monthly injection. That’s it: the next month is going to be dominated by the biggest annual festival of our culture.
Christmas is also the biggest staffing challenge for the vets in our practice. Every year, the calendar is scrutinised carefully. With the way the dates fall on different days, what’s it going to mean for time off this year? We are fortunate in that we are covered by an emergency after-hours service. Previously, it was normal to accept that one of us had to be on call for Christmas Day: it was normal to have a family Christmas dinner disturbed by a phone call about a dog with a cut foot or a cat with an upset stomach. Now, we can take it for granted that we will all be free to be with our families for all the bank holidays. This extra free time was a revolutionary improvement for our clinic when it happened, but it’s surprising how quickly one gets used to such change. Now we find ourselves carefully negotiating which of the other days around Christmas we can get off. In times past, this would have been an unimaginable dream, but we now see it as the norm.
Much of the workforce in the wider world seems to be closed on these days, giving people a long stretch of time off work, from Christmas Eve till New Year. There’s no such luck in the veterinary world: our clinic will be open, so we need to find vets to staff it. We try to keep our staffing needs to a minimum by avoiding taking bookings for routine work (like spays, neuters and dentistry). But still, there’s always the possibility of major emergency operations, so a core number of vets is always going to be needed, and we try to share this out equally.
Christmas is the most challenging time of year to find locums: nobody really wants to work at Christmas time, so the available veterinary workforce is scantier than at any other time of the year. We have experienced the difficulty of finding Christmas locums in the past, so these days, we have a rule that nobody takes long holidays at that time of year, and we do our best to manage without locums. If someone fell ill, or if there was a family crisis of some type, we might seek an emergency locum at short notice, but we know that it would not be easy to find one.
If there are any work-hungry locums out there, this time of year must be a challenge for you. You will definitely find work, but should you charge a premium rate because of the increased demand? This may seem tempting, but at the same time, vet clinics don’t charge more for their consults or ops at this time of year, so it’s hard to see where the extra money would come from.
To be more positive, this should be a time of year for locums to consolidate their relationships with their regular clinics. If you are helpful and reliable over Christmas, you will generate a huge amount of festive goodwill: your work ethic and good nature will be appreciated more than at any other time of year, and this will sow the seeds for a solid, trusting relationship moving on into 2018.
The single biggest key to a successful working period over Christmas and New Year is careful planning in advance. If you have not already lined up your Christmas hours, do it this week!
Then everyone can relax and get on with life: after all, there are numerous Christmas parties to get through before the big day!