The impact of COVID-19 on the Pharmaceutical Workforce

While we’ve all been up against it this year, the frontline workers of the pharmaceutical industry have felt the impact of the pandemic more than most. From long working hours to administering coronavirus tests to shortages in medications, it’s an understatement to say that pharmacists, from all over the world, have had a lot on their plates.

But it seems that this mounting pressure and stress throughout 2020 has started to take its toll. In a recent study conducted by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) and the charity, Pharmacist Support, it was found that the pandemic has had a significant and detrimental impact on the pharmacist workforce, particularly when it comes to mental health.

Pharmacists are experiencing burnout

According to the study, which is the second annual mental health and wellbeing survey conducted by the two bodies, 34% of respondents said they had considered leaving the pharmacy profession as a result of the stress caused by the pandemic. A whopping 89% also felt close to burnout after this year’s events.

But that’s not all. 72% of pharmacists admitted that their work is having a negative impact on their mental wellbeing. The reasons given for this ranged from increased demand to lack of breaks and time off to inadequate staffing. Interestingly this figure is comparable to last year’s survey (74%) and shows that while the pandemic may have exacerbated these issues, they already existed before the virus broke.

In a recent statement, Sandra Gidley, president of the RPS, said she was “alarmed” to see the survey’s figures, noting that “pharmacists are the most valuable asset the NHS has in its workforce and retaining these highly skilled healthcare professionals is essential to patient care”.

Gidley also added that the additional pressures brought on by the pandemic had been “incredibly tough and caused enormous stress and increased workloads for pharmacy teams” and that the industry needs to “ensure support is available for those who need it while preventing problems from happening by tackling some of the root causes of poor mental health and wellbeing in the workplace”.

Tackling mental health issues in pharma

With COVID-19 vaccines starting to be rolled out throughout the world, pharmacists will be relied upon more than ever as we move into 2021. If their mental health issues are left unaddressed, this could cause an even greater shortage of pharmacists once the pandemic is over.

So, what can the industry do to help their workforce continue to provide care without putting their mental and physical well-being under even more strain?

Mental Health Resources 

Mental health resources and support are key in tackling this overriding problem for the pharmaceutical industry. While these types of resources are available such as work support schemes, more accessibility and awareness is needed for them to be truly effective. The RPS survey found “a number of barriers to accessing mental health and wellbeing support for pharmacists and pharmacy students”, with respondents blaming a lack of awareness and concerns around confidentiality and stigma.

Addressing these barriers and creating a safe and secure space where their workforce can talk about their mental health concerns should be the first port of call for the industry. Creating initiatives and services that are designed specifically focus on the importance of maintaining good mental health during COVID-19 will also be crucial.

Providing mental health care to pharmacists digitally could be a viable option, particularly as many of us have embraced new and emerging technologies this year. Back in May, Research team, Black et al, assessed a digital learning package that consisted of evidence-based guidance and self-care strategies relating to maintaining mental well-being for UK health workers. The study found that the package was well-received with high user satisfaction rates and that the material was better received if it addressed specific issues that were relevant to healthcare environments and their work. The results of this study should be food for thought for the industry as it proves that pharmacy-specific mental health resources that are delivered digitally can work successfully.

Improving staff retention and attraction

With reports of so many pharmacists experiencing burnout and considering leaving the industry, work needs to be done to both improve retention and to attract more people to careers in pharmaceuticals. Whilst addressing staff shortages, President of the RPS, Sandra Gidley said: “We must work together to ensure the profession becomes more inclusive and is able to attract people from all backgrounds.” 

So not only does the industry need to find a way to make itself seem an attractive prospect for budding pharmacists, but it also needs to consider how it can hold on to the ones it's already got. While providing more mental health support can help, things such as flexible hours, support in handling frustrated patients and career development opportunities can also go a long way.

Gidley added: “Flexible opening hours have been enormously helpful in managing workloads and should become a permanent adaptation, rather than a short-term measure. Having the right staffing levels and skill mix in the pharmacy to support safe and effective patient care should be a given. And being able to take breaks, to relieve the pressure or for CPD to learn something new, is essential." 

While COVID-19 vaccines might be starting to gradually roll out across the world, the role of pharmacists will continue to be crucial as we continue on through the pandemic. To keep these vital frontline workers on side and healthy, the industry needs to act fast to meet these growing mental health concerns and barriers head-on.

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Daniel Nation

18th December