Is it too early in the flu jab season to say I’m tired? Because I’m TIRED. And as a locum working in branches across multiple firms, I can confirm this is a feeling felt by many.

Last year’s RPS Mental Health and Wellbeing survey reported that 89% of staff were at high risk of burnout, with the stress of work and inadequate staffing being the top factors for poor mental health and wellbeing. I’m awaiting this year’s results, but I’m not confident they’re going to be much better.

In the autumn of 2020 I was working three days a week for an independent multiple. These days consisted of checking scripts for a 12,000 items per month pharmacy, completing the year’s MURs, keeping NMSs up to date, and administering a total of over 300 flu jabs. I’m not completely sure what the locums on the other days were doing, but it didn’t seem to be a lot…

The irony was that I was part-time due to mental health struggles, and it became increasingly clear that ridiculous work demands were not going to help at all. I left in January, and have been locuming since.

Any hopes that my flu jab season would feel any calmer this year have been dashed, and rapidly.

It’s more common than I realised to expect a locum pharmacist to work with only one member of staff. And while most of the time this is manageable, the system crumbles when a staff member dares to have a much-needed break. Is there a safe way to administer a flu jab in a consultation room when no-one else is watching over the pharmacy? I’d argue not. My solutions so far have been to ask the patient’s mother to watch over the shop, and to call my colleague back into the dispensary halfway through her lunch. Neither was ideal.

Even when working in an adequately staffed branch, the truth is that we don’t really have the capacity for flu jabs. I’m passionately in favour of flu vaccinations, and the key role community pharmacy can play in the national effort. We have the knowledge and training, the long-term relationships with our community and the accessibility that should make us the obvious choice, but why does it always feel like such a hardship?

The reality is that for around a quarter of the year pharmacy staff, already contending with burnout, low morale, inadequate staffing levels and unattainable targets, have to take on a new and monumental task with no extra staff, no extra time, and no extra money. (Would extra money make up for the lack of the other two? Not really, but it would be nice for the teams’ effort to be acknowledged in some way and money certainly wouldn’t harm!)

The simple act of sticking a needle in someone’s arm takes almost no time at all. But I fear that the government and companies don’t understand that it’s the peripheral activities that pull staff members away from other important jobs.

Someone is taking bookings over the phone or in the shop. (This year, organising cancellations due to patients getting their flu jabs alongside their Covid boosters at their GP surgeries is a job in itself.) Someone is helping patients to fill in their forms. Someone is entering all the important information onto PharmOutcomes or equivalent so that patients’ GP records are accurate and up to date. While none of this is particularly difficult, when it’s repeated 20 times within a nine-hour shift, it all adds up.

The decision then becomes; what do we drop?

· We could drop NMSs, but then we face the financial repercussions and the wrath of employers

· We could drop checking prescriptions, but that’s an essential service, and I’m pretty sure our patients wouldn’t be pleased…

· We could speed up the pace with which we check prescriptions. When written down the obvious safety issues become quite clear, but at the moment it often feels like the most practical choice.

It’s sweet that recently the health secretary has spoken about entrusting pharmacies with more clinical responsibility, and nice that there seems to be money attached to that - but unless we see increased funding having a direct impact at a branch level, it makes me feel apprehensive.

Technicians, dispensing staff, and delivery drivers are such an important part of community pharmacy. Regardless of having an RP or not, branches can’t run safely without an adequate number of people, especially around flu season.

Spending the money from flu season (or any new grants) on free therapy/ wine/ chocolates for all the dedicated staff still sticking it out through what’s going to be a horrendously busy winter could be a way forward. I salute you all