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Kathleen Gannon Longo is a Contributing Editor.
What does and doesn’t work for pharmacists trying to improve their working conditions.
Work hours can be long for pharmacists working in a retail or hospital setting. As an employee, a pharmacist may feel that he or she is stuck with whatever hours or shifts that management gives them. But it doesn’t need to be that way.
Pharmacists need to realize that they hold the power when negotiating for better hours, says Alex Barker, PharmD, founder of The Happy PharmD, which provides motivational career counseling to pharmacists in all practice settings. “The more indispensable you are, the more likely you are to have a major bargaining chip when negotiating,” says Barker.
Whether a pharmacist is looking to reduce long days and overtime, or to realign their current hours to meet personal needs, they must justify their request by providing information that will demonstrate how the requested revision will benefit the organization, he says. “Simply going to a manager or director and asking for a change in hours is a poor approach.”
Take for example, a pharmacist who works five days a week, and on three of those days he spends an extra two hours earning overtime, says Barker. That pharmacist can ask to officially be assigned those extra working hours on those three days, and in return, eliminate one day from his workweek.
One argument should be: The pharmacist would be saving the retail store-or hospital-a significant amount of money by absorbing those extra hours at the overtime rate into their regular pay scale.
Another argument that can be made: “In some cases, the extra hours could be a justification for letting a store or a clinic remain open later in the evening,” says Barker.
Barker describes a pharmacy client who wanted to work more days, but fewer hours each day. “She positioned the negotiation in such a way that if she worked more days, she could provide coverage during the busy hours of the store.” In the end, she didn’t get the exact arrangement she wanted, but it was close enough to satisfy both parties, he says.
Beyond the benefits of reduced overtime pay or better hours, pharmacists should look for a correlation between patient safety and the requested work schedule, as that is always an issue that weighs on managers’ minds, Barker says.
For example, the pharmacist in the previous scenario could have argued that having more pharmacists on hand during busy hours would reduce the likelihood of dispensing errors.
Anna Legreid Dopp, PharmD, director of clinical guidelines and quality improvement at ASHP, agrees that pointing to patient safety and patient care is important when discussing work hours. She suggests providing data that validates the positive effects on patient care and patient safety that such a change would provide.
But, where pharmacy hours are concerned, she noted that some pharmacists thrive on the extra hours and aren’t necessarily looking for a reduction.
Look Outside Your Pharmacy
Barker notes that unions representing pharmacists can be a resource for pharmacists in negotiating hours. In dealing through a union, pharmacists should remember that unions generally want things to be fair, so if you’re part of a large organization, look around and see what other pharmacists may have that you don’t. “For example, how are other hospitals handling pharmacists’ schedules?” he offers.
But it’s important to consider that “every union rep is going to be different and some may fight harder than others,” Barker added.
Safety is an issue among the 700 pharmacy staff members represented by Illinois-based Teamsters Local 727. The membership includes retail pharmacists, chain pharmacists, students, interns, and graduate students.
“A chain pharmacist may be forced to work at least one 12-hour shift a week, and pharmacists find it difficult, if not impossible, with their current work flow to take a break,” says a spokesperson for the union, noting that this raises safety concerns.
"In any bargaining situation, having members stand strong and demand a change is important,” says the spokesperson. Beyond that, “Legislative intervention would even the playing field by requiring all retailers to do the same thing and impose penalties [for noncompliance].”
Find Power in Numbers
At 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, which represents healthcare workers in Florida, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington, DC, representative Lauren Vallone is involved in collective bargaining negotiations with the more than 2,000 hospital and retail pharmacists represented in the union. Vallone agrees with Barker in that negotiating may often involve reducing a workweek or, in some cases, adding days to a workweek.
“It can be an issue of age,” Vallone says. Longer 12-hour days may be more difficult for the older worker, whereas a younger member of the pharmacy workforce may find such a schedule to be good.
Vallone has found that in most of the collective bargaining sessions in which she has participated, “the members get what they need.” In addition to negotiating hours, the union has negotiated issues such as how many flu shots a pharmacist can administer and still be expected to safely fill the required number of prescriptions.
Nationwide Initiative Is Promising
ASHP has recently made a commitment to supporting the well-being of the pharmacy workforce and reducing burnout, which can stem from working long hours.
The organization is leading the pharmacy effort associated with the National Academy of Medicine’s Action Collaborative on Clinician Well-Being and Resilience, which addresses the serious consequences of burnout among healthcare providers.
“We feel it can benefit both pharmacists and patients and can help pharmacists to feel their best and do their best,” says Aretha Hankinson, director of advocacy communications at ASHP.
For hospital pharmacists, stress and burnout on the job can be caused by internal and external factors, says Christina Martin, PharmD, MS, director of membership forums at ASHP. External factors can include personal elements such as family issues or personal financial situations. Internal factors can include long hours leading to stress, onerous rules and regulations, increased oversight, inspections, audits, high employee turnover, and drug shortages.
“The goal of the initiative is to raise awareness of these issues, provide the education, and get the discussion going on the organizational level,” says Dopp.
Overall, pharmacists should never be afraid to ask for different work hours, says Barker. “The worst thing that could happen is a manager will say “No’. There is little or no consequence that comes from asking, and if you’re rejected, it doesn’t mean you’ll be rejected the next time.”