How pharmacists are coping under immense pressure

Dale Richardson MPS administering his first COVID-19 vaccine on the NSW Central Coast

From back-to-back boosters to constant queries about rapid antigen tests (RATs), pharmacists are under more strain than ever. So Australian Pharmacist has some tips from psychological experts to help cope with the chaos.

On the New South Wales Central Coast, Dale Richardson MPS says the situation at his pharmacy, which began administering the COVID-19 vaccine to children aged 5–11 last week, is ‘very challenging’.

‘A lot of staff have been either sick with COVID-19 or are household contacts who need to isolate,’ he said.

‘It’s very draining. When I went home on Saturday after work I [felt] more tired than I have in a long time.’

Other pharmacy staff also feel the pressure, which isn’t helped by the demands of some patients.

‘The staff who worked [last week] were pulling the weight of an extra person,’ Mr Richardson said.

While some patients understand the pressures pharmacists are under, he said others ‘ just don’t get it’.

‘Some people complain about wait times [when] I’m busy doing booster shots and looking after other things,’ he said. 

TIPS TO MAINTAIN WELLBEING with Sahra O’Doherty, Psychologist and Board Director of the Australian Association of Psychologists:

  • Find ways to de-stress on the way home from work. Listening to a funny podcast, relaxing music, or chatting to a friend instead of doom-scrolling on the commute can allow you to get into the mindset you want to be in.
  • Understand and accept that, unfortunately, we can’t help everyone and we can’t do everything on the to-do list. We try our best each day, and that’s enough. 
  • Try to set firm boundaries. Don’t bring work home with you, don’t work on your days off, and take your ‘helper hat’ off when you’re talking to friends and family.
  • Take time each day to work out what you need. It could be more social interaction, to move your body more, or time for stillness and rest. Notice how you’re eating, how much water you’re drinking and whether your mind is racing. 
  • If you notice changes in your sleep, eating habits or the way you interact with people you care about, it would be a good idea to stop and check in with how you’re feeling.

Preserving mental health

Executive Office of the Pharmacists’ Support Service (PSS) Kay Dunkley MPS said that while the volume of calls to the PSS has remained steady, it is the intensity of some which concerns her.

‘Some calls [are from] pharmacists who are extremely distressed,’ she said. ‘People are at their wits’ end, feel completely drained and don’t know how they’re going to get up the next day.’ 

Even during busy periods, pharmacists should aim to take breaks during the day, and get out of the pharmacy where possible, Ms Dunkley said.

‘[Head to] the tearoom, or somewhere that’s away from the front of the [pharmacy], and sit down, eat and nourish yourself,’ she said.

Healthy foods such as fruit and nuts that you can snack on should also provide a boost.

When pharmacists are on a break, Ms Dunkley recommends giving patients options such as having their medicine delivered, getting a phone call when it’s ready or coming back at a certain time.

Some pharmacies reduce business hours or close on public holidays to cater for staff shortages. The pandemic sub-register also allows for extra staff to reduce the burden.

But it is the little things that boost morale among staff, Ms Dunkley said, such as shouting everyone a round of coffees or bubble tea.

‘I know one pharmacy owner [who] packs treats into the dispensing robot that come out periodically during the day,’ she said. 

An open workplace culture in which staff feel comfortable to raise issues or share when they are having a hard time is also important.

‘If one person raises an issue, others [often] bring up similar experiences,’ Ms Dunkley said.

‘So it’s helpful to discuss things in meetings and work out strategies for managing particular issues, with everyone having a chance to contribute ideas and thoughts.’

TIPS TO MAINTAIN YOUR WELLBEING with Jill Newby, Associate Professor at the Black Dog Institute:

  • Don’t suffer in silence. Talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling and what support options are available.
  • Get an assessment and care plan from a trusted professional like your GP.
  • Prioritise self care. Make sure you’re getting sleep and keep physically active. 
  • Avoid or cut down on things you’re using to mask your feelings – like drugs and alcohol. These will lead to more problems long term.

Close encounters of the unpleasant kind

When pharmacists or pharmacy staff have an unpleasant patient encounter, Ms Dunkley said a good approach is to leave the floor for a few minutes to regroup with some breathing exercises, such as ‘box breathing’.

‘You breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and repeat that cycle,’ she said. ‘It slows your heart rate and gives you time to calm down before you have to speak to the next person.’ 

When the pressure is on, Mr Richardson advises staff to ‘take the time to do the job at hand’.

People can wait. Don’t [worry] what others think of you, and don’t think you’re less of a pharmacist just because you can’t handle what’s going on at the moment,’ he said.

When negative feelings creep back in, Ms Dunkley advises vocalising how you feel.

‘That’s when talking to colleagues, family, friends or PSS can be helpful,’ Ms Dunkley said.

‘Talking things through can change your perspective, particularly if it’s with someone who’s outside the situation.’ 

In addition to PSS, pharmacists can access services including: