The Science Behind Pharmacist Burnout Is Scary: Here Is What to Do About It


Experts are finding, though, that burnout doesn't limit its impact to the workplace. It also impacts parts of your life that extend well beyond the pharmacy.

Herbert Freudenberger had seen burnout first-hand.

The German-born psychologist survived the Holocaust and moved to the United States. as a child. He spent his adult life alternating between his private practice and his work with young drug addicts.

It wasn’t until the condition invaded his personal life that he sought to find the cause.

Freudenberger’s family was preparing for a vacation to California in the 1970s, and he found himself stuck in bed unable to move. He knew something was wrong, so he sought to self-analyze and discover the problem by speaking into a voice recorder and analyzing his own thoughts.

He recalled in his voice recordings that he didn’t know how to have fun or be joyful. He reported being fatigued and stressed and not very pleasant to live with. He was like the young addicts in his New York clinic: they stared blankly into space while the cigarettes in their hands simply burned out.

Freudenberger discovered, and then gave a name to, the condition known as burnout.

In its simplest terms, burnout refers to professional exhaustion. It’s a condition in which the demands of a person’s job outpace the person’s ability to complete them and is most prevalent in careers that focus on caregiving: health care workers, teachers, and social workers.

By definition, the 3 key indicators of burnout are cynicism and detachment, overwhelming exhaustion, and a sense of dwindling personal accomplishment.

Experts are finding, though, that burnout doesn’t limit its impact to the workplace. It also impacts parts of your life that extend well beyond the pharmacy.

Burnout Rewires Your Brain

A Swedish study of people suffering from burnout symptoms found that the ability to regulate emotion was diminished in people suffering from chronic work stress. In other words, the burnout population had impaired brain function.

When certain groups of neurons are repeatedly engaged, in response to stress, for example, the brain seeks to work more efficiently, and those neurons begin to work in tandem. “The neurons that fire together wire together.”

In practical terms, this means your brain rewires itself to a sort of survival mode, and it becomes more difficult to access the part of the brain that deals with problem solving and perspective.

So it’s a vicious cycle: the more stressed you are, the harder it is to deal with future stressors in all aspects of life.

Burnout Invades Your Personal Life

When workplace demands exceed what pharmacists are able to accomplish during the day, many pharmacists take those demands home with them.

A 2015 study of family and work commitments found that, because pharmacists have finite physical and psychological resources, increased stress in one domain will worsen conflict across both domains. In other words, more stress at work will result in more stress at home, and vice versa.

Because burnout typically leads to depression, loss of enjoyment, and irritability, the condition can affect relationships well beyond the pharmacy. When relationships suffer, the pessimism and isolation often prompted by burnout can worsen, becoming a vicious cycle of cynicism and detachment.

Additionally, studies demonstrate that burnout is contagious among teachers and intensive care nurses, so it stands to reason that pharmacists, who are also focused on caregiving, could experience the same dynamic. When one person is burned out, other people pick up the slack and quickly find themselves overburdened and overwhelmed.

The same could certainly be true in a family setting: when one member of the family must bear more of the burden for an extended period of time, entire families are impacted.

Burnout Affects Your Health

Multiple studies have demonstrated burnout’s correlation to psychosomatic illnesses. Furthermore, employees who demonstrate symptoms of burnout are more likely to have psychological as well as physical health problems.

The American Institute of Stress reports that 62% of employees end the workday with neck pain, 44% with eye fatigue, 38% with hand pain, and 34% with difficulty sleeping.

The Problem Isn’t You… But the Problem Is Yours

Burnout is estimated to cost $125 to $190 billion in health care spending -- not to mention the cost of missed days, lack of productivity and employee turnover.

Employees aren’t the problem, though.

A 2011 study of burnout in community pharmacists found that the problem is organizational: an overburdening of the most capable employees.

Whether you are a supervisor of other employees at risk for burnout, or you are advocating for your own well-being, you must take steps to avoid, or recover from, burnout.

The American Pharmacists Association suggests talking to your supervisor about your workload or seeking new responsibilities if you find yourself in a rut. I realize that this suggestion is hardly applicable after speaking with hundreds of burned out pharmacists. In more extreme cases, burnout may require a vacation, a prolonged leave of absence from your job, or a change of jobs altogether.

Realize that you have options available; don’t allow yourself to succumb to the idea that you’re stuck. Be willing to consider a different job or even a different kind of job, even if it’s outside the typical pharmacy route.

The best time to find a new job is while you already have one, so keep your mind open to the possibilities.

If you haven’t already, join The Happy PharmD community to learn about other pharmacists who have taken their careers, their finances, and most importantly their well-being into their own hands by seeking gratifying work.

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