Grin and bear it

The profession needs more empathy towards its own during times of sickness and difficulty, writes Chantelle Pennington

For years in my career as a community pharmacist, I’ve spent a countless number of days going into work when I was sick.

The culture among pharmacists is such that you never get sick and – if you do – grin and bear it.

Once I was at work “grinning and bearing it” with a twisted ovary at 8 weeks pregnant.

To give some context, that pain was worse than my labour pain but I took phone calls, dispensed and checked scripts, all whilst being doubled over in pain in the dispensary.

In that circumstance I ended up a few days later in emergency, with many vials of morphine and gowned up for an operation to remove my ovary and I was advised, I could possibly lose my baby.

Fortunately my baby is now 5.5 years old. I did not lose my ovary and, in a miraculous turn of events, it untwisted.

The point of this story is to emphasise that despite the intense pain I was in and the possible medical emergency, I still dutifully went to work, as I felt like a pharmacist cannot be sick.

I ultimately put my job before my unborn child …which was why, in a recent scenario, I was left despondent and sad at the lack of empathy some pharmacy owners can have to pharmacist illness.

I agreed to a weekend Locum shift at a local pharmacy in a busy community, which had three other pharmacies in very close proximity. I had worked there before and have always been punctual and respectful to the business.

The night before the shift, as usual, I went to bed early at around 8pm.

At around 9pm, as I turned the lights off, I felt a little queasy and hot but thought nothing of it. I struggled to get to sleep and at around 10:30pm I was violently ill.

I immediately messaged the pharmacist whose shift I was covering, to ask for the owner’s phone number so that I could contact him to advise him that it may be unlikely I would be there for the shift.

I proceeded to be violently ill at least 10 more times, as it turns out until 9am (when the shift was meant to start at 8am). I had vomited so much that my throat was burnt. I had been so ill, I couldn’t keep Hydralyte down.

At 5:45am, I finally was able to obtain the owner’s number and messaged him to advise of my illness. I then proceeded to call him four more times, he answered on the fourth. His response was cold and terse.

His words were, “I need you to work, I don’t have anyone else”, “this doesn’t look very good for you”, “why didn’t you let me know sooner” and “can you tell me if you are going to work tomorrow?”

Quite soon after, I was referred to (on a public Facebook group, although nameless) as an “unreliable Locum who cancels on the morning of the shift”.

I think some of the issues in this scenario are common to the general culture of pharmacy.

Why is it that pharmacists are unable to be sick or, to put it another way, why are we forced to put our own health on hold to make sure the business is still making money?

Don’t get me wrong, I can understand from a business owner’s point of view the frustrations of staff unreliability. But when you choose to become a business owner, this is part of the deal. Shouldn’t you always have a back up?

Why wasn’t the owner in a position to cover the shift if his other key staff were away?

And what was the alternative, that I go to work, take an ondansetron illegally from the shelf and carry on, with the risk of throwing up in the dispensary and potentially infect the rest of the staff and furthermore, customers… in the times of COVID? Not a good look.

Owners need to take more responsibility, have empathy for illness and an understanding that these can situations can arise and when they do, always have back up for your back up and don’t make it anyone else’s problem except your own.

They should always ensure that the locum has the appropriate contacts (including their own) and a procedure in place for unforeseen circumstances.

Ultimately, owners should take responsibility for their own business and not demand that any staff member work when they are clearly not fit for work.

Having had this experience, I have at this stage decided that I no longer want to partake in locum work, and I am quite happy with my choice to no longer be working in community pharmacy.

What will it take to change the culture of pharmacy when it comes to illness?

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  1. Peter McGregor

    Yes! You’ve conveyed my feelings exactly! I remember being (or feeling) forced to work on numerous times when ill – two times when I really should have been in bed or at the doctor – and received exactly the same response from owners/managers. We should all be more prepared for anything!

    Additionally, on my way to work, with the way some lunatics drive on the road, I’ve always wondered what an owner or manager would initially think should I not show up at all after having a terrible accident… Would they forgive me when they realise I’m in hospital, or worse…?

  2. Red Pill

    First mistake: Decided to work in community pharmacy.

    Second mistake: you expected to be treated as a human being or a colleague.

    Glad you realised you are worth more than this and didn’t succumb to putting up with this nonsense.

    Get out and don’t look back. Nothing will be changing any time soon.

  3. Jessica

    I think every community pharmacist will have a story along these lines… I once went to a dr before work as I was feeling very unwell, I was informed that I had to attend emergency department ASAP. I attended my shift it took me 6 hours before I could found a replacement, went to hospital and was diagnosed with appendicitis and required immediate surgery as I was being prepped for surgery I was on the phone trying to find a replacement for the following day, found a locum – only one that was available at short notice, – I still had to ferry calls from work the next few days while in hospital recovering – left that position a few months later.
    I had another colleague at a different store, she had the dreaded phone call to say that her close family member was in hospital with end of life care, she did all the correct things, notified work of the situation and she went to her family members side which was a 4-hour drive away. When she got there the duty pharmacist called her to state she had to be back at work for the last half-hour of her shift that afternoon – as she refused to cover it. She managed to spend 1hour with her family member, before she hopped back into the car and went back to work, the person passed away later that afternoon… needless to say she resigned shortly after that and left the profession….

    • Margaret Topp

      This in disgraceful behaviour. No way would I go back for half an hour, with or without this type of emergency. If no-one else was available, what is wrong with putting up a sign and closing the door.? The public may grumble but emergencies do occur, Even doctors are able to be sick sometime.

      • Breanna Friend

        I was about to comment the same. Yes it’s inconvenient for patients if you need to close at short notice, but employees need to come first when there are extenuating circumstances like this. Without employees, you don’t have a business that can run.

        • Jessica

          i agree with you, she was pressured/bullied into returning to work, by another pharmacist – and when you are just a grunt worker (pharmacist) you do not always feel that you have the authority to just close the shop without facing some repercussions. and if we dont start looking after our own, and each other, and not looking up to the old school pharmacists and some of their heroic stories, or the attitudes of solo pharmacists/locums that you need to be dead or dieing to call in sick….

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