Pharmacists were asked about their levels of burnout, drivers and symptoms of this burnout, and what steps their workplaces had taken to improve the issue.
Pharmacists reported high levels of burnout that were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the 2023 Pharmacy Times Burnout and Mental Health Survey.
In the survey, pharmacists were asked about their levels of burnout, drivers and symptoms of this burnout, and what steps their workplaces had taken to improve the issue. Of 194 respondents, 53.6% said they work in a community pharmacy chain, 27.3% work in a health system, 7.7% work in an independent community pharmacy, 7.7% work in a different environment, and 3.61% said they were not currently employed.
When asked to rate their feelings of burnout on a scale from 1 to 7, with 1 being “not at all” and 7 being “extremely,” the average score was 5.89. When asked how much they experienced burnout prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the score was significantly lower at 3.82. Furthermore, when asked to rate how much the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated feelings of burnout, respondents averaged a 6 out of 7.
After examining the results, burnout expert Jessica Louie, PharmD, APh, BCCCP, CEO and founder of The Burnout Doctor Method and Podcast, said there are ways for pharmacists and pharmacy staff to manage and address burnout.
“Focus on what you can control,” Louie said. “You can’t change that a stressful event occurs, but you can change how you interpret and respond to these events. Also, remember that burnout is more likely to occur during transitions in life, so control adding any additional stress to a transition phase in life.”
Feelings of burnout are a significant driver of understaffing, which in turn increases feelings of overwhelm and burnout among remaining staff. When asked whether burnout has contributed to understaffing at their facility, 75.8% of respondents said yes, whereas 13.9% answered no and 10.3% were unsure.
Workload was also the top answer when respondents were asked to list their key drivers of burnout. Respondents could select multiple drivers of burnout. The top 5 drivers were workload (21.7%), work/life balance (16.1%), challenging or unreasonable performance metrics (15.2%), management (14.3%), and high patient and prescription volumes (13.1%).
“I teach my community and clients to focus on burnout strategies that are within their own control,” Louie said. “This particularly relates to the response of work-life balance being the second driver of burnout.”
Respondents could also add drivers of their own. Some of these included frustration with coworkers, an emphasis from management on promotions rather than patient care, understaffing, challenges with payers, and feeling unheard or disrespected.
In addition to these drivers of burnout, respondents were also asked to select their key symptoms of burnout. The top 5 answers were irritability or impatience with colleagues, patients, or others (17.3%); lack of energy or productivity (12.1%); reluctance to get up and go to work each morning (11.6%); feelings of helplessness or defeat (11.3%); and decreased sense of accomplishment (11.2%). Other options included cynicism, sense of failure, inability to concentrate, and detachment.
Again, respondents could submit their own symptoms of burnout. These answers included isolation; mental health issues such as depression and anxiety; physical symptoms such as headaches and insomnia; and alcoholism.
“I found it interesting that no one mentioned financial stressors leading to burnout in the profession,” Louie commented. “With high student loan debt, I see many pharmacists struggling with financial stressors and feeling trapped to stay in a full-time position. Addressing financial health can be an important part of individual stress and burnout and something I talk about a lot within my community.”
All these issues with burnout have direct consequences for patient care, as well as pharmacists’ roles in health care. Despite growing responsibilities surrounding immunizations, point-of-care testing, and primary care, many pharmacists are finding themselves unable to perform those duties in addition to other required tasks. Although pharmacy technicians are increasingly able to fulfill roles with dispensing and other tasks, a shortage of technicians has made this difficult.
Regarding new responsibilities, respondents were asked to select whichever answer best applied to them. The most selected answer was “I want to take on new responsibilities but feel unable to due to my current workload” (63.4%), and the second most common answer was “I cannot possibly take on new responsibilities (25.8%). Just 7.7% of respondents said, “I am ready and able to take on new responsibilities,” and 3.09% chose other.
Some companies have taken steps to improve working conditions and alleviate burnout, with varying levels of success. When asked whether their company has taken measures to improve workplace conditions, such as dedicated time for lunch breaks or other measures, 52.6% said no and 39.2% said yes. Additionally, 8.2% of respondents were unsure whether their company has taken such measures.
When asked whether those steps were successful, 9.3% of respondents said their company has made efforts to improve conditions and they have been successful, whereas 40.7% said such efforts have not been effective.
“I’ve talked about how leaders can address burnout on my podcast before,” Louie said. “First, realize that burnout is not a simple problem to be solved and fixed overnight with a one-size-fits-all strategy. Second, realize that addressing burnout is a process similar to building up muscles in the fitness world. Burnout and well-being are processes—they are not conquered; they are reset.”
Louie added that it is important for leaders to allow team members to choose which types of professional development they invest in for their own well-being, because the one-size-fits-all approach is not effective for everyone. Finally, she said leaders should be role models for work/life alignment and healthy boundaries, such as not responding to emails outside of work hours and encouraging the use of time off or sick days.
“I’ve talked about ways to build resilience on my podcast before,” Louie concluded. “My top 2 pieces of advice are to invest in yourself and move toward your goals—that means making sure you have clear goals to work toward. Brainstorm your goals for the next 2 to 5 years [and] reverse engineer them into a yearly goal, a quarterly goal, monthly goal, [and] weekly goal. Celebrate small wins in the process. Work is part of our life—not our whole life.”