What Rats and Burnout Can Teach Pharmacists About Job Transition

MARCH 08, 2018
Pharmacists are exposed to increasing job stress in a healthcare system that is growing more complicated by the day, and we’re confining them to what amounts to a small box where they largely work alone. Why does that matter?

A 2008 study of stress and drug addiction found that highly stressful situations and chronic stress increase the vulnerability to drug addiction. Specifically, repeated exposure to highly emotional, uncontrollable, and unpredictable events increase the likelihood of developing an addiction, and a higher 'dose' of stress leads to a higher likelihood of addiction.

Certainly community pharmacists meet the criteria for high-stress jobs. Couple that with a 1970s-era study of rats and cocaine, which determined that rats were far more likely to self-administer cocaine when they were left alone in a box without the ability to socialize with other rats or keep themselves amused. Conversely, when rats were placed in a rat park with access to other rats and toys for amusement, the rats were less likely to self-administer the drug, even though it was just as readily available. The opportunity to socialize made the cocaine less appealing.

So imagine again the community pharmacist working alone, filling prescriptions for sometimes-demanding customers, and struggling with an impossible workload under the watchful eye of an overbearing manager. Remember, too, that the pharmacist has ready access to opioids at any given moment.

If it feels like a big leap to make, perhaps it is. The problem is that situations like these don’t develop instantly. They develop gradually over time. Circumstances change incrementally so that we almost don’t notice that it’s happening. If we have the conversation now, before the worst has happened, perhaps we can prevent it from happening at all.

When I was 21, I had my wisdom teeth removed. The doctor sent me home with Hydrocodone 5. It was my first exposure to pain meds, and I vividly remember the experience. I was watching Walker, Texas Ranger, and a friend was at my house playing computer games. Though I never particularly loved the show, I was a huge fan of the Chuck Norris mystique. 

While watching the show, I told my friend it was “the most fun I’ve ever had watching TV.” The opioids made an unremarkable activity feel remarkable, and I didn’t want it to end. Ever.

The whole situation was particularly concerning for me because I know can develop addiction problems when I enjoy something, I have a tendency to be infatuated with it. (My love of the TV show House of Cards led me to a 5-season binge because I didn’t want it to end.) 

I knew that putting myself in an environment with ready access to this medication would be tricky, and that it was best to avoid any situation that might cause me to falter, so I did. It’s why I decided against working in a community setting early in my career. I didn’t know what the future would hold for me, but I didn’t want to put myself in a situation where stress could lead to a temptation to take opioids.

Studies show that about 15% of healthcare professionals will misuse drugs or alcohol during their careers, (although other voluntary studies have put that number at 46%).
While that number mirrors the general population, the abuse itself will have far-reaching effects because the healthcare professionals are responsible for the care of others.

Pharmacists aren’t immune to addiction.

Given the societal shame and negativity assigned to those who abuse drugs, it’s not difficult to imagine that pharmacists who do fall into that trap would keep their behavior a secret. So what do you do if any of this applies to you? What do you do if you hate your job, and you feel powerless to change it, and you’re tired of feeling unhappy all the time?
  • Begin by acknowledging the situation, even to the extent that you share your struggles with your manager. Tell him about the stress you’re feeling and the thoughts it’s causing you to have.
  • Determine the aspects of your work that are causing great stress and figure out if there are things you can do to improve them. If additional training will allow your coworkers to help shoulder the load, arrange for the training.
  • Consider transitioning to part-time work to lower your stress level.
  • Change to another store that has different job responsibilities.
  • Remove yourself from the stressful environment completely, and find another job in a different industry.
If you find yourself having thoughts about using medication to make yourself feel better, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, decide today that you’re going to make a change. The path you’re on can lead you to life-altering decisions you’ll likely regret.

Burnout is a real threat to pharmacists and their careers.

Burnout creates health issues, disrupts families, and diminishes the effectiveness of pharmacists.
Whatever solution you choose, realize that you have options. It’s possible to transition to a different job to reduce your daily stress levels. It’s possible to find a job that fulfills you and improves your quality of life. It’s possible to change your financial situation in preparation to find work that pays less but provides more reward.

Sometimes, when you’re in the thick of the struggle, you can’t clearly see your options, but that’s why I’m here. I’ve helped pharmacists find fulfilling work and explore options they didn’t even know they had. I understand the job market, and I know how to help pharmacists move within the pharmacy industry as well as to transition out of it.
I built a 4-day online conference to accomplish this very goal.

The Happy PharmD Summit will feature more than 20 pharmacists from a variety of disciplines who will help you clarify your goals and uncover your options. The conference is absolutely free, and it will address financial concerns, career concerns, and transition concerns.

Maybe you need to talk with someone one-on-one. If career coaching seems like a better fit, I offer a complimentary session to pharmacists who are trying to determine where to go next in their careers. The initial session will include a series of probing questions designed to uncover your priorities and your values. You’ll leave the first session with a series of action steps, and an opportunity to continue with the program if we’re a good fit for one another.

No one ever wishes they had waited a little bit longer to find a better job. When you discover what’s out there, you’ll wonder why you waited so long.
A lot of people depend on you. You owe it to them, and to yourself, to protect yourself and your career.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to make positive changes. Begin right now.

Alex Barker, PharmD
Alex Barker, PharmD
Alex Barker is the founder of The Happy PharmD, which helps pharmacists create an inspiring career, break free from the mundane "pill-flipping" life. He is a Full-time Pharmacist, Media Company founder, franchise owner, Business Coach, Speaker, and Author. He's also the Founder of Pharmacy School HQ, which helps students get into pharmacy school and become residents.
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