Thoughts on Faculty Burnout

Another great way to prepare for the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) annual meeting (#PharmEd17) this week is to read up on recent studies published by its flagship publication: American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education.  One particular paper caught my attention recently.  A survey demonstrating pharmacy practice faculty burnout, with particularly alarming “emotional exhaustion” results (over 40% of respondents reporting high EE), was conducted by Professor Shareen Y. El-Ibiary and colleagues and published in the May edition of the journal (Link to full text here).

Measuring Burnout is Just the Beginning

First thing to consider, is the complexity of a construct such as burnout or the domain of emotional exhaustion.  Employee burnout may relate to job dissatisfaction and could possibly predict future job turnover as unhappy employees leave to seek greener pastures.  Burnout is certainly a worth-while measure that leaders of organizations should consider and it may be helpful to capture variables related to burnout through a mixed-methods approach or even identify indirect measures (absenteeism, organizational commitment, job satisfaction, etc.).

I thought Dr. El-Ibiary et al. did a fantastic job setting the stage for this research and also acknowledging some of the limitations with response bias, etc.  I would love to see the research team take the next step in linking self-reported burnout to turnover intentions or possibly Dr. Albert Hirshman’s Exit-Voice-Loyalty-Neglect model of employee responses to dissatisfaction.  I’m curious if higher self-reported emotional exhaustion among junior faculty predicts outcomes that harm the organization (lower student engagement, turnover, or other destructive outcomes for a school).  If we can quantify the potential “costs of faculty burnout” then we may be able to justify reallocating resources to effective interventions – assuming we know what those effective interventions are.

Managing Expectations

One major challenge I have faced throughout my career involves managing expectations.  For a retail pharmacy manager, it is critical to manage customer expectations – for example, a 15-minute prescription wait time guarantee may set an unrealistic expectation for every prescription filled which often leads to a dissatisfied customers still waiting after 16 minutes.  I attribute most of my customer service success in retail to having open conversations with my patients about the process of dispensing and explaining why it was important for me to contact their doctor, delaying the process.  Additionally, managing my pharmacy technicians’ expectations related to “tardiness” for a work shift made it much easier to take action when they came in late.  By being clear about my values on tardiness and how it impacts workflow, my technicians could expect a very stern response to lateness – and if improvement wasn’t observed they could expect to find a new job.

However, managing one’s own expectations related to his or her job satisfaction can be extremely difficult.  I have been blessed with many amazing opportunities throughout my career and have experienced many moments of extremely high satisfaction with the work I am doing…that are sometimes followed by moments of complete disappointment and feelings of dissatisfaction.  Throughout any work day we all may experience a variety of emotions – maybe anger from opening a bad email to frustration while trying to record a lecture in your office only to be disturbed by constant ambulance sirens from the nearby emergency department to joy from a “Thank You” note dropped off by a student.  While these emotions are fleeting, they may impact our overall attitude about the day.  A few years ago, I was much worse in handling my response to short term emotions (at least I think I’ve gotten a little better – you’d have to ask my wife or best friends for their observations here…).  Even though I’m aware of this emotion/attitude phenomenon, I’m still susceptible to moments of despair which could impact my responses to a burnout survey at any given time.

We Need Reminders

One strategy I use to improve my overall job satisfaction is setting out reminders, both physical (such as an engraved ink pen given to me by a student for writing them a letter of recommendation) and electronic (Outlook appointments to review progress on long-term goals – to help me focus on the bigger picture).  Sometimes just a simple conversation with my wife, mentors, friends, or family helps me reset my expectations.  While actively engaged in any stressful job or task, I can easily forget how remarkable it is that I’m even a college faculty member given my pathway to get here…

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Joey Mattingly, PharmD, MBA is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy located in Baltimore, Maryland. Joey has managed retail and long-term care pharmacy operations in Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana. Leading Over The Counter is a blog of Joey's views and opinions on the topics of pharmacy leadership and management and do not represent the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Joey can be followed on Twitter @joeymattingly.

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