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I think I’ve identified one of the biggest losses that has been an unintended side effect of the current staffing crisis which has also inadvertently compounded the problem too; this is the loss of buffer or slack time.

This week I was watching a cartoon on the TV when I realised that it exactly matched what is happening in the profession at the moment. In the cartoon, the drive for efficiency caused the cutting of slack time and buffers that the team had built into their jobs and instead they were run ragged and became exhausted and non-productive. They then had no capacity to fight the zombie aliens when they came calling. Does this sound familiar? Perhaps read Frenchie breeders for zombie aliens. This situation is so cliché that a cartoon has been made about it yet the vet profession is late to the party. Combined with the current staff shortages and the universal increase in workloads, no wonder so many vets and nurses are reporting feeling burnt out.

How many hours can you fit in the day?

By the loss of buffer time, I don’t mean the loss of legally required breaks but the slack periods in the day when you could chat with the team and form bonds, do a little reading and research for cases, or potentially even leave the practice and walk the dog. It would be great to be able to have legally mandated minimum breaks but in reality these are not enough. Human brains are not made to be running high processor-capacity programs at full speed for 10 hours a day. We need slack periods, buffer periods. These are vital; it is not wasted time. They are the times when we can prepare for a change of focus or mental state or to recharge for the next task.

We are also guilty of doing it to ourselves by trying to cram 5 days of work into 4 days in the name of ‘work-life balance’. But does this really work when it is 4 long days, often of 10 to 11 hours? It has been shown conclusively that days longer than 8 hours cause a reduction in productivity and are detrimental to our health in the long-term.

Buffer time is needed for

  • Down-time and reset the mind to refocus on a new task and mentally prepare. Attention residue means your mind is still working on the last task no matter how much you focus on your new one.
  • Adjustment in emotional state between tasks e.g. a  euthanasia to puppy consult
  • Allowing for the unexpected – how long do you think a dental treatment takes? It is a piece of string, unless two stage process that may reduce the uncertainties. A buffer period allows tasks to keep roughly to schedule. We don’t want to keep Mrs Miggins waiting for her consultation.
  • Connection with colleagues and building the team feeling.
  • Avoiding time-shortness anxiety.
  • Reducing rushing which is more likely to lead to errors.
  • Capacity to cope with the unexpected.

Buffer time is not

  • Admin time for calling clients, chasing results, writing notes, etc.
  • Break times.
  • Useful if not needed. Industrious staff will always find something useful to do in the time if they need to and have the physical and mental capacity to give more.

Buffer time is vital and is not wasted; it is valuable to manage unexpected events and to support mental and physical health of staff. If you don’t think you have time to factor in buffer time for your teams, then think again; you may not realise it, but you may be costing more time when people don’t get a reset period. We need to take care that in drives for efficiency to improve the current staff shortages, that our slack periods are not completely removed. The effect is likely to be hugely detrimental and burnout will be just around the corner.