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.
I spoke with a pharmacist the other day who told me her job was messing up her life.
Her favorite pharmacy tech was being transferred to another location, and she was convinced that her manager didn’t understand the implications for her or the pharmacy.
Pharmacists, especially those in a retail setting, are feeling the pressure. Burnout is happening at higher and higher rates and the result is low productivity and high turnover. Pharmacists in any community setting will confirm they are incredibly busy, extremely distracted, and they often don’t have time to take a break or even use the bathroom. The long-term result is a loss of talent.
In the face of these circumstances, some businesses callously suggest that the pharmacists themselves carry the blame for burnout because they don’t handle pressure well.
To me, that thought is appalling. I would argue that if you put any pharmacist in a community store with a requirement to fill more than 400 prescriptions a day with the help of only one pharmacy tech, over the span of 5, 10, 20, or 30 years, you will create a burned-out pharmacist.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that these pharmacists successfully completed the PharmD degree, which requires 4 years of stressful professional work in addition to the undergraduate requirements. It’s a huge accomplishment, and that level of perseverance suggests that working in a pharmacy should be no problem for pharmacists.
Unfortunately, I would argue that it’s the work environment that has created burnout in more than 50% of practicing pharmacists. There are exceptions to this, of course, but it isn’t a certain niche of pharmacy that is experiencing the burnout. It’s the profession as a whole.
Beth Lofgren wrote a piece for Pharmacy Times about how many times she was distracted in a single day while working in a hospital setting. She recorded more than 150 distractions in one day, including ringing phones, personal conversations, busy doorways, background music, and out-of-stock medications.
In fact, a University of California study found that it takes workers an average of 25 minutes to return to an original task after distraction.
Unfortunately, pharmacists are barraged with distractions. Within the health care industry, they may have the most distracting job of all. The danger, of course, is that distraction can cause fatigue, and fatigue can reduce efficiency, resulting in a failure to complete all the day’s requirements.
Think of multitasking as a single drop of water falling on a rock. One drop of water will leave no visible marks on the stone, but hundreds of drops a week will eventually wear a hole in the rock. In the same way, multiple distractions in a day lead to decision fatigue: a deteriorating quality of decisions that results from long sessions of decision-making. In the wake of such fatigue, simple decisions such as what to eat for dinner become overwhelming.
David Meyer, in a University of Michigan study, found that switching tasks midstream increases the time required to finish both tasks by 25%.
Furthermore, a study in England revealed that task-switching in pharmacies can lead to dispensing errors, which affects both pharmacist and patient.
The multitasking problem is a system issue rather than a personal issue, and it leads to pharmacist burnout.
High Demands and Insufficient Time
Pharmacists constantly tell me they are being asked to do more work with fewer resources. Stated another way, they don’t know how to meet their managers’ demands because they haven’t been given the means to do so.
Pharmacists have extremely high demands on their time and their decisions. The priorities in one day often exceed the time needed to complete them, so sometimes high-priority tasks are neglected for lower-priority tasks. The result could mean compromised patient care.
Lack of Training
Pharmacists on the front lines are often told what to do by management without being given a viable plan of action. One pharmacist told me she had more cases than she could humanly handle within one day. With no plan of action, it was impossible to do all that was required of her.
As a result, she was constantly behind in her work and fearful of losing her job.
Lack of Connection to Company
I’ve never met a single pharmacist who absolutely loved his company: a pharmacist who was able to state the company’s vision statement and core values. I know they exist, but there aren’t many of them.
Pharmacists who don’t feel connected to their company often feel alienated from the company’s larger purpose. They aren’t able to identify with the company’s larger, altruistic mission and they aren’t able to see how they fit within that purpose. Without that purpose for their job, they feel distant, which ultimately leads to a negative company culture.
What Burnout Feels Like
Can you blame pharmacists for being negative at work? There are numerous demands on their time and countless ways for them to feel as though they are failing. They feel naturally pessimistic. They are frequently yelled at by patients, doctors, nurses, and managers. They never win and they never feel as though they can get ahead. Pharmacists are victim to an endless raid on their attention and ultimately, they feel trapped.
What Pharmacists Can Do
According to a 2004 survey by David A. Mott of the University of Wisconsin, almost 70% of pharmacists surveyed experienced job stress and role overload. If you’ve read this far and you can relate to feeling burned out, I hope you don’t blindly accept this as your ultimate fate.
Instead, I hope you’ll choose to change your attitude in the face of difficult circumstances. You have the power to change things, and you can potentially change the world. You can write a book or start a business or change jobs.
I invite you to sign up for my ongoing classes about breaking free from a burned-out job.
Joel Goh of the Harvard Business School estimates that burnout in the workplace costs $125 billion a year in healthcare costs, and results in 120,000 deaths a year. Because employees spend a third of their day at work, it makes sense that companies and employees address the effects of burnout sooner rather than later.
You’re intelligent. You have potential. Your company’s work environment shouldn’t prevent you from living life to the fullest, nor should it determine your worth. Neither should a pessimistic viewpoint keep you from finding work that you love.