Cows at a fence
As the “Recruitment Crisis” continues in the veterinary profession, on top of the extra demand on veterinary clinics due to COVID, locums need now, more than ever, to set boundaries. They need to set boundaries on where, when, and most importantly how much, they will work!

Most veterinarians find it difficult to say ‘No’. However, saying ‘no’ and setting boundaries, prioritizing your own mental health, is imperative for not only your medical performance while at work, but your longevity in the career! It helps you maintain more of a consistent work-ability, which actually will help both you and the clinics where you work!
WHY do Locums Work Too Much?:
Two ox pulling a cart with a driver.
Locums quit permanent work to have freedom and control, but often end up becoming their own tether by taking too many shifts, or working in the “wrong” way!
The first step in solving a problem is identifying the cause of the problem. Locums say “yes” for a multitude of reasons, but the main ones include:

1: PEOPLE PLEASING: Most veterinarians are people pleasers. They have a hard time saying ‘no’ if they think it will upset, inconvenience, or make another person dislike them.

2: FEAR OF NO WORK: The fear of ‘maybe next month the work won’t be there’ causes many locums to fall into the trap of taking every shift they can NOW, no matter how many, or what type of schedule it creates. This fear of financial instability is often an underlying current that leads locums to burn themselves out completely.

3: SUPERHERO SYNDROME: A large amount of veterinarians suffer from Superhero Syndrome, and they feel that if they don’t take that shift, no-one will. The patients will suffer, the clinic will suffer, their friends and colleagues will suffer. They take the shift to ‘save’ the situation, to their own detriment! Click here for our KICK ASS Superhero Syndrome Blog

4: LACK OF SMART GOALS: Most locums become locums due to disenchantment with full-time employment. It’s not that they don't want a ‘forever home’ clinic, it’s that they cannot find one that fits their needs. Many locums don’t have a set idea for what their ‘full-time’ employment now means. They don't have the typical parameters such as salary and schedule, that a full-time employment brings, and this leads them to just ‘making it up on the go’. This can often lead to over-work, as many small business owners do!
WHY You Should Set Boundaries:
Mom and baby goat on a mountain
Setting boundaries allows you to actually enjoy the benefits of being a locum, like the time to spend with family, travelling, or exploring, and doing it while mentally disengaged from work!
Setting boundaries for yourself as a locum allows you to enjoy the job, get the flexibility and financial freedom you are looking for, without burning yourself out completely. This allows you to have the energy required to be a really good locum, and allows you to actually enjoy your job. Who knows, it may even lead to relationships with clinics that you never knew could exist!

Not setting boundaries comes with the risks of further pushing yourself to complete breakdown. Often, before vets leave the profession completely, they locum. It can be, and often is (even when the vet doesn’t recognize it yet) a stepping stone to a different career. If you are on the fence about the profession, and you want to love it again, the worst thing you can do is locum to the point of burn-out because then you don't even have a clinic you can blame. This will push you out of the profession from burn-out, and not because you truly dislike being a vet.
HOW to Set Boundaries:
Having clear-cut guidelines that you set for yourself that you are ‘not allowed to break’ helps.

Once you set these guidelines and rules, and affirm in your mind they are strict, the decision is made and the ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ stress is removed, decreasing your decision fatigue (see webinar), which is a HUGE point of stress for all vets, but especially locums.

Also, setting goals for what you want to achieve helps you set boundaries that allow you to remove the stress of work, and gain that all elusive work-life balance!

So, what are your goals? What are your financial goals? What are your work-time goals? What are your schedule goals? What work hours do you thrive on, and which work hours absolutely destroy your will to live? These are the points you need to consider.
Suggested Boundary Considerations:
Puppy holding a toy phone
Being “on-call” or working “after hours” is a boundary that some will want to set. Are you OK being tied to your phone, and unable to have a glass of wine? Or does the thought of being woken up at any moment overnight set your blood pressure soaring?
Are you willing to work a job that has on-call, yes or no?

For some, this is fine. For others this is a complete deal breaker. Some jobs will try to bully you into working these on-call shifts. Yes, a locum job may come with on-call in the package, and you need to decide if it’s worth it to take that whole package or not. You can always ask the clinic if someone else can cover the on call. But always feel free to say “No, I’m sorry, I just cannot work on-call. Is there a way around this? Otherwise I will have to decline.”


Scheduling is one of the most important, and often over-looked, factors for work happiness and lack of burn-out. What is a ‘good’ schedule? This will be different for different people, however there are some major factors to consider.

How many days in a row can you work before you go crazy, especially if you are working overnights? (Some jobs have shown your productivity will decrease after 2 overnights in a row.)

How long of shifts can you tolerate? Do you prefer fewer longer shifts, or more shorter shifts?

Do you need your weekends off to enjoy night-life, or do you prefer having weekdays off to go out when it’s less busy?

