Gender, Age Had an Effect on Pharmacist Stress Levels in the Early Pandemic

Frontline retail pharmacists had a stressful job even before the COVID-19 pandemic. A new study surveyed community pharmacists in Connecticut to determine how much stress levels increased, especially because pharmacies were so essential during the pandemic. Researchers found that gender and workplace appear to have made a significant difference. Here is more information.

STORRS, CT -- Community pharmacy is considered a high-stress working environment because it is high-risk, fast-paced and that workflow is frequently interrupted often with questions.

“These interruptions often occur because community pharmacists have long served as the most accessible healthcare professional in the United States (U.S.),” according to an article in Exploratory Research in Clinical and Social Pharmacy. “The importance of pharmacists' accessibility was highlighted at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 when public health officials implemented universal social distancing guidelines… Community pharmacists were included as ‘essential critical infrastructure workers’ and were thus guided by DHS to maintain a normal work schedule.1 As such, community pharmacies remained open and accessible to the public when many primary and ambulatory clinics closed for social distancing.”

University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy researchers point out that reports of increased stress among healthcare workers proliferated during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but little was reported about the experiences of community pharmacists.

That’s why the study team sought to characterize community pharmacists' stress and confidence during the early COVID-19 pandemic, as well as identify associated factors.

To do that, a survey was conducted among Connecticut pharmacists who worked in a brick-and-mortar community pharmacy -- big-box, chain, independent, or grocery pharmacies -- located in Connecticut and had regular face-to-face interaction with the public. Survey items were selected from the Perceived Stress Scale-10 (PSS-10) and adapted from the Emergency Risk-Communication (ERC) framework.

The authors report that survey results suggest pharmacists experienced moderate levels of stress, as negative responses to PSS-10 items ranged between 6.4% to 43.3%, respectively. “Overall, pharmacists had high rates of confidence in their ability to manage the pandemic, agreeing or strongly agreeing that they could manage their own mental health (73.1%), and communicate the risks of the pandemic (72.0%),” according to the research. “However, 28.0% reported that they had avoided talking about the pandemic because it made them feel ‘stressed, or nervous.’”

Researchers advise that women and those working in chain community pharmacies were more likely to report significantly higher rates of stress to several items in the PSS-10, as compared to men and pharmacists working in non-chain settings. In addition, women and chain community pharmacists were found to be significantly more likely to report overall that they had avoided talking about public health risks because it made them feel anxious, stressed, or depressed (29.4% men vs. 34.5% women χ2 (4) > 22.6, p < 0.01).

Still, according to the authors, “confidence to communicate critical risk messages neither differed between men and women (77.6% men vs. 68.8% women χ2 (4) > 8.3, p = 0.08), nor between chain and non-chain community pharmacists (71.0% chain vs. 73.7% non-chain χ2 (4) > 8.9, p = 0.32).”

The study concludes that female sex, younger age and employment at a chain pharmacy were associated with higher rates of stress and lower self-confidence among community pharmacists during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Complicating the situation is that stress levels were elevated among pharmacists even before the pandemic. Background information in the article notes that “rates of burnout and job dissatisfaction were high, as approximately one-out-of-five community pharmacists reported that work-related stress was so poor that it adversely affected their mental/physical health, quality of work, or personal relationships.”

That was only exacerbated by the pandemic, according to the authors, who note, “An inherent physical risk of remaining open and accessible to the public during the pandemic, coupled with changes to workload, staffing, and social distancing likely compounded pharmacists' stress. Indeed, during the early months of the pandemic, reports of significantly increased stress among healthcare workers were commonplace, with the media recognizing stress and burnout among hospital staff as frontline workers.”

Interestingly, the study states that little research was conducted on U.S. pharmacists' stress during the COVID pandemic; only a few surveys were done outside of the country at the time of this research, it notes.

“Much remains unknown about what community pharmacists faced as one of many other ‘forgotten’ groups of ‘essential frontline workers in the U.S.,” the authors conclude.