Locuming with health issues can be a positive experience
Over the past two years, I have worked as a locum in more than 20 different clinics across the UK. In this time, I’ve experienced a number of different injuries, none of which was specific to the veterinary workplace. They’ve included a dislocated jaw that caused varying issues with pain, eating and speaking for more than nine months; a protracted viral sinusitis and labyrinthitis for around three months; and a head trauma with concussion and complications that lasted for over six months. While the head trauma occurred in a work environment, it was due to an underlying medical issue concerning blood pressure regulation and was not due to my veterinary work.
Despite these often-demoralising injuries, I have largely been able to continue working in general practice with, I believe, little significant disadvantage to myself or the clinics I worked for.
There seems to be a perception that a locum vet should be a fully fledged, universally competent, gregarious and unwaveringly confident all-rounder. In truth, this is rather disconnected from the reality, and during my recent experiences I found a profession that has been prepared to be surprisingly sympathetic and flexible in its approach to accommodating me. This is noteworthy for a profession in which work can be stressful and technically demanding.
'My recent experience is of a profession that has been sympathetic and flexible'
The key to managing the limitations of my injuries is two-fold. First, I have realistic expectations about what I can do and, secondly, I have frank and open communications with each practice that employs me.
Following my head injury and concussion, I was advised to avoid spending too much time doing surgery, and not to do surgery in sole charge situations. So, for this period I looked for clinics that needed a consulting vet, and worked especially hard at being an excellent consulting vet, while picking my opportunities to still spend time in surgery where appropriate.
Then, in the first few days after dislocating my jaw – when it was highly painful to talk for more than a few minutes – I was able to negotiate spending more time in surgery until the pain relief and anti-inflammatories worked their collective magic.
What are the financial implications of illness and injury?
There doesn’t appear to be an industry standard as regards sick leave in veterinary practice. The application of sick pay is at the employer’s discretion. In my experience, salaried vets may be offered as little as two days’ sick leave per year and, generally, there is no company sick leave policy beyond this period. In this situation, employees would need to claim statutory sick pay (SSP), currently £95.58 per week.
A locum vet would be equally entitled to claim SSP as an employee under a limited company or an umbrella company arrangement, but not as self-employed or a sole trader.
In the case of extended injury or disability, the levels of support offered are low whether employed or self-employed. As far as termination of employment on health grounds is concerned, a workplace is legally obliged to consider alternative working arrangements before terminating an employee on grounds of injury or sickness. These protections are not afforded to self-employed vets.
Weighing up the advantages and disadvantages
Locum work typically affords greater remuneration, along with the flexibility to take time off for illness, physical or mental health, and greater control over your working risk and work environment. In my case, it allowed me to take breaks from work and exercise better control over my working environment, which helped my recoveries.
The negative sides of locum work, however, can exacerbate health concerns. Potentially insecure work can be financially stressful, such as in the current Covid-19 crisis. It can also mean breaks or reduced investment in professional development, and a lack of formal mentoring. And there are additional costs that apply to locums, including business and accountancy costs, personal CPD, travel and professional fees (they don’t take a break when you do).
The absence of a close and familiar team to support you through difficulties is another consideration – all these things are important and should be given careful thought.
I am not advocating locuming as a great or easy path for someone with significant limitations on their ability to work. Clinics need competent and capable cover so locuming, therefore, can be demanding. I was also fortunate that my injuries were transient, self-limiting and isolated.
But there is flexibility to be found meeting the cover clinics need and in being self-employed. Choosing when to work certainly allowed me important recovery time that may have been more difficult to negotiate in full-time salaried employment.
I don’t believe I would have been financially or practically better protected being a salaried employee. Instead, I would argue that the flexibility of being self-employed, coupled with better remuneration, helped me manage better through these injuries.
Workplace injuries, health concerns and disabilities are part and parcel of a vet’s working life, and such issues are likely to impact many vets through their careers.
'Be open and clear with practices where you plan to work'
My advice to any locums, or vets in general, would be to be open and clear with practices where you plan to work – especially if you are fairly new, inexperienced, or have certain limitations as to what you can do. There are varied demands, paces and attitudes across practices.
If you are considering locum work, but have concerns about whether there is a need for your skills, I would advise that there very likely is. Many clinics need the valuable skills that vets provide.
With honest communication and realistic compromise, you will find there are good opportunities to be found working as a locum vet.