Calling for help: Part 1

We take a look at a couple real-life stories of pharmacists who have experienced workplace pressures, customer abuse and more

Just like in every workplace, pharmacists can deal with the usual issues such as misunderstandings and disagreements between colleagues.

However when responsibilities begin to stack up, especially considering many pharmacists work in customer-facing roles, they can sometimes reach breaking point.

The Pharmacists’ Support Service (PSS) received 147 calls over the last financial year – this equates to one call every two-and-a-half days.

Most calls were from pharmacists (67%) or pharmacy interns (21%), with more than half (55%) from people aged under 30 years and 29% of calls were from those aged 30-49.

About 73% of all callers were female, possibly reflective of the current profession – or perhaps those who are more likely to ask for help, says PSS Executive Officer Kay Dunkley.

“The PSS is contacted predominantly by younger pharmacists who don’t necessarily have their own support network,” says Dunkley.

Stress was the reason behind 37% of calls, with workplace issues at 39% – although there would be significant overlap between the two.

“Stress can occur when, for example, a pharmacy changes hands and there are concerns surrounding employment or pressure to upsell, or when there are issues regarding workplace relationships or abusive customers,” she says.

While less common, “those at the older end of their career can sometimes feel they’re being squeezed out,” she says regarding the 4% of calls from those aged 50 and over.

Here Dunkley shares some case studies of callers to exhibit the kinds of pressures pharmacists face, and the work the PSS does to support those in a tough spot:

Accusation of bullying

A call is received from a male pharmacist who is employed in a public hospital and has been accused of bullying by a hospital pharmacy technician.

The caller is employed as a site manager for a regional hospital and has observed that this technician is making many dispensing errors. These are being fixed by other team members who are sympathetic to the technician who is otherwise a great team member (punctual and a hard worker).

However the caller is concerned as some errors have been missed and made it to the hospital wards (identified by nursing staff). The caller has implemented a training program for the technician to try and address the dispensing errors and specified that he must personally check all the technician’s work.

The technician has gone to HR and complained that she is being bullied. The caller is now facing a mediation session with the HR department and the technician.

He feels unsupported and alone in the situation, especially as the other pharmacy staff seem to be supporting the technician. His supervisor, the Director of Pharmacy at the main hospital, has simply said to him that he has to fix the problem whatever it takes.

How PSS took the call:

  • The PSS volunteer listened carefully and empathised with the caller, discussing his responsibilities as site manager and considering whether his manner may have been misconstrued as bullying.

  • The volunteer prompted the caller to consider how he would like the mediation to proceed, and also reminded the caller that his indemnity insurer should be notified about any errors and that they may be able to provide further advice about dispensing procedures and also how to handle a dispensing error which can be used in training staff.

  • The caller was invited to call back after mediation if he was interested in discussing the situation further.


Racist customer

A pharmacist with an accent, indicating that Australia is not her birthplace, called the PSS in tears and very upset as today at work she was abused by a customer.

She reports that she was about to give out a script to an older male customer for an antidepressant which was new medication for him.

However as she approached the customer he suddenly became agitated and started shouting out: “No I am not talking to you, go back to where you come from!” in front of other customers.

Her boss came out of the dispensary and snatched the medication from her and sent her to the dispensary to check DAAs (Webster packs).  Her boss did not speak to her about the incident and carried on as if nothing had happened.

How PSS took the call:

  • The PSS volunteer listened and empathised, patiently waiting until she is able to speak without crying, and they discussed why the customer may have reacted that way and how she could have responded if her boss was not there.
  • They also spoke about why the boss reacted the way he did and why he did not discuss the situation with her afterwards.
  • The PSS volunteer did not give advice but allowed the caller to plan what to do next – she decided to talk to her boss about the situation. The volunteer suggested she makes an appointment time with her boss out of work hours so that they are no interrupted.


Gaining respect

A young pharmacist called the PSS and said he is having problems at work dealing with the shop assistants and that he thinks they do not respect him.

As the story unfolds this is his second year as a registered pharmacist and he has recently started working as a pharmacist in charge in a large shopping centre pharmacy, mostly evening and weekend shifts.

He gets on well with the dispensary assistant but finds the shop assistants difficult to deal with as they do not always communicate important information or understand the role of the pharmacist.

On the day of the call, after counselling a customer about a script he noticed one of the shop assistants providing information about complementary medicines to that customer.

When he tried to intervene the shop assistant stepped between him and the customer and said, “It is okay, I am just advising him about additional treatments to reduce side effects”.

Later the senior shop assistant, who has worked in the pharmacy for 10 years, came up to him and said loudly in front of other staff and customers: “In future, you are to stay in the dispensary and leave my staff alone. They have to meet their targets and don’t need you interfering.”

The young pharmacist says to the PSS volunteer “I just didn’t know what to say or do and became so angry I couldn’t speak.  I feel so embarrassed about this I do not want to talk about it with anyone I know.”

How PSS took the call:

  • The PSS volunteer listened carefully and empathised with the caller. The ethics of the situation were discussed including the responsibilities of a pharmacist.
  • They also discussed how he would have liked to handle the situation, including how he can assert himself and some techniques to control his emotions in a stressful situation.
  • Rather than giving advice the PSS volunteer helped the caller plan his next step, which was to speak with the pharmacist in charge, including how he might present his concerns about companion sales.


Who helps the helpers?

PSS volunteers play the role of counsellor to stressed-out pharmacists.

“It’s about listening and giving those who call coping strategies,” says Dunkley.

Her team of 25 trained volunteer pharmacists and retired pharmacists man the lines 365 days a year, from 8am to 11pm, with a mission to look after the health of the healthcare practitioners.

“We are also looking to conduct further research into the needs of the pharmacy profession,” she says.

Look out for Part 2 for more stories later in the week.


Did you like this article? Then you might be interested in the following stories:

New roles blocked by pay, workload worries

Workplace pressure: What you said

Pharmacists frustrated by medicines shortages

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1 Comment

  1. Cameron Walls

    Wonderful work PSS, thank you for sharing these stories. It’s great to know we have support available to us, and in such a broad range of situations.

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