The Perils of Pharmacist Burnout

1 year ago  •  Add Comment  •  by Donna Bliss

The alarm rings in the morning signaling the start of a new work day, yet you lie there paralyzed and unable to move. The thought of facing another stress-filled day at the pharmacy grips you with an overwhelming feeling of dread. You could call in sick again. Exhausted from tossing and turning all night, your whole body aches. What does it matter anyway? Standing all day, answering the same questions and attempting to resolve the same problems seems to get you nowhere. You’re emotionally and physically exhausted. Maybe it’s the flu? More accurately you are probably experiencing the classic symptoms of occupational fatigue, better known as burnout.

Though burnout and occupational fatigue can be found in every industry, pharmacists and other healthcare professionals can definitely lay claim to a particularly stress-filled, and fast-paced work environment. In 2014, a National Pharmacist Workforce Study exposed this truth when they reported that well over half of the pharmacists polled described their workload as being high or excessively high and 45% of the pharmacists in the study claimed that their workload had affected their emotional and mental health in a negative way. With the demand on pharmacists’ time and the fact that the pharmacy setting can be a complex work environment these stats are understandable.

Herbert Freudenberger, a busy psychologist from New York, experienced some of these same issues first-hand in 1970. Self-diagnosing his condition would ultimately lead him to coin the term burnout. He recognized back then that the cynicism, detachment and overwhelming feeling of exhaustion he was experiencing had to mean something more than just some random illness.

What is burnout?

Burnout is defined as physical, emotional, and or mental exhaustion usually as a result of excessive or prolonged stress or frustration. It doesn’t only affect your physical well-being, it is a trifecta of physical, mental and emotional strain. It is also fair to point out that significant stress in one area i.e. your job, can also create stress and conflict in other areas of your life. Pharmacists who deal with stress are apt to take that stress home with them.

The physical symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • gastrointestinal issues
  • neck pain
  • headaches
  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease
  • lowered immunity

The emotional and mental aspects can include:

  • feeling helpless
  • depression
  • negativity and irritability
  • decreased sense of accomplishment
  • withdrawal
  • self-doubt
  • alcohol or drug use

Studies have shown that burnout and prolonged stress can not only cause the brain to rewire itself, but the symptoms can even be contagious to those around you. It is important to note that burnout is cumulative and does not happen overnight, and will only get worse if it is not addressed. The end result can become a vicious cycle of physical and emotional turmoil that not only can take a lasting physical toll on the body but can also affect your personal happiness, mental well-being, and your relationships with those around you. From a business standpoint, burnout can mean missed days, lack of productivity and even termination.

What causes burnout?

Since people typically spend most of their waking hours at work, it is easy to draw a correlation between job-related stress and burnout. Some specific factors that might lead to burnout include:

  • Workload
  • Inadequate positive reinforcement or rewards
  • Lack of workplace community or lack of social support
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics
  • Work-life imbalance
  • Lack of control with the work setting (with your schedule, assignments or workload)

A heavy workload or a stressful job does not necessarily equate automatically to burnout, but some or all of these factors combined can definitely lead to it. Pharmacists play an important role in their patient’s lives, and the pharmacist’s inability to do their job at a high level can definitely have a negative impact on their patients. Not only are pharmacist’s who suffer from burnout more likely to deliver inadequate care, but the potential of inaccurate prescriptions and or diagnoses can’t be ignored. The probability of poor customer service and patient dissatisfaction is also high. Many pharmacists fear the negative connotations that might come from their admitting to burnout. These can include fear of confidentiality, its perception as a personal weakness, repercussions from management and other colleagues, or having to disclose any prior treatment on their medical license application.

Winning the battle against burnout

The Mayo Clinic offers some suggestions on how to take action once you have identified that you might be suffering from burnout:

  1. Evaluate your options – Take inventory of the potential factors that might be contributing to your feelings of burnout and consider solutions that are within your control to help alleviate some of the stress factors. Prioritize goals to address things that are more immediate than others. Also, acknowledging that there is an issue is the first step to finding a solution.
  2. Seek support – Discuss concerns with those around you that have the ability to help initiate these changes. Whether it is co-workers, friends, or loved ones, it is in their best interest to make sure you are functioning at your best. Mentorship is also a great resource. They can not only provide invaluable advice but also act as a sounding board for the job-specific issues you might be experiencing.
  3. Schedule time for yourself – Don’t leave vacation time on the table, if you have it make sure you use it. Contradictory to what you might believe, the pharmacy world and all that goes with it will remain spinning on its axis even if you are away from it. Make time for yourself, be it a 5-minute break in your car, or a week-long trip to a spa. Recharging your batteries could be just the reset you need to conquer burnout.


Burnout is a very real epidemic that plagues the fast-paced and stressful environment that pharmacists and other healthcare professionals work in. It can lead not only to fatigue and other physical ailments, but can also affect your mental and emotional well-being. If not addressed, it can and most likely will get worse. Burnout affects not just the person experiencing it but others around them. Where public safety is involved, the effects of burnout cannot be ignored. Despite the fact that there are a variety of factors that can lead to burnout, there are steps that the individual can take to overcome its effects and enact changes to stop it from reoccurring.

Though there seems to be a lack of information on the specific factors that lead to pharmacist burnout, the industry as a whole must take notice in an effort to recognize and alleviate the causes and its potential consequences. The industry must also seek out ways to lift the stigma that burnout can carry on both sides of the table. These efforts could be the first step to eradicating what might otherwise become a silent epidemic. Currently, there is a widely recognized way to evaluate and measure burnout known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory described in detail in an American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy article, which also offers great insight into the problem.

There is an old adage famously attributed to the great and wise Albert Einstein that suggest that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”. Who really said it isn’t important, what is important is the message behind it – if you don’t enact change in a bad situation, you shouldn’t expect to see a positive or different outcome.

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