Study: Fair pay, appreciation for work top factors in employee retention

AAHA's study and accompanying white paper offer solutions for keeping veterinary staff members

Updated March 4, 2024

The average annual turnover rate among veterinary team members is 23% and increasing each year, Garth Jordan, CEO of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), told AVMA News.

It’s no wonder, then, that retention has become a critical topic for veterinary practices, as reducing employee turnover benefits employers and employees alike. Not only is it more cost-effective to retain current employees than to recruit new ones, but also by investing in employee retention, practices can create a more positive work environment that encourages valuable talent to stay.

To improve employee retention in veterinary practices, managers must understand the primary drivers of both attrition and retention, Jordan said.

A dot chart from the AAHA study showing retention and attrition factors
This chart from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) study, “Stay, Please: Factors that Support Retention and Drive Attrition in the Veterinary Profession,” represents how individuals in clinical practice value different influences when deciding to stay or leave their position. The further to the right a factor lands, the more it drives attrition. The closer a factor lands to the top, the stronger a retention driver it is. (Images courtesy of AAHA)

“In other words, it’s not enough to stop pushing people out, we must also create practice ‘stickiness,’” he said.

AAHA released its study, “Stay, Please: Factors that Support Retention and Drive Attrition in the Veterinary Profession,” on February 16 in response to mounting workplace challenges in veterinary medicine, particularly those related to employee turnover. The study is available to download online.

“The results of the research outline clear solutions—for the whole team, as well as by role—to help individual practices and our industry at large work toward significant improvements in employee retention,” Jordan said.

Survey results

More than 133,000 email invitations for the survey were sent between March 10 to March 30, 2023. The survey gathered responses from more than 14,000 individuals working in various roles within small animal practice, a 10.8% response rate. Roles included veterinarians as well as credentialed veterinary technicians, practice managers, customer service representatives, and veterinary assistants.

Those in clinical practice were asked if they planned to stay or leave and why. Respondents also were asked to give the top three factors for why they are staying in clinical practice. Those who had left clinical practice, about 2,000 of the respondents, were asked if they would consider returning or not and why. The results are as follows:

  • Thirty percent of surveyed veterinary professionals currently in clinical practice say they plan to leave their current position within the next year.
  • Fifteen percent of surveyed veterinary professionals say they plan move out of clinical practice within the next year.
  • Nine out of 10 of the 15% who say they plan to move out of clinical practice within the next year say they wouldn’t anticipate returning to clinical practice once they leave.

The actual likelihood of respondents leaving their position is uncertain, as it depends on factors such as position, pay, and age, which were not broken out by category in the AAHA survey.

Results from the Merck Animal Health 2023 Veterinary Team Wellbeing Study II showed that veterinarians and hospital administrators were more satisfied with their jobs than the general population or other veterinary clinic staff types. Also, nearly 60% of the veterinary team members surveyed, not including veterinarians, feel unsatisfied with their income and financial situations. In fact, 68% ranked compensation as the single biggest challenge for this group.

Meanwhile, the 2023 Merck Animal Health Veterinarian Wellbeing Study IV, which only involved veterinarians, showed that fewer than 2.5% of practicing veterinarians under age 55 are very likely to leave veterinary medicine within two years. Although this number increases to 15% for those 65 and older, retirement is the most likely reason for leaving in that age group.

Factors leading to attrition, retention

The AAHA survey also looked at targeted factors to reduce attrition and improve retention.

For what makes people want to stay, teamwork, modern medicine, and meaningful work were rated highest, with fair compensation, job flexibility, and appreciation for work rounding out the top six.

For employees planning to leave their current clinical practice for another practice, specific factors that must change for them become a higher priority. The top three attrition-reducing factors were fair compensation, appreciation for work, and career development.

The Veterinary Hierarchy of Needs pyramid from the AAHA study
The purple base of the Veterinary Hierarchy of Needs from the AAHA study is almost entirely about showing people they are valued. When someone feels like an integral part of a team, their sense of belonging at work grows, as does their attachment to the job.

A white paper accompanying the study presents two proposed strategies for practices trying to improve retention: a holistic approach and a role-based perspective.

The holistic approach considers a combination of both the practice's operations and fundamental needs of team members. The second strategy focuses on specific factors influencing individuals’ decisions, by role, to stay or leave. This approach is recommended for practices that want to narrow their focus on the roles with the greatest statistical risk of attrition or those grappling with high turnover in specific positions.

“Different roles can have wildly different objectives and perspectives,” according to the authors of the white paper. “For instance, veterinarians likely entered the field for much different reasons than customer service representatives. The motivations influencing one team member’s decision to stay likely are different from those of the person next to them, especially when considering the perspectives of owners versus employees.”

Leadership sets the culture

One way veterinary leadership can help increase engagement and retention, is to help employees “reimagine their jobs” by transforming the work they do into the job they want, Dr. Wendy Hauser, founder and president of Peak Veterinary Consulting, told AVMA News.

“When hospital leaders allow team members to have input and autonomy in aligning their daily responsibilities to what is meaningful to them, employee workplace satisfaction and engagement increases,” she commented.

Private practice tends to lack defined developmental opportunities, explained Dr. Hauser, who is also the AAHA delegate to the AVMA House of Delegates.

“Due to the lack of differentiation within positions, there is no incentive to develop new competencies. The perception that their efforts make a difference decreases, job satisfaction declines, and turnover increases,” she said.

Creating a workplace where team members feel valued and want to stay is not one size fits all. Different roles can have varied objectives and perspectives. The motivations behind one team member’s decision to stay are likely different from those of their colleague.

Keeping talent in the workplace

Retention is the new recruitment, says Josh Vaisman, lead positive change agent at Flourish Veterinary Consulting LLC.

“With even a cursory glance at the research literature, two things are abundantly clear; teams that stay together perform better, and the key to retention is workplace experience,” he told AVMA News.

Research conducted by Flourish Veterinary Consulting supports the idea that compensation matters to veterinary professionals, and their daily lived experience at work matters even more.

Jordan agrees, saying, “It’s not enough to attract great talent to our ecosystem, we have to keep people engaged, happy, and flourishing to continue bringing smart, caring people into our field.”

The AVMA has more information about the retention of veterinary professionals.