Q&A: How to Manage Burnout in the Pharmacy

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“The more we share our experiences and stories and work together as a profession, the more we can come together to support each other and form solutions,” said Joanna Lewis, PharmD, MBA, wellness writer and advocate, on overcoming burnout in the pharmacy.

For years, a relentless tide of burnout—characterized by physical and mental exhaustion, reduced workplace performance, and frequent feelings of cynicism, anger, or irritability—has been battering pharmacists. More than half of pharmacists are experiencing the workplace phenomenon,1 which surged during the COVID-19 pandemic alongside increased workloads, staffing shortages, and fear of infection, and has since remained prevalent. Against such staggering numbers, a crucial question emerges: how can pharmacists reclaim their well-being?

Burnt out matchstick / foto_tech - stock.adobe.com

Burnt out matchstick / foto_tech - stock.adobe.com

By prioritizing self-care, establishing work-life boundaries, and leaning on support systems, it can be done, according to wellness writer and advocate Joanna Lewis, PharmD, MBA. “The needle is starting to move in the profession,” she says, with more pharmacists speaking out about burnout and the issue gaining greater recognition by national organizations. Although the profession is far from perfect, opportunities exist to promote pharmacists’ mental and physical health. With ongoing efforts and a collaborative approach, the tide of burnout can recede.

READ MORE: Who is Taking Care of Pharmacists?

Drug Topics: What are the earliest warning signs of burnout pharmacists should be aware of, both physically and emotionally?

Joanna Lewis, PharmD, MBA: First of all, thank you for having me today! I am honored to talk about burnout and how we can take care of our career well-being.

Burnout can manifest in the body in many ways. I like to think of it as stress that has gone unchecked for too long—and we see a lot of the same symptoms that we’d see in the fight or flight response. When stress becomes chronic, burnout happens.

While burnout can look a little different for everyone, some of the hallmark signs are exhaustion, irritability, insomnia, becoming more cynical in the workplace, and reduced work performance.

Drug Topics: In a pharmacy setting where delegation may be limited, what are some practical strategies pharmacists can use to manage their workload and avoid feeling overwhelmed?

Lewis: If you are working face-to-face with patients, managing expectations is key. Don’t over-promise and tell them a prescription will be ready in 15 minutes when it’s going to be an hour. If you are working directly with nurses, physicians, and other health care professionals, communicate to them realistic time frames. Of course, there will always be emergencies that we need to prioritize, but I find that when I’m upfront with people about what I can do, I’m not as stressed, and people are more patient.

This may sound a little woo-woo to some people, but another thing I do is take time for gratitude. There can be a lot of negative interactions throughout the day, and as humans, we tend to focus on those more than positive moments. A negative mindset can quickly take over but if I check myself and find a couple things to be grateful for each day, my mood and energy will shift, which makes the work day much more enjoyable!

The needle is starting to move in our profession. We’re starting to get more breaks, lunch, etc, and the more that happens (and the more we can support each other), I believe pharmacists will also feel more empowered to set realistic boundaries.

Drug Topics: Self-care is crucial for preventing burnout. How can pharmacists realistically incorporate stress-relieving activities into their schedule, even with demanding work hours?

Lewis: First, I like to think of self-care as a multiplier of time. When we take time for ourselves—whether it is 10 minutes to food prep or 30 minutes of yoga—we build energy and focus. That energy gets channeled to our other activities.

I also know that after a long day at work, one of the last things someone wants to do is exercise. But physical activity is one of the greatest ways to manage stress and take care of our bodies. For me, the best way to ensure that I move is to plan ahead. I don’t wait until I’m tired from a long day. I either exercise before work or right after. And on the days that I just can’t fit it in, I will park further away and walk more when I can. Those little moments of movement add up!

Some other great activities are journaling at the end of the day (dump out everything that is bothering you), meditating or focusing on breathing for a few minutes each day, and spending time with your family, friends or pets. I even find the ritual of skin care at the end of a long day to be soothing. The point is, find 1 or 2 things that calm you and are good for you!

Drug Topics: How can pharmacists “leave work at work” and establish healthy boundaries between work and personal life?

Lewis: This is a hard one, especially in the age of smart phones and technology. I don’t have my work email on my phone. Most pharmacists I know are very self-motivated and want to be available for their patients, but I find that with a little practice they can step back a little and leave work at work. For example, we don’t always need to be on call. Figuring out what’s driving the need to be always available and addressing that is a good place to start.

I also know some people who have a little ritual to signal to their brain that work is over. Some examples of this are making a list of outstanding tasks, playing a song, or even taking a walk around the block (or to your car).

Drug Topics: Are there any resources or support groups that are specifically geared towards pharmacists experiencing burnout?

Lewis: As far as resources, I know that some of our national organizations are starting to offer more courses and training. I also find that the more we share our experiences and stories and work together as a profession, the more we can come together to support each other and form solutions.

Sometimes, we need extra help and that is absolutely okay! Therapists, online communities, and even career coaches can be a good way for us to find that healthy balance between regular stress and burnout.

READ MORE: Mental and Behavioral Health Resource Center

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References
1. Dee J, Dhuhaibawi N, Hayden JC. A systematic review and pooled prevalence of burnout in pharmacists. Int J Clin Pharm. 2023;45(5):1027-1036. doi:10.1007/s11096-022-01520-6
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