Do you only want to work days, or are evenings, weekends and overnights ok?

If you do shift-work, make sure the shifts line up well so that you get enough sleep. Most people do much better with shifts that trend LATER, not earlier. For example: Monday day shift, Tuesday afternoon/evening shift, Wednesday overnight shift, Thursday/Friday off, NOT Monday overnight, Tuesday evening, Wednesday morning.

Figure out what works for you, and make those ‘hard rules’. Any shifts that don’t fit in your schedule, get a big ol’ “No”. It may take some time and trial and error to figure out what works for you, but pay attention to your sleep quality, your mood, your personal care (diet, exercise) and see what schedule helps you thrive, and what types of shifts throw a spanner in the works and make you fall apart!
Let's Get Personal
My personal rules are:

1. No “24-hour turn-arounds” (Ex. Monday overnight followed by Wednesday morning)
2. No overnights that are sporadic, and not in a run of other shifts.
3. Clump working days in a row, so that I have a bigger chunk ‘off’ to disconnect.

This is important. Given the current Recruitment Crisis, locums are inundated with work requests. You will get phone calls, emails, texts, etc. Consider creating a work email that you use, and only check when YOU want to do work. Consider not giving out your phone number if you are not willing to pick up last minute shifts. Turn notifications off your phone for your work email. Set times when you check your email, maybe only once a day, so that you aren't constantly thinking about work!

Setting this boundary will give you space from work, so that when you are ‘off’, you can truly be ‘off’.

Disengagement, and disconnect, from work is essential in preventing burn-out! Having good and effective breaks are important, not only when you are taking a Lunch Break, but when you are having a work break in the form of a “weekend”.

Also, if you have your schedule filled, feel free to contact the clinics and say “I’m not picking up any more shifts at this time, please stop contacting me for now, and I will get in touch when I am available again.”

Golden Piggy Bank
Taking last minute shifts can be lucrative, because many times clinics are willing to pay more (ex. Double time or a call-in fee). Also, if you are money motivated, and you are happy to be ‘bothered’ to make some extra cash, these shifts might be for you!
Yae or Nae? You decide. If the answer is no, if that stress puts your whole week schedule in a spin, then don’t give out your phone number!

If you thrive on last minute changes, go for it! Be that person that can be called last minute (and consider having an extra “last minute surcharge fee” or a higher rate to fill shifts within 24 hours!) BUT- if this is your niche, being available, make sure you don’t schedule yourself full on-top of this availability! Just like a clinic needs ‘emergency slots’ in their schedule for walk-ins, and sometimes they don't get filled, your work-schedule needs to prepare for these last minute shifts, otherwise your whole schedule will become overwhelmed!


Pick a number of shifts that you can tolerate and take

Have a limit to the number of shifts you will take in a time period. I suggest in a month. Therefore, if your limit is 15 for example, and you fill those all in the first 3 weeks… your last week is vacation! The time limit will vary from person to person and what they can handle, some people say ‘no more than x # in a week’ and some people will say ‘no more than x number in 3 months’. (I’m a big “work hard, play hard” fan, so often would load up a bunch of shifts for 2 months, and then we would go travel for a few weeks.)

Financially have a goal. Figure out the amount of money you need/want, and then use that as a guide to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to shifts.

Recognize the clinics will ALWAYS push, and don’t care about you. It’s nice to think the clinics will care, and won’t have you work more than you need. It’s important however to recognize that the managers are just as stressed (if not more), just as over-worked and over-whelmed, and just as burned out as you are. They cannot be responsible for the mental health of everyone, and it is our responsibility to be in charge of our own mental health. Therefore, they will assume you will say ‘no’ if you cannot take a shift, and they will push and plead you to take more. They aren’t evil, or jerks, they just can’t see past their own issues of having to fill the shift. They won’t think badly of you for saying no, and they won't stop calling you (they are desperate, remember). So, the only person that you can rely on to take control of your work and burn out is yourself.

“You aren’t that important” is one of the most impactful things a boss once said to me, out of complete respect and in good intention, and it’s true. You taking that shift won’t make or break a clinic, you will not save that business, or those co-workers. And if you burn yourself out completely, then you won't be able to take any shifts, or you will be useless and miserable, and sometimes medically dangerous, when you are on shift. (see blog on Superhero Syndrome)
Let's Get Personal
My husband had to enforce me to set these guidelines and would be upset if I took more because I was burning myself out working WAY too much, so I understand how difficult it can be to adhere to these guidelines on your own- but once you start doing it, and your mental health improves so that you can function/think again, it actually becomes easy to say ‘no’ if the shift doesn’t fit in your guidelines
Written by Dr. Ann Herbst BSc, DVM

Published Februrary 23rd, 2022

Advocate for yourself, you are the only one that will!

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