Chart of the Month: Work hours continue to exceed pre-pandemic norms

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AVMA chart of the month

Events over the past several years have presented no shortage of challenges for veterinary teams. The confluence of events during the pandemic surged demand for veterinary services and disrupted workflows in veterinary practices throughout the country. One result was that veterinary teams had to work hard to keep up. 

As the effects of the pandemic have begun to abate, there have been signs that the pressure is beginning to lift, with business starting to return normal. One such sign is hours worked.

What the data show

As today’s chart shows, the pandemic period (2020-2022) saw a noteworthy rise in the number of hours worked by all veterinarians (full-time and part-time combined), from a median of 40 hours/week in the preceding four years to 45 hours/week. Although these hours declined somewhat in 2023, they remain elevated, with the average veterinarian working hours that exceed one full-time equivalent (40 hours/week). 

Chart: Weekly hours worked by veterinarians, full- and part-time combined

The data, published in the new 2024 AVMA Report on the Economic State of the Veterinary Profession, come from responses to AVMA’s Census of Veterinarians survey.

Also in the report, the average number of hours worked by full-time veterinarians alone (37 hours/week or more) was 48.7 hours in 2023, down about 1 hour from the peak in 2021 and 2022 but still higher than before the pandemic. Both trends parallel the percentage of veterinarians classified as having moderate burnout during the same period. 

What the data don’t show

This annual research by the AVMA refutes an assumption that has been central to recent workforce analyses and commentary calling for drastic changes to the structure of the profession, including creation of a so-called midlevel practitioner position.

Those analyses have relied in part on a belief that many veterinarians are working fewer hours—an assumption that the Census of Veterinarians research clearly shows is not true. In fact, at no point in recent history have the average hours worked dropped below 40 per week. 

Furthermore, although it’s true that 22% to 27% of veterinarians from 2016 to 2023 indicated they would work fewer hours per week if they could (for less compensation), this desire does not appear to have translated to action.

What can we do with this information?

We know that demand for companion animal veterinary services increased during the pandemic, and now has begun to decline. We also know that labor supply was tight, with more than half of practices reporting vacancies for one or more veterinarians at that time. 

The decrease in hours worked that we are now seeing can be viewed as a positive step for veterinarians, as overwork can threaten our health and wellbeing. But it is a step in the wrong direction to assume that this means veterinarians are working less and will contribute to future workforce shortages—and it would be dangerous to make decisions with long-term effects based on overestimates of need.

In fact, to assume that hours worked are dropping substantially is to risk underestimating the future supply of veterinarians in the labor market.

Where do we go from here?

During the pandemic, many veterinarians were working more than they ever had before. So it’s encouraging to see hours starting to return to normal. 

We can continue to ease the burden on veterinarians in our individual practices by optimizing efficiency and productivity, and engaging other team members—including veterinary technicians—to their full capabilities. Find ideas in these AVMA Axon® webinars:

Veterinarians and other team members also can take steps to prioritize our mental health and wellbeing. Find practical tools in AVMA’s wellbeing resources for veterinary professionals.

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