Avoid the hazards of overwork
By R. Scott Nolen
Published August 1, 2022
There’s a case to be made that increasing practice productivity while working fewer hours can increase profitability, according to Dr. Cyndie J. Courtney, a small animal veterinarian, consultant, and self-professed “recovering toxic team member.”
“I know it’s hard to believe,” she said, “but there is actually data that show this is true.”
Dr. Courtney was speaking about work inefficiencies in her presentation “The Inefficiency of Overwork: How To Do More With Less” on Saturday at AVMA Convention 2022 in Philadelphia.
Studies estimate the productivity range in many professions is roughly 40-50 hours a week. A worker is most efficient during this range, Dr. Courtney explained, adding that the productivity range may be slightly less for certain medical professions, including veterinary medicine.
After 40-50 hours a week, a worker will continue to be productive but not at the same rate as before. At the 65-hour mark, however, worker productivity goes south.
“At this point, we actually become negatively productive per hour,” Dr. Courtney said. “Your patients would be better off if you went home. By staying later, you are more likely to make mistakes, you are more likely to cause harm. And when you come to work the next day, you are going to be less productive than you would have otherwise been.”
Chronic overwork is unsustainable. It negatively impacts practically every aspect of a person’s life, reducing the quantity and quality of sleep and contributing to feelings of stress and burnout, she said.
Merck Animal Health third veterinary well-being study, released earlier this year, indicated about half of veterinary support staff members report feelings of burnout, compared with nearly one-third of veterinarians.
AVMA data from 2021 showed 44% of veterinarians have at some point considered leaving the veterinary profession. Moreover, 39% of veterinarians considered this within the past five years.
So what’s the evidence for increasing productivity by working less? Dr. Courtney cited a 2005 report by the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues that found owners and associates who worked part time—less than 2,000 hours per year—averaged more transactions and gross revenue per hour than those who worked more than 2,000 hours annually. Additionally, a 2011 study found that dental offices that reduced working hours by 6.25% saw an 8% increase in the number of patients treated.
Dr. Courtney reminded attendees that a healthy work-life balance doesn’t happen organically but requires deliberate action and sustained commitment. She suggested prioritizing your time according to your values—that is, the things most important to you, such as spending time with friends and family, exercising, and hobbies.
Block off time for these priorities in your calendar. A little is fine at first, then gradually increase the time. “You’re not going to go from an 80-hour workweek to a 40-hour workweek overnight,” she said.
She also suggested identifying ways to save time. For instance, hire high school students to clean the kennels or a service to clean the clinic after hours—anything to free up time for team members and make their work life a little easier.
“I’m not telling every person to change what they’re doing,” Dr. Courtney said. “If you’re feeling good, don’t change anything. But do check in with your team because they may not be, and they may feel like it’s not OK to rest.”