Phil Galt, a qualified pharmacist and managing director for Cegedim Rx, explores the mental health strain that pharmacists can face and asks, who’s caring for those who care?

I’ve spent more than two decades working on the frontline of pharmacy. It’s always been a stressful environment and an intense workload is nothing new. But I’ve felt a real shift in gears recently with the mental load that pharmacy teams must bear.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s workforce survey spelled it out clearly. It found that 86% of pharmacists are at high risk of burnout – a trend that has been consistent since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

Those in community pharmacy were shown to be struggling the most with their mental health, as 93% said they were on the brink of breaking point.

The root causes of poor mental health among pharmacists? Inadequate staffing (69%), a lack of work-life balance (52%), insufficient learning time (50%), long working hours (42%) and a lack of support from colleagues (46%).

When the challenge is - do more with less - it’s not hard to understand why many are considering leaving pharmacy and large numbers of pharmacies are disappearing.

Working smarter – they can’t work harder

One thing is clear - pharmacists can’t work any harder. But there are ways the industry can support them to work smarter in order to protect their mental health.

Believe me I know just how easy it is to feel overwhelmed in pharmacy. Pharmacists and pharmacy teams are constantly juggling priorities and jumping through hoops.

And even before the launch of Pharmacy First in England I had concerns about how pharmacy teams would cope with the increased workload given the current demands.

While some pharmacies may have the capital to invest in technology, such as robotics to ease the burden on frontline teams dispensing prescriptions, with current funding challenges it is not something many pharmacies are in a position to do.

But big impact doesn’t always need to come with a big investment. Automated clinical checks on medication and prescription labelling, reminding pharmacists where there’s opportunity for clinical services – such as highlighting when a patient is suitable for NHS services, can help lighten the cognitive load.

While on the face of it this seems like small gains in managing workflow, they all add up to make a big difference to pharmacists and pharmacy teams. Each task that’s managed through technology makes their life a little easier, their job more enjoyable and puts less pressure on them.

Supporting pharmacists in the career they want

I’m a huge advocate that all pharmacy staff should be supported and encouraged to work to the ‘top of their license’.

Unfortunately, I think due to funding and workload challenges pharmacists have wrongly become cogs in a dispensing machine. It should not and must not be this way.

Pharmacists work extremely hard to earn their qualifications, and they should use those skills for the majority of their day.

For me, the satisfaction of being a pharmacist was always being able to care for patients. Those moments when you made a difference to a patient would make an otherwise stressful day that little bit brighter.

And it’s not just pharmacists. The whole team needs to play to their strengths and passions. Everyone should invest their energy and skill in the right areas, doing what they do best.

While the delivery of more clinical services provides a great opportunity for pharmacists to buck the trend of widespread closures, this can only be achieved if time is unlocked and the strain isn’t placed solely on the shoulders of those working on the frontline.

You can’t pour from an empty cup

Every day we see news stories chewing over how we can ensure pharmacy’s survival. More funding, stabilisation of a medicines supply chain, greater patient education – of course these are all vital. But many are also out of our control.

What is within our gift, however, is to care for those who provide care.

You simply can’t pour from an empty cup. For pharmacy teams to thrive they need to be healthy and have career satisfaction, and that requires us all taking the advice we’d give a patient struggling with their mental health.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2024 encouraged people to 'move for their mental health', promoting the benefits of activity. A report found that almost one in six (17%) of people in the UK said that stress in their daily life is preventing them from moving more often.