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Don't feel the burn

Burnout is a growing issue in busy workplaces and frazzled homes, but pharmacy advice can tackle the flames.

As the world has transformed in recent years, our workplaces have also shifted to adapt, bringing with it challenges for employers in maintaining mentally healthy environments for their staff.

In community pharmacies, daily trials caused by underfunding and medicines shortages are having an impact, with workforce capacity in particular more of an issue than ever, especially as Pharmacy First – welcome as it is – adds extra pressure to pharmacy workloads. Indeed, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s (RPS) latest Workforce and Wellbeing Survey shows 93 per cent of people working in community pharmacy were already at a high risk of burnout.

And they are not alone: the first annual Burnout Report 2024 conducted by Mental Health UK shows nine in 10 adults in the UK experienced high or extreme stress in the past year – from a total sample size of 2,060 adults of which 1,132 were workers. What’s more, 20 per cent of workers said they had needed to take time off work due to poor mental health caused by pressure or stress.

What is burnout?

Stress is the body’s response to pressure and while commonplace in life, long-term exposure to high or extreme levels of stress can result in burnout.

Burnout is recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.

Some nine in 10 adults in the UK (91 per cent) who responded to the Mental Health UK survey said they experienced high or extreme levels of pressure or stress at some point in the past year. Adults aged 35-44 (95 per cent) tended to experience high or extreme levels of pressure or stress more than any other age group, with women (93 per cent) more likely than men (88 per cent) to be affected.

When asked about the factors which have caused them stress and may have contributed to burnout in the past year, the majority of working adults in the survey said that ‘a high or increased workload or volume of tasks at work – unpaid’ (54 per cent), ‘regularly working unpaid overtime beyond contracted hours’ (45 per cent) and ‘feeling isolated at work’ (42 per cent) had done so. Worryingly, 49 per cent of UK working adults who responded to the survey said their employer doesn’t have a plan in place to spot the signs of chronic stress and prevent burnout in employees, and over a third of workers (35 per cent) do not feel comfortable raising these concerns.

“More than 68 million GP appointments are used annually to discuss treatments for stress”

Symptoms

Although some stress at work is to be expected, sustained and severe stress poses a threat to both physical and mental health if left unchecked.

As well as the emotional effects of burnout caused by prolonged stress, there are also physical signs and symptoms that can signal that someone is experiencing burnout. For example, tension headaches can be a sign of chronic stress, as well as digestive issues, being more susceptible to common viral infections, and problems with sleep.

Management options

While the majority of adults (73 per cent) questioned by Mental Health UK said they feel able to manage stress and pressure levels in their lives, almost one in four (24 per cent) felt unable to do so.

When asked about the factors which have helped to alleviate stress and prevent burnout, the 71 per cent agreed that ‘having a supportive network of family or friends outside of work’, ‘having a healthy work-life balance’ (56 per cent) and ‘exercising regularly’ (56 per cent) were helpful.

Meanwhile, in-work initiatives and factors such as ‘having a supportive line manager at work’ (43 per cent), ‘having a supportive network of professional colleagues or peers’ (42 per cent), ‘reasonable adjustments at work’ (38 per cent), ‘professional support for mental health’ (29 per cent) and ‘organisations offering staff training around mental health at work’ (24 per cent) were also cited as having a positive impact.

Remind customers that exercise releases feel-good hormones that can help combat stress and anxiety.

Outside of work

Of course, burnout isn’t confined to the workplace. When asked about the factors in life which have caused them stress and may have contributed to burnout in the past year, survey respondents noted that ‘poor sleep’ (64 per cent), ‘financial uncertainty due to the cost-of-living crisis’ (53 per cent), ‘money worries in general’ (53 per cent), ‘poor physical health’ (46 per cent), ‘feeling isolated’ (43 per cent), and ‘caring responsibilities’ (34 per cent) had done so.

And new research from Kalms has revealed that burnout doesn’t discriminate based on age. According to a study amongst 2,000 UK adults conducted by Kalms, Gen Z (18–26-year-olds) is officially the most burnt-out generation, with Millennials (27–42-year-olds) following closely behind, as well as frazzled Gen Xers (43–58-year-olds) tending to kids, housework and an ageing parent, and the retired Baby Boomers (59–77-year-olds) concerned about maintaining their quality of life. 

Red flags

Since stress can be an underlying cause for a wider mental health issue such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders, Kenny Chan, Numark lead information services pharmacist, recommends that pharmacy teams should recognise that people may need further support and should be referred to their GP.

“Prescription medication such as antidepressants may be the best option for these patients,” he adds. “Any patients that are having suicidal thoughts, or displaying irrational and dangerous behaviours, need to be referred to get extra help.”

Customers who want further help from other healthcare professionals can also be signposted on, depending on what they want. Ali Cullen, A.Vogel nutritional therapist, suggests: “Nutritional practitioners and medical herbalists can help, and acupuncture can be excellent for balancing endocrine function.”

“Listen to the patient,” says Kenny. “Would a GP be the best option? Would medication help? Has the patient tried any other treatment options? The NHS offers free mental wellbeing audio guides, which can be signposted if they’d like to try these first. There are also free talking therapies that patients can access on the NHS such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and some patients may be able to access help through their work and their employers could refer them to occupational health services.”

Above all, pharmacy teams can reassure customers that burnout is a natural response to prolonged anxiety and stress and in many instances, this reassurance, and the associated advice, will be exactly what’s needed to support them to address it.

OTC product advice

Many people will turn to the pharmacy for help with over-the-counter (OTC) remedies and supplements to help tackle anxiety, stress and its accompanying symptoms.

“For those looking for additional short-term support, pharmacy staff can recommend OTC tools to help regulate stress, restore energy levels and relieve burnout,” says burnout coach Jayne Morris. For example, she explains: “Rhodiola rosea [is] a powerful herb that can help your body and brain process stress more effectively. Studies have shown that Rhodiola rosea fights fatigue, enhances our ability to concentrate, and promotes a positive mood.”

Kenny Chan, Numark lead information services pharmacist, recommends: “Magnesium, which is an important vitamin for supporting cell function but may also support mood and emotions, and omega-3, found to be useful in the management of medical conditions and mental illnesses and can help anxiety amongst young adults. There are also other complementary products that can help with nerves and anxiety, which come in various forms such as drops and pastilles as well as tablets, and CBD oil products have also become popular for relaxation.”

Some herbal extracts can also support better quality sleep. Ali says: “Herbs such as Lemon Balm and Lactuca sativa can promote better quality sleep without being habit-forming or causing problems with concomitant medication.”

Kenny adds to the list with:

  • Lavender – typically used for aromatherapy but may also be effective at reducing feelings of anxiety and can help with sleep as well
  • Valerian – which may help with insomnia-related anxiety
  • Hops – often combined with Valerian to be more effective
  • Passion flower – also found in combination products with Valerian to help with sleep.

In addition, diphenhydramine is a sedating antihistamine which Kenny says “can be used temporarily” to help people get back to a regular sleeping pattern.

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