Why Do So Many Pharmacists Experience So Much Stress?

by | Oct 25, 2018 | Burnout, Career

Every job has stress.

Given that the definition of stress is “strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances,” it isn’t a stretch to assume that work and stress almost always co-exist.

While every job has stressful aspects, though, not every person is equally capable of handling stress well. Some people are far more susceptible to stress than others.

For them, the tension is often so great that resolving it seems improbable, and the problem with unresolved tension is that it occasionally leads to suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control found that, among those workers who reported job strain and long hours, the odds of suicide ideation were about four times greater than for those without job strain.

Pharmacists, of course, are no exception to this rule.

Although we have a shortage of information on the topic, the CDC mortality surveillance programs reports that pharmacists are twice as likely to commit suicide when compared to the general public.

Of the 482 occupations the CDC studied, pharmacists are the 14th most likely profession to commit suicide.

Outsiders, of course, assume that pharmacists have easy jobs. They stand behind a counter dispensing medication, and they earn more than $100,000 a year.


So why are pharmacists so stressed out?

I speak to at least one pharmacist a day through the course of my work, and I’ve heard countless stories about pharmacists and stress.

Though each pharmacist is different, I’ve noticed that five distinct categories of stress impact pharmacists in their work.

1.  Pharmacy work demands

Pharmacists are increasingly saddled with more and more demands at work. While this is no different from other organizations and industries, in the healthcare industry, it can lead to patient harm.

Countless pharmacists have shared their concerns about losing their licenses because they are often forced into situations by a grueling set of metrics. Rather than working to care for patients, their workflow is driven by numbers, or as I like to call it “Numbercare”.

Pharmacists often work long shifts in isolation, without the necessary resources to achieve those metrics.

Many pharmacists feel like they have no control over their own work, and their primary motivator — helping people — no longer seems to be a priority.

2. Poor pharmacy management

Bosses play a considerable role in their employees’ stress levels, and they are frequently the course of anxiety-producing conversations at work.

I recently created an Anonymous Pharmacist Employee Exit Survey – 2018 a few weeks ago. Of the 66 responses so far, 40.9% say the reason one of the reasons why they left their last job was due to Poor Leadership.

The blame doesn’t always fall on the boss just as it doesn’t always fall on the employee. Typically,  the problem is a lack of communication between the two.

It’s also true that because poor managers fail to lead their employees well, teams that should be working together toward a common goal often find themselves fighting among themselves.

I encountered a bully early in my pharmacy career, and it caused a tremendous amount of anxiety and stress in my work life. I considered quitting my job because the bully held such immense power over me and my career.

3. Patient demands on the pharmacist

While we’ve had many conversations in our industry about the patient experience in pharmacy, we’ve had far fewer discussions about the pharmacists’ experience.

Pharmacists are frequently on the receiving end of patient anger and frustration, which often manifests as yelling.

One pharmacist told me,

“not a day goes by that I’m not yelled at by a patient.”

Pharmacists are the last healthcare representatives patients see, usually after a long day of appointments, and perhaps on the heels of a new and frightening diagnosis. They often question why it takes so long to fill their medications, and they don’t understand the insurance process.

Although pharmacists aren’t empowered to solve these problems, patients often hold them responsible for the inconvenience they create.

4. Societal demands

Society has high expectations for pharmacists, and rightly so.

Our oath states that we will first do no harm, but harm will happen. Our system is imperfect because people are imperfect, yet society expects perfect pharmacists.

Although it doesn’t happen all the time, it’s true that imperfect pharmacists often put patients in danger. If a pharmacist dispenses the wrong medication or prescribes the wrong dose, it can result in the death of the patient.

Imagine knowing that your actions caused a patient to die.

Even if it was unintentional, that’s a heavy burden to bear.

When this happens, it causes pharmacists to lose confidence in their abilities and ultimately question whether to continue in the industry.

5. Colleague demands

The pharmacist can easily become an enemy to nurses, doctors, specialists, or other healthcare providers. Pharmacists find themselves fighting to be heard by others but are viewed as a problem.

Pharmacists are required to work with other providers to the patient gets safe and effective medication, but communication is challenging among busy providers, and the result is often anger directed at the pharmacist.

6. Demands pharmacists have no control over 

Pharmacists deal with many demands that are outside of their control.

Numerous factors influence the price of a medication, but pharmacists have no control over any of them. Pharmacists are trained to choose safe and effective medications to treat sickness and disease.

They aren’t equipped to answer why one medication costs more than another or why insurance companies won’t pay for a specific drug.

Whether the issue is a drug shortage or legislation that adds new demands to the prescription process, pharmacists feel these struggles. In many ways, pharmacists feel victimized by the healthcare industry.

As a result, I regularly hear from pharmacists who want out of the industry. They want to find fulfilling work without all the stress, which sometimes means leaving pharmacy altogether.

Over the years, we’ve helped quite a few people successfully transition out of retail pharmacy, out of hospital pharmacy, and out of PBMs. We’ve helped them find better jobs in pharma and administration roles, as well as jobs outside of the industry.


Hope for pharmacists

Our profession is still good. It’s necessary, and it’s filled with great people who want to help patients.

If you’re among the pharmacists who are struggling under stress right now, don’t let it lead you to an adverse outcome like burnout or even suicide. You have a way out.

Although you may feel trapped by your situation, we’ve helped many before you escape similar situations and find work that was more fulfilling and less stressful. Whether you pursue a pharmacy-related career path that’s new to you or a completely different industry, The Happy PharmD has a wealth of tools to help you move in a positive direction.

Email us at The Happy PharmD. Comment below with stressors you face that we didn’t mention here. We’d love to hear from you.


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Creating Happy Pharmacists

If you really want to build the career and life that you’ve dreamed of, one where you are helping people and working in a field that you love, you need to do something different than what you’ve been doing.

Through coaching you can re-discover why you became a pharmacist and find your passion again.