The Missing Prescription for Burnout

Pharmacists across the US walked out this week after claiming burnout. How leaders in that sector—and others—can address what’s become a new workforce epidemic.

It wasn’t a scene anyone wanted to see—pharmacists at drugstores across the country staging a walkout. But the issue wasn’t money. Instead, it was workload, longer hours, and other stresses that have persisted since the pandemic ended.

Even major healthcare companies agree: The demands on retail pharmacists are mounting, and as industry officials point out, a labor shortage has exacerbated them. “It’s become a very high-stress job,” says Kae Robertson, a senior client partner in the Healthcare practice at Korn Ferry. “Retail pharmacists are now expected to do a lot more work beyond just pharmacist work.”

According to a recent CDC report, 46% of US healthcare workers report feeling burned out, a 14% increase over 2018. But pharmacists and healthcare workers aren’t alone. Workers across industries continue to report elevated levels of burnout, particularly in areas like financial services, insurance, construction, professional services, and telecommunications. And while most corporate leaders seem to be aware of the issue, few have been able to find a solution, says Mindy Kairey, a senior client partner in the Healthcare and Board and CEO Services practices at Korn Ferry. “Burnout has become a workforce pandemic in its own right, and it probably hasn’t peaked yet.”

Burnout is a serious problem that can impact productivity, damage customer relationships, lead to recruiting and retention issues, and even hurt financial performance. In the healthcare industry, the repercussions can be even more damaging, says Robertson, negatively affecting patient care and safety.

One challenge leaders face over burnout is simply measuring it, says David Vied, global sector leader for medical devices and diagnostics at Korn Ferry. “There’s not a red flag that alerts leaders that an employee is in danger of burnout,” says Vied. “In many cases, employees aren’t aware they are at risk of burning out until it is too late.” Another challenge is that firms tend to view the solution to burnout in binary terms: either add staff or reduce hours. In the current economic environment, however, companies are more likely to be considering layoffs or hiring freezes. And while technology, especially generative artificial intelligence, could eventually help with administrative and other tasks that aren’t customer facing, that is still a long way off.

Leaders in other industries could take a cue from their retail pharmacy counterparts and reevaluate performance targets to see how they are correlated with employee burnout, says Kairey. In retail pharmacies, for instance, metrics on the number of prescriptions filled or vaccines administered daily have either been loosened or eliminated in recent years.

David Ellis, vice president of global talent acquisition transformation at Korn Ferry, lists job sharing, the growing interest among professionals in part-time work, and other gig-like arrangements as overlooked methods of triage for burnout. “A phased approach could address supply-and-demand talent challenges,” he says. “Think about what needs to get done and who needs to do it.” Leaders can staff up in high-demand markets or reconfigure their physical locations to address labor shortages. Kairey muses that drugstore chains with multiple locations in an area could designate one solely for vaccines and another for prescription-medication refills, for instance. 

“Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix for burnout,” says Kairey. “The fact is that there are greater demands being placed on workers and less support given to them.”


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