Coping with stress: How to support Pharmacy Co-workers

June 28th, 2020 General Pharmacy | Health | Locum Pharmacy No Comments

Coping with stress as a pharmacist is an everyday occurrence. However, the pandemic is putting unprecedented pressure on pharmacy. And this means more pressure on pharmacy workers. 

It’s important to support each other during the pandemic. That’s easily said. But what would you do if you were worried about a co-worker?

So, what does a colleague in distress look like? What behaviours might they exhibit and what can you do to help?

What are the signs of distress?

The word ‘distress’ might sound melodramatic but it’s the word psychological first aiders use to describe a person reacting to a traumatic event or under stress.

Distress is not always physically apparent. It may be shown by changes in behaviour, the words a person chooses to use or by the absence of something, such as a personality trait. 

Below are four types of reactions that a person in distress may exhibit:

Emotional reactions

Some emotional reactions are obvious such as crying. But people often work hard to hide their emotions from others. This may be because they don’t want to seem unable to cope or they don’t want their emotion to become an additional problem for others.

Typical emotional reactions include:

  • Anxiety and feelings of helplessness
  • Guilt, frustration or anger
  • Feeling sad or lonely

You may only be able to understand someone’s emotional state by talking to them and listening carefully to the words they choose to use.

Cognitive reactions

For people working in the dispensary, stress that compromises their ability to think straight can be potentially dangerous. This is where peer-support can certainly count in helping to spot someone in distress.

Types of cognitive reactions include:

  • Lack of concentration or focus
  • Confusion or impaired memory
  • Hypervigilance (increased alertness or agitation)

Social Reactions

We understand someone’s social reactions by interacting and talking with them. Whilst it may help to know that person already, a locum pharmacist can still be aware of the social reactions of distress:

Someone experiencing a social reaction to distress may:

  • Feel less confident or have lower self-esteem.
  • Withdraw or be quieter than normal.
  • Become easily annoyed or increased conflict with others
  • Show a lack of self-care

For people who are self-isolating or those who are now working from home, a daily shower may have become optional. But a lack of personal hygiene can otherwise be a sign of someone who isn’t coping with stress very well.

Physical reactions

Physical reactions are a physical response to a stressful situation. Sometimes, they can only be detected through a medical test – such as an increase in blood pressure. Otherwise, it’s picking up on little signs of physical wellness that may be the indicator of distress.

A physical reaction to stress may include:

  • Sweating
  • Headaches
  • Lack of appetite or increased appetite
  • Poor sleep
  • Obsessive behaviours such as cleanliness
  • Alcohol or drug use.

Why might a pharmacy co-worker be under more stress than you?

You’re both working in the same environment, right?

Outside of the workplace, a colleague’s private life may have additional stressors caused by the pandemic. So, it’s these additional issues that may make coping with stress even harder.

Many people like to keep work and home life very separate. So, it’s important to remain empathic to potential situations your co-workers could be dealing with:

  • Their partner may have lost their job because of lockdown.
  • They may have caring responsibilities for elderly relatives.
  • Someone in their family may be on the shielding list.
  • They may be currently homeschooling their children because of school closures.
  • They may be choosing to live away from their family to prevent infection.
  • Someone they care about may have died from COVID-19.

Distress or Mental Illness?

The symptoms of distress and mental illness can be the same. However, the key difference between someone experiencing distress and someone dealing with mental health problems is the timeframe. Distress is relatively short-term. But if symptoms persist, this could mean the onset of mental illness.

How to be a good listener

Having someone to talk to can really help a person in distress feel better. However, active listening is a skill and there are a few tips that can make your support more effective:

  • Pay attention to a person’s tone of voice or body language when listening.
  • Make eye contact with them.
  • Repeat and clarify what they’ve said to show you’ve listened and understood.
  • Help normalise what they’re feeling by saying things like “It’s understandable to feel that way…” or “it’s a tricky situation and your reaction is very natural…”

Try to remain open and present when listening and keep the focus on their feelings. This isn’t about sharing your experiences either.

  • Don’t ask them to go into detail about their experiences. This may be hard for them to do or it may make them uncomfortable or more distressed.
  • Avoid making assumptions about their situation.
  • Don’t compare or make judgements. Coping with stress is a personal experience.
  • Be aware of any cultural differences that may make your offer of support more awkward or inappropriate.
  • Avoid labels, discussing symptoms or diagnosing a condition.

How to help a colleague coping with stress

Firstly, know that you are not responsible to resolve or treat a colleague’s distress. Your role as a co-worker is to:

  • Be aware of the signs of distress.
  • Support someone who is experiencing stress as a colleague or as a friend.
  • Escalate to a manager or other medical professional as necessary.

It’s also important to ensure that you are both safe plus aren’t compromising any social distancing protocols while offering help.

As a colleague or friend, your de-stress-superpower is being available to talk to. Opening a dialogue can be tricky. But here are a few ideas that may help:

  • Let your colleagues know that you are available to talk to. It may be easier to offer support to a team than to single out one person.
  • Suggest an informal debrief session at the end of your shift.
  • Trying smiling and asking someone how their day was.
  • Get everyone to rate their day on a scale of one to five and give a reason why.
  • Use humour where appropriate. Laughter is the best form of medicine…
  • If you don’t know an individual or aren’t comfortable talking to them, discretely raise any concerns with a fellow co-worker who knows the individual better than you.

Managers can help by:

  • Creating a safe, non-judgemental workplace (or at least making conversations with “the boss” open and confidential). 
  • Making work as flexible as possible because autonomy can help people cope with stress.
  • Leading by example: take regular breaks, don’t work long hours and don’t take work home with you.

Additional Support

If you believe a person is a danger to themselves or others, you should consider referring them to their GP or mental health services. A mental health emergency should be treated as seriously as a physical health emergency.

Otherwise, professional support can be accessed through their GP or through calling NHS 111. Psychological therapies can also be accessed without seeing a GP. Plus, you can contact crisis support services in your area using the NHS’s crisis support page.

For most people experiencing stress having someone to talk to and accessing simple advice, such as from Every Mind Matters, might be all they need to feel better and find coping with stress easier.

If you are unsure what to do, always escalate to a supervisor or manager.

Stay healthy and look after each other, pharmacy professionals – the country needs you!


This post was written on behalf of My Locum Choice by Nicola Hasted from Pharmacy Mentor.


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