Pharmacists are great at looking after others, but how are they at managing their own mental health? Saša Jankovic investigates
It’s estimated that a staggering one in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year. According to the Mental Health Foundation, anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health issues, which can take a massive toll on a person’s life and make even the smallest tasks challenging.
Meanwhile, figures from the workplace are even more startling. The mental health charity Mind revealed recently that almost half (48%) of employees have experienced mental ill-health at work and new research claims that the healthcare industry is the third worst in the UK when it comes to workers dealing with stress.
A survey of 1,015 UK adults in employment carried out by the learning marketplace Obby.co.uk revealed that healthcare workers are among the worst in the UK at actually taking time to relieve their stress, with 53% admitting they do ‘little or nothing’ to manage their stress levels, despite being amongst the most informed about the impact this can have on their health.
Dr Zain Sikafi is CEO and co-founder of Mynurva, an online platform that connects mental health practitioners with individuals seeking support. ‘Healthcare professionals are all too accustomed to high pressure environments through navigating everyday stresses of the job and looking after patients, it’s therefore no surprise that pharmacists and healthcare workers are among the most susceptible to mental health problems,’ he says.
‘And to make matters worse, the subject of mental health ironically remains a taboo within this industry, preventing employees from speaking out and seeking the professional help they themselves need.’
Indeed, the charity Pharmacist Support says: ‘What we can say from our own experience is that pharmacists can be reluctant to admit that they have a health condition and may be afraid to seek help in case their GP or colleague raises a fitness to practise concern.’
The pharmacy factor
Working in the caring professions takes a certain type of personality, but it can take a toll on the mental health of even the most robust.
Rachel Kelly is a bestselling writer and mental health campaigner. After battling with depression in early adulthood, she became interested in health and therapy and, in 2007, trained as a counsellor at Regents University.
She is now an official ambassador for SANE and Rethink Mental Illness. She says some of the things pharmacists may be exposed to that could increase their vulnerability to mental health problems include ‘a high level of stress, dealing with large numbers of customers with complex needs, or experiencing trauma from witnessing death or injury in patients on a regular basis.’
And then there are professional stresses. Diane Leicester-Hallam, director of member services at The Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA), says: ‘Dispensing errors, even when the pharmacist doesn’t know if they are involved in the error, can cause distress. Also, pharmacists naturally care and are concerned about their patients, so they could feel anxious that they may have got something wrong.
‘There is also the impact of the stress the job brings with it, such as being understaffed and not being able to take rest breaks due to work pressures and the high demand when a large number of patients expect their medicines to be ready immediately. Factors that are out of a pharmacist’s control, such as urgent medicines being out of stock, can also add to the stress.’
How to protect your own mental health
Thankfully, there is plenty you can do to look after your own mental health at work while also caring for your patients.
1. Tell your boss
A recent Mynurva survey found that of the 32% of full-time employees suffering from mental health symptoms, over a third (37%) had never sought any professional help – and almost half (44%) have hidden their issues from their manager.
If things are getting on top of you at work, Dr Sikafi says: ‘Pharmacists are encouraged to speak out should they feel over-worked, or unable to cope with the emotional stresses associated with their position.’
If stress is the issue, Pharmacist Support says it may be that things at work need to change – for example: ‘Think about time management. Prioritising tasks that are urgent and important can make a big difference to your working day [and] apply negotiation and assertiveness skills to make sure you have sufficient time to complete tasks.’
2. Learn Mental Health First Aid
Charity Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) aims to train one in ten of the population in England in Mental Health First skills. A Mental Health First Aider is trained to identify the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues, to listen and communicate non-judgmentally, and to signpost someone towards appropriate support. Mental Health First Aid training also provides a clear understanding of how to look after your own mental health and support personal wellbeing.
3. Build personal resilience
‘Personal resilience is a really important factor in managing our own wellbeing’, says Ms Leicester-Hallam. ‘There are many resources available to support this, but essentially being mindful of our own risk factors, potential triggers, and ultimately signs that we are under more pressure and not performing as we would normally, is key.’
Self-care is an important way to build resilience to stress and cope with the pressures of working life. ‘Think about your wellbeing,’ says Ms Kelly.
‘Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating plenty of fruit and vegetables and drinking plenty of water? Could you cut down on alcohol or caffeine? Are you getting enough exercise? I’ve found it’s best to think of it as movement and incrementally increase how much I move each day.’
5. Professional support
While all the experts encourage anyone battling with mental health issues to talk to their GP in the first instance, Dr Sikafi says it’s important to remember there are alternative avenues of support for those that need help but struggle to find the time to see a healthcare professional.
‘Pharmacists can take advantage of confidential HealthTech solutions when they feel overwhelmed or notice that their mental wellbeing is starting to affect aspects of their everyday life’, he says.
Ms Leicester-Hallam adds: ‘As we partner with Pharmacist Support, we would encourage our members to call 0808 168 2233 to speak to them in confidence.’
Pharmacist Support’s Listening Friends are trained volunteer pharmacists, who understand the pressures of the job and provide callers with a confidential listening ear. Other services include the charity’s Wardley wellbeing workshops, which are free to attend; its information and enquiry service (that includes over 50 fact sheets on topics including stress, sleep, wellbeing, and bullying); addiction support; specialist advice (on debt, benefits and employment law) and financial assistance.
The charity’s services are free and confidential and you do not need to be a member of any organisation to access them. In addition, Pharmacist Support is an independent organisation and would not contact the GPhC or an employer about an enquirer, unless permission is given to do so.
Whatever the issue, problems do not usually go away on their own, so the sooner you can tackle them, the better, As Ms Kelly says: ‘Remember, your first duty is to look after yourself so you are able to help others, as pharmacists do so brilliantly.’
Case study: Kate Macnamara
Kate Macnamara has been a pharmacist for ten years, starting out in hospital working as a cardiac pharmacist, then moving into mental health before making the jump to primary care. She currently works as a practice pharmacist in a busy health centre in one of the most deprived areas in Swansea.
She first started noticing things were getting on top of her not long after she qualified. She says: ‘About two months into my first job, I was struggling to manage my workload – I found myself checking the same items over and over again in the dispensary as I was so worried about making a mistake. I just had no confidence in my own ability and was even questioning my whole career choice. I was going home, going straight to sleep and forcing myself out of bed and back to work again.’
Recognising that something was wrong, Kate confided in her boss, the chief pharmacist, who she says ‘was absolutely amazing’. ‘The number of times I found myself sobbing in her office and her patience and advice is something I will never forget’, says Kate.
Kate went on to access counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy through occupational health and was also referred to psychiatry and diagnosed with more serious problems with her mental health.
‘The advice and support of my GP, self management techniques such as yoga and meditation and ensuring that my colleagues are aware of my condition so I can have extra support if needed means I’ve been stable for years now,’ she says.
Kate’s advice to anyone finding themselves in a similar situation is: ‘First and foremost, talk to anyone you feel comfortable with. One in four people suffer with mental health problems and you are not weak, a failure or a burden. The sooner you speak up, the sooner you can access the treatment you need and most importantly of all, the sooner you will be on the road to recovery.’
For more information on Pharmacist Support and its services visit www.pharmacistsupport.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0808 168 2233. Further details on the Pharmacist Support’s free Wellbeing service can also be found here.
Mental Health First Aid
MHFA England has produced a number of free practical resources which are designed to help organisations and individual think about supporting mental health in the workplace – these include the Address Your Stress and Take 10 Together toolkits, available here.
Rachel Kelly’s latest book Singing in the Rain: An Inspirational Workbook was published on 10 January and is available from https://www.rachel-kelly.net/books-apps/