‘If I make an error, am I a good person?’

Stressed pharmacist in dispensary

The stress experienced by pharmacists could mean the profession loses its “best and brightest,” warns one stakeholder

“Stress experienced by pharmacists is not a new concept and is in part due to dealing directly with the public who at times can be unforgiving and unreasonable,” says Curtis Ruhnau, a Sydney pharmacy owner and PDL director for NSW.

“Another layer of stress is added to the above when pharmacists have to practice in an environment which is sometimes understaffed and with high workload expectations.

“We do get our members contacting us and saying, ‘we feel unsafe, we feel stressed, we feel overworked’.

“And that pressure is something that affects both their work life and home life, because it’s something they feel they can never switch off – they feel the pressure to continue even after their rostered shifts have finished.”

Mr Ruhnau was commenting on the National Stress and Wellbeing Survey of Pharmacists, Intern Pharmacists and Pharmacy Students, which revealed this week that pharmacists suffer similar stress levels as doctors and other health professionals.

In their responses to the survey, several pharmacists said their work conditions – being forced to work while ill, or under pressure from understaffing or high script volumes – lead them to fear making a dispensing error.

“The fear of making a mistake, the fear of the consequences e.g. causing harm, the fear of litigation, the fear of disappointing others, letting people down, these are all barriers to seeking help,” one pharmacist wrote.

“That pressure can be unrelenting – it’s not just the workload itself, but the fear,” Mr Ruhnau told the AJP.

“PDL experience shows that stress combined with high workload dramatically increases the chance of making an error or making a poor decision.

“It can cause these young pharmacists to think, ‘If I make an error, am I a good person?’

“We know, with more experience on board, that good people can make errors – they can make terrible errors – and still be good people, but it does make them rethink themselves and their identity, as well as their choice of career.

“This can mean we lose some of the best and brightest of our profession.”

If an error does occur in the workplace, this in turn will turn up “the stress meter” so at this stage a circuit breaker is required, Mr Ruhnau says.


Talk about it

Mr Ruhnau says there are several ways a stressed pharmacist can reach out for help.

“I think our first advice would always be to speak to their manager or supervisor, or owner if they can, as they may be able to alleviate that pressure in some way,” he says.

“I would hope that if somebody brought these concerns to an owner, they would take it seriously and might be able to act on it.

“There are guidelines for what’s an acceptable workload. They are only guidelines, which makes it very difficult, but at the same time it’s a way to open that discussion.

“Nobody wants a rapid turnover of staff – to have somebody leave is a bad result for everybody. And each case has to be judged by itself, but owners do have a responsibility to be certain that their staff can practice in a safe and ethical manner.”

Mr Ruhnau also suggests that pharmacists talk to their peers in the profession, and any mentors, such as preceptors during their university days or previous employers.

“A great source of comfort for stressed pharmacists is talking with a relative or colleague,” he says.

“The Pharmacist Support Service have pharmacists who are trained counsellors available to provide a confidential service for pharmacists wishing to discuss a challenging situation or seeking a strategy to deal with stress.

“To complement this service, PDL has professional officers who are experienced pharmacists available to discuss practice issues and provide advice to minimise risk when workloads are high.

“The whole industry is under pressure, and we need to work together to develop new ways to work safely and ethically within the constraints of running a secure business which can actually service its patients.”

AJP will be reporting on stress affecting the pharmacy profession over the next couple of weeks. Readers are invited to tell their stories, either by leaving comments below or getting in touch with the AJP team.

PDL members can contact PDL on 1300 854 838.

Readers who are distressed can contact the Pharmacists’ Support Service on 1300 244 910.

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1 Comment

  1. Paige

    The fear of making a dispensing error is that the patient never comes back and the owner loses revenue that affects my job. Sad state of affairs that we’re more scared of costing the boss money than potentially killing someone.

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