Dr Kylie Bennett argues that pharmacy teams should increase their understanding of mental health problems and learn how to better support their colleagues and patients experiencing difficulties…
Recent research has shown that mental health issues are the number one cause of sickness days in UK workplaces. The concept of the ‘duvet day’, now better known as a ‘personal day’, is endemic across all sectors and, beyond the impact on productivity, employers must honour a duty of care to their employees. Within community pharmacists – who are often the first port of call for many medical issues – a massive 90 per cent say they are on the brink of burnout.
In the UK, 13.7 million working days are lost each year because of work-related stress, anxiety and depression, at a cost of £28.3 billion to UK companies. This level of workplace absence is hardly surprising when contextualised by the percentage of professionals who say they experience moderate to high levels of stress (76 per cent) induced by work – with workload commonly cited as a key driver of this. Heavy workloads can necessitate working outside of office hours and lead employees to feel that work is more important than family or personal time. They want to work to live, not live to work.
Between increasing pressures put on all elements of health care services and an economy-wide staff shortage, it is safe to say that pharmacists are overworked and under-resourced. If burnout increases, community pharmacists will be driven away from their hard-to-fill positions, and in turn, the quality of patient care may go down. In fact, nearly three-quarters – 73 per cent – of pharmacists have considered quitting the profession altogether.
Even when overtime can be avoided, stress can have wider physiological impacts including tiredness, aches and pains, headaches, trouble sleeping or – in some cases – turning to substances such as alcohol to alleviate symptoms.
It’s no secret that discussions of mental health, whilst improving, remain a taboo subject in many environments. Recent figures suggest nearly two thirds (60.2 per cent) of professionals would be embarrassed disclosing information about the state of their mental health to their employer.
And no wonder, given the well-known cost to productivity and uplift in sickness days highlighted above. This is why employers need to clearly demonstrate a duty of care and the human side of their HR personnel and processes.
Employees suffering from stress-induced anxiety regularly need to be encouraged to seek advice from a trained professional, other than themselves, such as a GP. This will help identify if the anxiety can be classified as a specific anxiety disorder and a recommended treatment approach can be discussed.
This may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is one of the most effective methods of dealing with anxiety symptoms, allowing people to gain an understanding of the link between thoughts, feelings and behaviours whilst offering practical steps to take to tackle anxiety.
At a business level, the ethos of humanity and care must run from top-to-bottom of an organisation. Responsible pharmacists need to play a role in increasing their understanding of mental health problems and learn how to support those experiencing difficulties.
Through participation in, and wide promotion of, training about mental health problems, they can gain greater confidence in dealing with employees’ mental health, offer sound and reliable advice to customers seeking help, and set a clear example of openness and empathy in their pharmacy.
Managers and leaders can have a big impact on their team’s stress levels, and therefore it is vital that they have appropriate training and knowledge about mental health issues. It can also be important for managers to implement regular mental health breaks or discussions in the workplace, as well as managing workloads to ensure employees get adequate time to ‘decompress’ and spend quality time caring for themselves and their families.
Any measures put in place to reduce an individual’s stress and anxiety must be done discreetly and on the employee’s terms. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when dealing with mental health, and managers should not use one individual’s experience as a case study for others.
Finally, at a macro level, pharmacy outlets and companies can invest in the provision of evidence-based support services such as digital CBT courses for their employee teams.
Digital CBT is self-paced training which has proven effectiveness for preventing and reducing symptoms of anxiety. CBT can also be delivered in person by therapists, for example through Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), which provide confidential counselling services for employees.
Over the long term, decreased productivity through sickness or workplace performance can be tackled through investment in support services for employees. But a commitment to this kind of support must also demonstrate a duty of care and understanding, and not just eyes on the bottom line, in order to really reach those who need it most.
Pharmacy teams can advise their patients that are numerous ways of alleviating stress, either in the workplace or in home-life, and remind them that:
- Physical activity is a highly effective way to protect against anxiety symptoms so it is important to move as much as possible. It doesn’t matter what type of activity you choose, the most important thing is that you exercise regularly. Take any opportunity to get active – for example a walk at lunchtime can be a great way to break up the working day and divert you from anxious thoughts. If you are lucky enough to be able to exercise in nature or a park this can further help lower stress and anxiety.
- Relaxation techniques can also be incredibly useful, especially if used on a daily basis. This includes guided meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises and mindfulness. Relaxing, mindful physical activities such as yoga and tai chi can also be effective.
- Sleep well. Make sure you get enough sleep and if falling asleep is a problem for you, learn about ways to create a personal routine to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep.
- Eat well and avoid too much caffeine or alcohol. Although sometimes it might feel like feelings of stress or anxiety can be numbed by junk food or alcohol, ultimately these lead to feeling worse.
Most importantly, patients should be advised to experiment with what they enjoy, what they can manage, and what helps them the most. They can then incorporate activities that work for them into their daily routine.
Small but regular acts of self-care are incredibly powerful.
Dr Kylie Bennett is Mental Health Programme Director at Dialogue.
 Royal Pharmaceutical Society, January 2023
 Royal Pharmaceutical Society, January 2023