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Is emotional intelligence a required skill for pharmacy?

Emotional intelligence is much in demand as a character trait that separates great employees from the mid-stream, yet in a profession that is process-driven and highly evaluated by qualification, is it necessary? C+D spoke to three experts to find out

Success in pharmacy can mean different things to different people and while emotional intelligence (EI) is a fundamental skill for those that want to operate at a high level, for others it can be a side-show.


Yousaf Ahmad, ICS chief pharmacist and director of medicines optimisation at Frimley Health, believes it is a key skill not only for those that are ambitious but also for those that want to deliver outstanding service.


“Effective communication with patients, colleagues, and healthcare professionals is crucial for providing quality care and maintaining a positive working environment,” he explained. “Being able to translate one’s knowledge to their respective audience is crucial for roles within the profession, coupled with understanding the audience one is speaking to.”


Read more: Explained: Making your career in pharmacy work for you


Yet, while it’s desirable and commendable it can also be navigated around. Harpreet Chana, founder of The Mental Wealth Academy and co-founder of the Female Pharmacy Leaders Network, knows only too well that it is possible to rise up the ranks of pharmacy and not relate well to others, albeit with consequences.


“Success isn’t always about how good you are at your job, sometimes it’s how you can work people to your own benefit, and I’ve been at the receiving end of some of these people who shouldn’t be in their senior positions, who have managed to get there with very little EI and instead with a huge amount of micromanagement,” she said.


James Roberts, managing director of Quad Recruitment and The Pharma People, agrees that while EI is important it isn’t a necessity. “We recruit for a lot of roles that don’t have any public interaction whatsoever, these might be more suitable for those that find it difficult to converse with the public,” he explained. Mr Roberts admits, however, that it does present challenges and may limit career success.



Is knowledge more important?


Mr Ahmad says it’s about how ingrained you are in your role as a pharmacist. For many, dispensing medicine is the totality of what they want from their role but for those that want to move beyond that and do an outstanding job, EI is vital. “Emotional intelligence is important in pharmacy because it goes beyond the knowledge-driven aspect of the profession,” he said.


“Pharmacists often deal with people who may be experiencing stress, illness, or uncertainty. Being emotionally intelligent helps pharmacists understand and empathise with their patients, leading to better communication, trust, and ultimately improved patient outcomes,” said Mr Ahmad.


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Having a deeper relationship with patients is vital, it seems. Ms Chana explains that part of this is demonstrating a self-awareness in how we relate to others. “We can’t work in this profession if we don’t have EI to some degree – it’s not always about people, half of it is about our own self-awareness and understanding how we are impacting those around us,” she tells C+D.


That understanding of ourselves and how we relate to others is the differentiator in catapulting pharmacists beyond the day job. Yet Mr Roberts believe that just as EI can be the unique selling point, it must also go hand-in-hand with the nuts and bolts of a community pharmacy career. “A pharmacist's success is a tapestry woven with both technical expertise and emotional intelligence. While qualifications are a solid foundation, strong emotional intelligence threads bind the tapestry together, ensuring a fulfilling and impactful career. Again, there’s pharmacist vacancies out there that have minimal or no public interaction that may be more suited to the more introverted pharmacist in the industry.”


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Ms Chana believes it’s a subjective topic too because while self-awareness is important for moving up the ranks, for some it’s an obsolete talent that doesn’t hinder where they want to get to in their career and their lack of EI doesn’t faze them. “I have seen really bad self-awareness and those that can’t talk to other people. When I was at university, half of my year couldn’t communicate very well,” she told C+D. “You can be skilled and qualified but if we are talking about failing at a career – some people are happy not really rising up the ranks.”



Can you acquire EI?


For the cohort of pharmacists that do lack EI, the good news is that as a skill it can be learned. “Emotional intelligence can be acquired and developed. While some individuals may naturally possess higher emotional intelligence, others can improve their skills through self-awareness, practice, and training” said Mr Ahmad.


Ms Chana also advocates for this being possible but says that the industry is looking for more guidance on how to develop this important skill. “A colleague of mine and I led a session on EI at the clinical pharmacy congress a few years ago and it ended up being standing room only. Afterwards, I had quite a few chief pharmacists from the hospital trusts that came up to me and admitted they needed more EI in their current teams because they were burning out and not skilled at managing themselves or others,” she recalls.


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Mr Roberts also believes that EI can be developed as a skill. “Emotional intelligence is not fixed; it can be developed and improved throughout life. In fact, pharmacists with the foundational knowledge and dedication to grow can effectively build their emotional intelligence and find success in their careers,” he said.


He adds that surrounding yourself with confident and outgoing people can really help nurture those skills but that as Ms Chana points to, developing a level of self-awareness is also vital.


Mr Ahmad points further to the importance of exposure to colleagues and teams that can help on the journey to building key EI skills. “Colleagues that work in healthcare often have higher emotional intelligence than members of the public, thus working in multidisciplinary teams is a great benefactor to improved emotional intelligence,” he explains.


Read more: Five things the Tories think are more important in healthcare than pharmacy


Working on ourselves is part of this. “Empathy and sociability, resolving conflict and handling difficult conversations are not mandated, we have to find our own ways of learning,” says Ms Chana. “I’d love to see more training put on by employers in pharmacy, in EI, leadership and managing people.”


It’s a void in current university and post-graduate training that she feels is currently amiss too. “We are not taught how to be operational leads or good leaders of people, so what happens is that a lot of people with a science background look at process and are good at managing that but not so good at managing people, and if you want to be a good leader of people EI is key to that,” she explains.


As with anything that is harder to come by, there is no quick fix. Mr Roberts advises long-term thinking. “Be patient with yourself, celebrate your progress, and don't hesitate to seek support along the way. By actively nurturing your skills and implementing these approaches, you can significantly improve your relationships with colleagues, customers, and everyone around you.”


Read more: Adopting a trauma-informed approach to care in pharmacy


The future of pharmacy education including tuition on EI is unclear, but Mr Ahmad does see some hope and indication of the type of tuition that Ms Chana would like to also see. “Some universities and training programmes are incorporating aspects of emotional intelligence into their curriculum to better prepare pharmacists for the interpersonal aspects of their roles. However, individuals can also take the initiative to work on their emotional intelligence through self-study, workshops, or coaching,” he told C+D.


Ms Chana agrees that individuals can take personal responsibility for it too. “It does get overlooked. If we had more EI in pharmacy, we would have a lot less bullying in the NHS, and pharmacy in general,” she said. “We’d also have better wellbeing and management, less toxic workplaces and probably a happier sector overall. If we really invested in EI training, it would have a big impact.”


Read more: The pharmacist's role in suicide prevention


It's the long game that is at stake here, and not an overnight short-term fix. As Mr Roberts points to, it’s the importance of learning the skills early on, from childhood and the teenage years. While universities and pharmacy-specific courses may not instil it as part of the curriculum, it goes deeper than that because it’s a skill that needs to be acquired earlier on and crafted and nurtured throughout life.


When pharmacists can come to the industry with more than their qualifications, with some sense of relating to others and an ability to stand in their shoes, then they are capable of delivering a higher level of customer service and connection with the people they are trained to help. This is, in essence, the reason that acquiring EI for current and future pharmacists will help to ensure that customers are looked after as people and not just as customers collecting their prescriptions.

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