No shame in working part time

I qualified from the University of Edinburgh in 2018 and started work in a mixed animal practice in Scotland before moving to work as a mixed animal vet in the Lake District. However, just two-and-a-half years into my career, I found that work was having a really negative impact on my mental health. There were days when the monotony of five-to-10-minute appointments back to back, with no breaks, sapped me of all of my energy and all of my empathy. I was waking up every morning stressing about how I’d cope with getting through the day. I couldn’t get out of bed, I’d have panic attacks over simple errors, I’d make mistakes clinically, and things I once got pleasure from no longer appealed to me or brought me a sense of joy or fulfilment. This was not what I signed up for when I embarked on my journey to be a vet. 

It took me some time to realise that the source of my stress was burnout and emotional fatigue from working full time throughout the week, with on-call day shifts and weekends.

I approached my employer at the time to discuss improving my work-life balance and was offered an early finish after a weekend on call. However, sometimes this did not happen, as it depended on staffing levels and how busy the surgery was. It was at this point that I decided to leave full-time work and locum part time while I worked out what to do next. I did seek some advice about locuming from friends, but in the end, I just went for it. I’m an all or nothing person…

Like many others, I considered leaving the profession altogether and finding a new career path. Ultimately, I was swayed to stay by supportive former colleagues, and by the staff I began to work with through locuming part time. My confidence levels improved significantly and I grew to love going to work again. 

I now work as a locum and part time for the PDSA in Manchester. I use my free time to bake. It’s an interest I’m looking to pursue and potentially diversify into. Baking has helped enormously with my mental health – I find that there is nothing more therapeutic than what can be made with a bag of flour, following a set method and seeing the final product work successfully. It’s also a great icebreaker when I move around different practices locuming.

Sharon McGeeney

​There's nothing more therapeutic than what can be made with a bag of flour…

Inevitably, there are drawbacks to locuming. Getting set up to start with is a financial drain that may not be possible for some people. You need your own professional indemnity insurance, work clothes, vehicle and possibly an accountant, among other things. You also need to search for your own work and be prepared to find alternative work quickly when a job suddenly lets you down. In saying that, overall, there are more positives than negatives in my opinion:

·       You dictate your working hours and working week.

·       You decide your holidays. 

·       You gain experience with a range of different computer systems, clinical settings and teams.

·       You can have a better work-life balance.

·       You don’t have attachments.

·       You don’t get involved in practice politics.

·       You can gain sole charge experience.

·       You have the chance to test the water at a practice and can decide if you want to work there again.

·       Locuming opens up lots of networking opportunities.

·        You have days away from vet work to do other things that you love.

·       Your mental health is better.

I could go on…

I decided to take a part-time role at the PDSA to try out charity work, something I feel will be very rewarding. I’m still dipping in and out of locum work to supplement my income as and when I need to. I’ve built up solid connections with a variety of practices, so I haven’t felt any pressure to take a full-time role. 

I truly believe that we shouldn’t live to work. Life is far too short to be burned out and emotionally fatigued. I’m very fortunate that I’ve come to this realisation so young. Part-time work is often thought of as something parents do to assist with childcare responsibilities or as an option for older people with money who want to hold on to the job they love while having more free time. However, when I first started working part time, the guilt surrounding being 26 years old and part time was inescapable. Daily I’d be asked what I did on my days off. Did I work for another practice? There seemed to be no understanding that I was having some days away from work to give myself some breathing space from this overwhelmingly stressful profession.

The reality is that working part time is not just something for older people who have earned it or parents juggling their family commitments. Sometimes part-time work is a saving grace for someone who is battling burnout, mental fatigue and anxiety. Part-time work builds a better work-life balance and helps them regain a love for the profession slowly, without rushing in. It may be a temporary adjustment on the way back to full-time work after a mentally traumatising experience. There should be no shame in that. 

Going part time has definitely helped me re-find my love for the profession. I am no longer burned out mentally and physically. I will likely go back to full-time work at some stage, but I don’t see it as an issue if I don’t. I like the flexibility of working part time, which also allows me to flourish in my baking.

Who knows, I may even go down the route of part-time baker and part-time vet! The veterinary world is changing; I, and many others, used to think that once we became vets, that’s all we were. That’s not the case. There are many different avenues you can take or diverge in to, whether it’s part-time work, full-time work or being self-employed. It’s important to try different working patterns and work the way that suits you. 

So, finally, my advice for anyone who is having similar experiences to mine or who is considering whether part-time work might be an option for them is just to go for it. Not everyone is cut out for full-time work and that’s fine. A temporary drop in hours will make little difference to you financially in the grand scheme of things. You will reap the rewards mentally and physically. You’ve your whole life to live. You shouldn’t feel pressured to work ‘X’ number of hours or ‘X’ number of days. Like so many things in life, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to work. Life is far too short to spend it stressed and unhappy.

Part-time work is a great way to give yourself some temporary breathing space from a highly stressful profession. Give it a go.

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