It recently popped up on my timeline that I’d been at Blue Cross for a whole year – and two things instantly happened! First, the thought: I’ve no idea how that happened so quickly! Then secondly, I received messages congratulating me and asking me how it’s going?
Which is a very good question. After those busy first months of getting to know the role, then the next phase incorporating that learning into leading – one year on is a great time to stop and reflect. So I thought I’d share some of my experiences in my first year as Director of Veterinary Services at Blue Cross.
For me, taking over the veterinary service at Blue Cross came right at one of the most testing periods of our lifetime, for society in general and animal charities in particular: just out of the pandemic; into further crisis from the war in Ukraine; then straight into the ongoing cost of living crisis.
For the veterinary industry, like many others, this prolonged period has been extremely intense and at times traumatic. Enforced public safety through social distancing meant significant change to ways of working: from traditional models of working in teams; animals being brought in by the clients; lots of contact with others – to an isolated, remote service which turned the traditional model on its head. To be honest, that layer upon layer of systematic change, without the chance to adjust properly, which at times felt almost like ‘death from a thousand cuts’, has been the backdrop to how and why our work has changed so considerably. For my first year at Blue Cross, this brought a backdrop of:
#1 the cost of living crisis
We’re aware from recent research that one of pet owners’ and pet guardians’ top concerns is about affording veterinary care, so the need for charity veterinary services is undeniable, particularly as the crisis continues. This demand puts significant pressure on all involved, from vets, nurses and support teams to veterinary leaders who need to balance a situation of having less money, but increased need for services. This may add to our strong sense of purpose but also brings uncertainty.
#2 Sector workforce crisis
When I joined Blue Cross, additional uncertainty came from what was described as a ‘sector workforce crisis’. Broadly, this stems from:
- After Brexit many European vets returned home and new veterinary industry registrations from European colleagues were impacted, meaning less staff available.
- Effects of the pandemic meant swathes of people leaving the profession, for reasons from career change to struggling with burn out.
- The narrative in the veterinary sector citing burn out, mental health crisis, the rise in suicides, related relentlessly in the sector press and presenting a real challenge to recruitment and retention.
All creating a situation where demand for services is rising, alongside less people working in the profession, with talent pools for recruitment diminishing and lots of unfilled vacancies – including at key roles at leadership level. This backdrop wasn’t specific to Blue Cross or the veterinary charity sector, but throughout the veterinary sector, presenting an extremely testing time.
#3 Expanding affordable vet care
Additionally, with the need clearly on the horizon, we had ambitions to expand affordable vet care quickly. Running a veterinary service is probably the most expensive part of the charity – costs of staffing, drugs, equipment, the rates of the hospitals – costs are huge, making the immediate challenge enormous. However, it was immediately necessary to create plans and strategies which respond to need, asking ‘how can I expand and do more with the money we’ve got?’
The other context here is the fact that Blue Cross doesn’t ‘just’ do veterinary services. With rehoming, behaviour, pet loss support, the national pet food bank initiative and supporting pets in Ukraine, the charity’s many ways to help means high demand for resources, which adds challenge to knowing where to prioritise.
Against this testing backdrop, my first planning phase meant focusing on the people at Blue Cross. After all, people are the heart of any organisation – without them, plans just aren’t worth the paper they’re written on! As I was acutely aware of what was happening in the wider sector and society, it was imperative for me to listen and really try to understand where the veterinary teams were.
So, I started a series of ‘back to the floor days’ which involved working alongside teams, as part of the team, gaining insights not only into how the veterinary service works but, more importantly, how its teams work and how people in those teams feel, particularly about the changes implemented over recent years. Significantly, I wanted to inform myself about the impact future decisions might have.
To date I’ve probably now experienced most roles in the service, which I’ll share in more detail in separate blogs! What’s important to share now though is that these days are super-insightful and I would highly recommend them to anybody who works in a leadership role.
From people to plans
These early insights gained from the service and its people inspired me in creating structure. One significant revelation was, from the chaos of the pandemic, many more people working remotely had created various working groups and different work streams. Although everyone was working hard, with the fresh eyes of an observer I could see a lot of duplicated effort. Achieving some structure meant getting people working on the right things, to ‘stay in their lanes’ and allow those with the right expertise, knowledge and skills to work effectively. That phrase really describes what I want people to do, so we set it up.
Alongside, and also arising from the pandemic, was the brutal truth that we’d lost a lot of efficiencies. Necessary changes for social distancing created incredibly inefficient ways of working and I felt many skills in running things efficiently had been lost. Our fresh start made it timely to bring efficiency back and optimise veterinary services as a strong foundation for building up the service again.
