Psychologist seeks pharmacist’s brains! Guest Post by @errorgirlblog


Hannah Family ~ Twitter: @errorgirlblog ~ blog:

Hannah is a psychologist working with the pharmacy practice research group in the Department of Pharmacy & Pharmacology at the University of Bath. She is currently in her final year of her PhD research programme which is looking at whether pharmacists may be experiencing mental overload when they are at work, and if so if this may be related to dispensing errors.

Last week on BBC news 24 the tennis player Andy Murray was talking about his success in the Olympics and the US Open and how in part his success can be attributed to the work he has been doing with a sports psychologist (the interview can be found here: During this interview he talked about how he had worked with many sports psychologists in the past and hadn’t found them that helpful because they only concentrated on tennis and how to stay calm during the match. However, when his new coach Ivan Lendl suggested he worked with a sports psychologist and recommended the one he had worked with during his own tennis career, he agreed to give it another go. Happily, he explains that this psychologist has had a positive impact on his game this year because instead of focusing solely on the game (like all the other sports psychologists had) she has been helping him “deal with all the stuff that comes into your head from outside.” Andy Murray is a superb example of how reducing your mental workload can mean the difference between success and failure.

Mental workload very simply relates to how much of your mental resources you are using at any one moment. The reason psychologists like me measure mental workload is because we know that humans have a finite amount of mental resource (at any one moment our brain can only do/think about as much as you can fit on one post-it note). This means that when thoughts from outside pop into your head (that are irrelevant to the task at hand / the tennis match) we know those thoughts are using up valuable mental space which could be used to help you carry out the task. Annoyingly we tend to be fairly good at knowing how much we can physically do at any one moment, but probably because we can’t see what is going on in our brain, we often aren’t aware of how much we can mentally do and so it is easy for us to overload our brains either through taking on tasks that are simply too demanding, or through giving our brains extra work to do by trying to think about too many things at once.

Why do we care if people are overloading their brains? We care because in other industries (e.g. aerospace, manufacturing) low mental workload (when our brains aren’t doing enough) and high mental workload (a.k.a mental overload) has been related to the occurrence of errors and safety incidents. We also know that sometimes the way tasks are designed, or required to be carried out can add unnecessary workload to a person’s mental processes or indeed overload them.  Human factors experts look at tasks in great detail to make sure this doesn’t happen. Similarly the environment we work in can add extra mental workload so it is important to consider not just the task, but where you are carrying it out. For example, consider the difference you might feel carrying out your pharmacy work in a busy pharmacy compared to doing the same work in a quiet office (one might feel a bit more mentally draining than the other). We also know that mental workload is linked to how much you enjoy or derive satisfaction from your work, and that it is one factor linked to burnout, job turnover and absenteeism. There is of course you and your life outside work too. You will have an impact on the amount of mental workload you experience at work too because it varies in relation to our mood and energy levels. This means we need to be aware of how much we are having an impact on our own mental workload, as well as the work and the environment we work in.  Of course mental workload is only one factor that will affect your experience at work and your ability to carry out your work safely and accurately.

The reason why I have been so interested in exploring mental workload in pharmacy is because of the documented workload pressures in pharmacy workplaces at the moment, especially within community pharmacies as the balance between healthcare and business priorities becomes harder to juggle in the current financial climate. In the last 5-10 years the profession has seen a very large increase in workload through greater dispensing activity and new roles that pharmacists are taking on which hasn’t been matched by increases in staffing levels.

So the aim of my research is simply to find out the levels of mental workload involved in routine community pharmacy tasks (e.g. dispensing activities) and how this changes when we alter the parameters of the environment the task is carried out in, and also how the task is carried out. We also measure how these task and environment manipulations impact on errors on the tasks so that we can find out if these factors are linked to safety incidents in pharmacies. This past year I have been inviting community pharmacists to come and take part in a simulated pharmacy study which takes about 1hr 30minutes to 2hours to complete. I ask my participants to complete 2 sets of routine pharmacy tasks and complete some questionnaires at the beginning, in between and at the end of the tasks. I ask all our participants to come to the University of Bath to take part because that way I can ensure that all our participants complete the tasks under the same conditions (knowing as we do that the characteristics of the environment you carry out a task in can affect your mental workload). Due to the time and travel involved, we are able to offer funds to employ locum cover a day to pharmacies whilst their pharmacists come and take part, or if pharmacists take part on a day off or are a locum we offer them  equivalent of a days locum fee for taking part and we reimburse all participant’s travel expenses.

The study is a lot of fun and all the pharmacists I’ve met have been the most amazing people and I hope I bump into them again in the future if I am lucky enough to continue my career in pharmacy practice.

I would like to tell you more about the theory of the study and what we hope to find, but we haven’t finished recruiting and meeting participants yet, and until this is complete I cannot share the finer details until all my participants have taken part. I promise I will write another post for Mr Dispenser, when the data collection is complete to tell you a little more about the theory behind the study.

To date over 80 community pharmacists have taken part in our study but we need more to reach our targets, if you are a community pharmacist and you would like to take part – there is still time (until December 2012!) please contact me on if you would like to know more. *I am particularly looking for lots more community pharmacists who work in independent pharmacies to take part!*



One thought on “Psychologist seeks pharmacist’s brains! Guest Post by @errorgirlblog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s