Setting Expectations: How to Not be on Call 24-7

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Early mornings, late nights, taking projects home, working over lunch, holidays, weekends, being late for other commitments outside of the clinic…does any of this sound familiar?

For many of us working as a team member in a veterinary hospital, it is an all-too-familiar reality. Why is it that we so freely give of our time, and feel guilty when asking to take some back? The simple answer is that we care. The other reality of being part of a veterinary team is that we love what we do. So, why wouldn’t we want to freely give our time to our passion? Another simple’s not sustainable.

Burnout or bologna
You love this field, and don’t mind the extra hours and compromising your personal time. After all this is your passion and what you have put your time, energy, and money into achieving. You could do this forever, right?

The truth of the matter is that turnover rates as well as the rates of those leaving the field for good are higher than in other industries. This fact brings about two realities:

  • We are losing great team members to burnout, which is doing a disservice to the field of veterinary medicine.
  • Secondly, this is proof that owning, managing, or just being part of this type of practice is not a sustainable environment and will lead you to burnout.
Just like with training puppies, it is best to start from the beginning. If you are just starting out, you’ll have the ability to set the pace for your career, along with setting those expectations of keeping your life and work in good balance.

Burnt to a crisp
The more common circumstance is that you are staring burn out right in the face and are struggling with how to handle it. As you recall from information listed above, you are not alone. First and foremost, you have a few questions to answer.

1. Are you ready and willing to walk the walk?
2. Do you want to stay with your current team?
3. Do you have the guts to have the big talk?

The hope would be that you answered YES to all three of these questions. Now it’s time for the work.

“It’s not you, it’s me”
1. Walk the walk – the foundation for making this change happen is to look right back at yourself. The most difficult element is the honesty required. Are you the reason why you have poor work life balance? Due to the great passion we have for our work, our dedication to the field can often make us our own barrier to achieving work life balance.

Evaluate the following areas:

  • effective time management
  • appropriate delegation
  • ability to set limits and expectations

2. Staying with your current team – this is one of the toughest elements to this commitment because it requires an honest evaluation of your environment. If the culture of the practice can support a work life balance, there is hope. If the culture is not supportive, you’ll need to entertain an alternative (see Figure 1)

3. The big talk – what talk is this exactly? Well, that would be the any talk with your clinic leader, owner, or supervisor to set a path of communication that allows for the both of you to set expectations and follow-through on those common goals. There are many skills to have the most effective conversation.

Know your audience Tailor your communication to your audience to focus on interests and common ground.

Know your audienceTailor your communication to your audience to focus on interests and common ground.
Identify areas of conflictThis will create a situation to explore all options.
Have good timingRemember that 'timing is everything!'
Look in the mirrorSelf-awareness and seeing others as they might see you will improve your skills in building beneficial relationships.
Come with a planHow are you going to be part of the solution?
Be specific about your expectationsVagueness creates confusion and miscommunication.
Don't let emotions get the best of youSometimes a brief silence can stop a defensive and irrational response.
ClosureSummarize what was discussed and decided during the conversation and make plans to follow-up.

 Source: The Fine Art Of The Big Talk by Debra Fine

Moving on
During this process you might have determined that your current team and clinic is not sharing your same goal of work life balance. You can now set a course to elicit a culture change, or start the job hunt.

Culture change is the most difficult, but is doable. The job hunt is never a pleasant thought for dedicated team members. You have spent a lot of time and energy building and growing with your team to now have to start over in a whole new setting, all while committing yourself to a goal of work life balance. Making this leap is by far one of the hardest decisions you make during your career, but with the right approach it can be the best decision as well.

The three P’s – Preparation, Patience, & Perseverance

While making this big change, you want to make sure to have done your homework. Preparing for a new job is challenging, especially if you’ve been out of the work force for a long period of time.


  • Check for restrictive covenants in your contract, job agreement, or policy and procedural manual.
  • Determine your ideal clinic style, size, and location, and whether you’re willing to relocate.
  • Update your resume.


• Bookmark online job sites and check them weekly.
• Network through conferences and find out who is looking for
  someone like you. Conference job boards will help as well.
• Engage job placement companies, those that specifically function as
  matchmakers only.
  • If you don’t succeed, try and try again – multiple interviews may be required to find the right fit.
  • Don’t settle for anything less than an environment that meets your goals, otherwise you will find yourself in an unwanted situation again all too soon.
  • Know that a great opportunity may be just around the corner!

Doing your Homework
You’ve landed an interview, but how do you know it really is going to be the right place for you? The key is to ask more questions, such as:

  • Is there a job description for your position?
  • What is the expectation of hours for your position?
  • What is the expectation for your availability when you are not in theoffice?
  • Can you observe the practice in action for a day?
  • What are the future goals of the owner/medical director/supervisor?
  • What is the amount of overtime (on average) for the support staff?
  • What is staff turn-around like and how long has the current team been there?

It is imperative that you focus on the subtleties of the practice. Undercurrents of fatigue, job dissatisfaction, and low moral can tell you a lot about a team.

Achieving true work life balance takes ongoing, constant work. It all begins with changing your own behaviors. Once you can walk the walk, you’ll be able to have the ‘big talks’ necessary to select the environment and set the expectations of not being on call 24/7. You deserve to enjoy your life away from the practice as well as within it! 

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Veterinary Team Brief delivers practical skills for team-based medicine—with clinical strategies for team training, peer-reviewed credibility, concise content, essential training modules, and easy-to-implement protocols. From the publisher of Clinician's Brief.