From uncertainty to stability
After so much uncertainty and change in recent years, it was also important to me to create some stability for the veterinary service. Yes, it’s been hard in my first year not to come in and make the changes which might be quick wins or easy to achieve, but with everything that’s happened for both veterinary and charity industries – and the people within them – it just felt incredibly important to slow down a little bit.
After all, the pandemic resulted in super-fast changes from traditional to technological – we’d been installing new technologies and new systems in just weeks instead of the years it would normally have taken. Although great at the time, so much change in such a short space of time has an impact, so I really wanted to limit adding to that and instead add some stability.
Working well includes wellbeing
The desolate backdrop for wellbeing within the wider veterinary sector presented a challenge to getting people motivated and enjoying their work. For me, in my first year, ensuring people are ‘in the right place’ was a key thing and spending time with staff helped me to understand what that right place is.
This meant focusing on what we could do to make the workplace as enjoyable as possible, to feel that it’s a good place to work. Although we can’t control what happens on social media or in the news, what we can do is work efficiently, get people home on time, and give people breaks on time. Then, despite our busy working environment and the sector’s negative narratives, can we create a safe space where people can speak up and have an opportunity to talk about how they want to work? For me the answer was yes, we probably can, so let’s focus on what we can do.
Veterinary services focus on the future
Within the whirl of the first year, I also focused on the future. Because Blue Cross is a really rich and diverse charity with plenty going on, I wanted to discover how veterinary services might add value to its other services too. This involved visiting rehoming centres to understand how they work, visiting many different pet food banks and learning about our behavioural, education, and pet loss services. This discovery phase has helped me to understand how these services work within the charity, and also consider how veterinary services might support them in the future.
Now and next
After a year of being head down in the job and cracking on with that ever-expanding to-do list, it’s been good to stop and reflect on where we are now and what comes next. The strong focus on people and organisational culture across the year now drives a culture of wellbeing, which has resulted in us filling many vacant positions. Although there will always be roles which remain challenging to recruit, we’ve successfully attracted people from other parts of the veterinary sector, through investing a lot of time, resources and money into our teams.
Developing affordable pet care is now underway, with our national veterinary care fund to help people struggling to pay their vet bills. As Blue Cross don’t have hospitals everywhere in the UK, setting up this fund helps to support pet owners more widely across the UK. I’m excited to be involved in this, so please check back for updates!
But across the year, the biggest achievement I see is creating key working groups, of people with the right skills, expertise and focus ‘in their lanes’ and on track to grow strong and successful in the coming year. We now have a network of these within the veterinary service, with 3 strong work streams:
- Veterinary operations team – who focus on efficiency and service optimisation, making us leaner, working smarter not harder, to help as many pets as we possibly can with the money we have, an important challenge in the current financial crisis.
- Our veterinary strategy group – who are investigating new veterinary service models, systems and technologies. These evolve at an alarming pace and it’s really difficult to not get left behind as the veterinary industry can be slow to adapt, but we’re seeing great opportunities.
- Veterinary standards group – whose focus is the concept of cost-conscious, welfare-focused veterinary medicine, to ensure we’re putting our foot in the ground with charity expertise whilst ensuring optimum quality.
These working groups are fantastic because we’ve got representatives across teams coming together regularly to look at some of the problems we’re facing and how to solve them. Because if this year has taught me anything, it’s that I honestly do believe that the solutions for the problems will come from everybody in a real collaborative effort. By creating these spaces where people can come together and share their expertise, we’re also creating a really strong foundation for the future.
In all, we’ve already achieved a huge amount of work but it remains crucial to continue this culture of work and investment in people. To do that, we’re now actively expanding our services, both through our veterinary care funds and through developing veterinary services to collaborate more with other services within the charity, and potentially with other charities also. And of course, developing our use of new systems and technologies supports both expansion and our efficiency, so we can help as many people and pets as possible with the resources that we have!
So into year 2 and there’s lots to do, but I’m feeling hugely positive about the future. Blue Cross is a fantastic charity, it’s a great place to work and I’m really excited to see what we can achieve.
Dr Paul Manktelow is a vet who’s worked for almost 20 years on the front line in some of the UK’s busiest veterinary hospitals. As Chief Vet in the Charity Sector, he leads a team of vets and nurses that treat thousands of pets every year. Paul also appears regularly in the media as a TV and radio presenter, writer, public speaker and podcast producer.