The COVID-19 outbreak has put unprecedented pressure on healthcare services – not least community pharmacy, which has remained open and accessible throughout the pandemic. Even with the impending roll-out of vaccines, as the ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 settles in for the winter there is still no quick and easy fix when it comes to the demands on time, energy and patience that pharmacy staff are facing. But there are things that managers can do to protect their teams’ mental health and improve their resilience.
The Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s latest annual mental health and wellbeing survey, published in association with the charity Pharmacist Support, showed that working long hours coupled with inadequate staffing levels, a lack of time off and increased patient demand during the pandemic is taking its toll.
As many as 89% of respondents considered themselves at high risk of burnout, with 54% experiencing some impact on their mental health.(1)
With stress and burnout so prominent in the workplace, this situation will worsen unless businesses, employers and employees work together to mitigate them.
The role of resilience
Mental and emotional pressures are common in all walks of life and are not specific to the challenging times we currently find ourselves in. In the workplace these can come from balancing the demands of competing priorities while maintaining quality requirements. These pressures can be compounded by working long hours with increased staff absences due to colleagues self-isolating or off sick.
Everyone experiences pressure differently and if found to be significant and persistent, it can be detrimental on mental and physical health.(2)
At an individual level, resilience is the ability to deal with pressure, even during challenging circumstances, and recover from stress. Being resilient also increases a person’s capacity to work safely and effectively.(2) Resilient teams are those that are able to adapt and recover from incidents, obstacles or adversity and get back to normal levels of functioning after a period of reduced function.(3)
Individual and team resilience are interlinked and rely on each other. Teams naturally benefit from having resilient members, so nurturing individual resilience feeds back into the resilience of the team.(3)
Managers and team leaders also have a part to play in showing what good looks like in terms of resilience and supporting staff during challenging times. This can be done by:(3)
- Encouraging staff to reframe their view of difficult situations as challenges rather than threats.
- Addressing the notion that there is only one way to tackle a problem or issue – different approaches can often lead to getting ‘unstuck’.
- Helping staff recognise when they are stressed and be flexible in finding ways to cope.
- Encouraging staff to maintain the kinds of social interactions that support the team and to identify and share their personal preferences which is beneficial to their stress management in the workplace.
Resilience training courses are also available online to help staff better understand how to protect their mental health at work and consequently maintain and even improve their performance. These workshops – which can be accessed online during COVID-19 – can provide safe spaces for staff to explore what personal resilience means and how to build it, as well as giving teams the opportunity to address any issues that may be contributing to stress in the workplace.(4)
Being part of a team where all members can contribute and are valued is another important driver for staff resilience.
Recent research by The Health Innovation Network showed teams found managers and colleagues who encourage effective breaks and talk openly about any uncertainties are a significant source of strength and support for staff.(5)
However, it can be challenging for colleagues, particularly when many pharmacies are experiencing staff shortages because of sickness, self-isolating or reduced numbers of staff to facilitate appropriate social distancing. The key is to aim for the right staffing levels and skill mix in the pharmacy to support safe and effective patient care. Additionally, flexible opening hours may also be helpful when it comes to managing increased workloads.
Delegating to avoid burnout
Changing up the tasks allocated to some team members is another option for reducing stress.(3) All members of the pharmacy team should feel, where appropriate, heavy workloads can be delegated to other members of the team, rather than feeling they have to work in silos and do everything themselves.
Managers have a key role in making sure all staff – including themselves – have the resources and skills to do what’s required of them in the allotted time, in order to protect them from burnout.
International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) officially recognised burnout in 2019 as a specific “occupational phenomenon” linked directly to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.(6)
Spotting signs of stress
People feel stress when they can’t cope with pressure and other issues at work and at home. While stress is not an illness, it can make people ill, so it is important for managers to be able to recognise and mitigate signs of stress in their staff and teams.(7)
Signs of stress in a member of staff can include; consistently arriving late for work or taking more time off; mood swings; loss of motivation or being more aggressive than usual or tearful.(7) Signs of stress in a team can show up in decreased performance; higher staff turnover and arguments among team members.(7)
Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from work-related stress by assessing the risks and taking any necessary action to mitigate them. This could be, for example, by matching employees’ skills and time to the demands of their role, and supporting them with extra training where needed.(8)
If this has been addressed but the staff member is still struggling, they should be encouraged to talk to their GP or occupational health team if this service is available.(7)
There are plenty of steps that people can take outside of work in order to reduce and manage their stress, and subsequently support their resilience.
As well as protecting the cardiovascular system, taking even moderate regular exercise offers protection from the physical and mental health effects of stress and helps promote a continual level of resilience to stress.(2)
Taking proper breaks at work, as well as having time to rest at home, is also vital for preventing fatigue and burnout. Another recent report cited stress and anxiety as the most common triggers for sleep disruption, with 57% of respondents claiming these were a reason for their sleeplessness.(10)
Lack of sleep can affect mental and physical performance, increasing the risk of mistakes and accidents, while chronic sleeplessness can impact immune function, intensify pain problems, and can amplify the risk of serious health complications such as heart disease, diabetes and depression.(10,11)
There was, understandably, a lot of anxiety among pharmacy staff during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. However, it is important to remember that even though new ways of working have had time to bed in, and vaccines programmes currently being rolled out across the UK, this doesn’t mean the stressors of the situation have gone away.
Managers should continue to keep lines of communication open with staff and encourage people to speak about how they are feeling, and if they are struggling. The quicker a problem is tackled, the less impact it will have.
Further information and support
- Keep up to date with the latest COVID-19 news on the C+D coronavirus hub
- Pharmacist Support has a range of free and confidential resources for those in the profession, including its Wardley Wellbeing service which includes a range of workshops and online support tools
- Mind charity has specific information and support for healthcare and emergency services workers about working during the pandemic
- The Department of Health and Social Care has a Care Workforce COVID-19 app providing information and support for health and social care workers.
- The Royal Pharmaceutical Society (2020) Annual mental health and wellbeing survey
- Health and Safety Executive (2003) Beacons of excellence in stress prevention
- Support the Workers (2020) Resilience briefing paper
- Remploy (2020) Personal resilience
- The Health Innovation Network (2020) Only Human: supporting wellbeing during and post COVID-19
- World Health Organisation (2019) International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11)
- Health and Safety Executive (2020) Signs of stress
- Health and Safety Executive (2020) Work-related stress and how to tackle it
- Health and Safety Executive (2020). Talking toolkit: stress
- uk.Puressentiel.com (2020) How to achieve deep sleep and breathe easy
- Support the Workers (2020) Monitoring and optimising sleep.