Friday, March 8, 2019

A pharmacist who burnt out has a new mission: mental health

By Louise Kinross

Amy Hu is a pharmacist at Holland Bloorview who became interested in children’s rehab after doing a student placement here. She’s been with us for seven years, was the clinical pharmacy coordinator, and is moving into a new role with our quality team. I know Amy from the weekly staff mindfulness sessions offered by social worker Anne-Marie Batelaan. Amy says it was her own experience with burnout that made her want to talk about the importance of staff mental health. ‘I’d like to make staff mental wellbeing a priority in our organization,” she says.

BLOOM: How did you get into this field?

Amy Hu:
I fell into pharmacy because I wanted to do something with science that involved helping people. In second year I had a placement here and discovered this amazing place. I learned about the uniqueness of working in a rehab setting. Most people in pharmacy work in an acute-care or community setting, and pediatric rehab is such a niche. The unique part is how we get to follow clients for much longer than in acute-care. That means you really get to know not just the client but the whole family, and it’s very gratifying from that perspective.

I came here after the hospital moved into our new building. The natural light throughout the building, and the idea of bringing nature in, was so different from other older hospitals I’d been in. It's a healing environment.

The clients and families are resilient and courageous and inspire you every day, and the staff are incredible. The breadth of care we offer, and the amount of skill and passion people bring to their work, left a huge impression on my mind as a student. After my schooling and training, there was an opportunity here and I snatched it up.

BLOOM: What is a typical day like?

Amy Hu:
There’s a lot of activity happening in the basement. That’s the control hub of medication management in this hospital.

The pharmacists could be rounding with the interprofessional team, reviewing medications with families, calling a community pharmacy to help transition a family back to the community, or helping to wean a client off of pain medicines.

Our technician team could be preparing medicines for our inpatients and adjusting them constantly as they change over time. We also sit on many hospital committees to ensure medication safety and do project work at a higher level. We mentor many students and end up hiring about half of them. So there’s a great variety of clinical and project and teaching work. We also support clinical trials at the hospital.

BLOOM: How many people work in pharmacy?

Amy Hu:
There are 10 bodies overall and we have just under three full-time pharmacists.

BLOOM: How did you move from being a pharmacist to your coordinator role?

Amy Hu:
I think it speaks to the increasing complexity and acuity we’re seeing in our population, which I feel started about five to six years ago. I realized that the clinical skills I learned in school weren’t enough to serve the clients here, whose needs were shifting. It required more collaboration and problem-solving at a higher level and more leadership skills. So I went back to school for a master’s of health administration while I was working here.

BLOOM: How did you do that?

Amy Hu:
It was an incredible program at the University of Toronto that enabled me to take two days off every three weeks, and you carry close to a full-time work load and do courses back to back. It allowed me to bring real-world problems and issues into the classroom, and what I learned I could apply back here. I loved the program and use the skills I learned every day.

Now I’m about to move onto our quality team in a new role the organization has supported. The goal is to support front-line teams on projects related to quality or process improvement. It’s something I'm passionate about, and have done for the pharmacy team as a coordinator, but I haven’t had a chance to work with many other teams. This role will allow me to work with inpatient and outpatient teams across the hospital. I'm really looking forward to meeting and learning from our teams, understanding their work flow and hopefully bringing forth meaningful change.

BLOOM: What is the greatest joy of your work?

Amy Hu:
Meeting the amazing people at our hospital. It takes special people to work here, to be a nurse or a social worker or a therapist or a therapeutic clown. It’s incredible to have everyone working together, and that includes the non-clinical staff from departments like information systems, teaching and learning, the research institute and our leadership team.

BLOOM: What is the greatest challenge?

Amy Hu:
The greatest challenge is that there’s so much that can be done here and so many well intentioned people, that it’s easy to go overboard.

BLOOM: You mean in terms of staff?

Amy Hu:
Yes. These days on the frontline I feel like it’s rare to bump into somebody who is coping really well. There can be a lot of stress and symptoms of burn out. That's concerning. It affects people’s capacity to do the work they love to do. Clinicians are put in positions where they have to say I would really like to do this, but I just physically can’t. How do I choose? That’s a tough place when you’re trained as caregivers to give.

BLOOM: What kind of emotions come with the job?

Amy Hu:
All the myriad of human emotions. Like many other people, I have high expectations on myself and feel guilty when I feel like I should be doing more. There’s work stress, and then conflicts between team members can be challenging as well. A couple of years ago it really kicked in for me and I burnt out.

BLOOM: What happened?

Amy Hu:
Work was really tough and I had a family crisis on the side. I remember one day sitting in front of my computer, double checking a medication order before it went to the unit, and the words were not registering. I thought to myself: ‘What am I doing here? This is not safe. I need to stop.’ With the support of our occupational health nurse, my physician and my team, I was on stress leave for almost two months.

BLOOM: What did you learn?

Amy Hu:
As a clinician, you never intend to get to a point where you can’t work. I really learned my own limits. I’m human and I’m fallible and I need to take better care of myself. I needed to actually learn how to be kind to myself. While I was off, I took the mindful self-compassion course, and that was transformative for me.

BLOOM: That’s the course that our social workers Anna Marie and Dagmara offered to staff here recently.

Amy Hu:
Yes. It's amazing that this program was offered here. I did it elsewhere. It helped me to get back to work stronger than I was before—to be more present, and to take time to reflect on what’s important to me, what I value, and how can I bring more of that into what I do. I acknowledged that I needed help from counsellors and mentors. It was a very humbling experience.

BLOOM: What do you do differently now?

Amy Hu:
 With practice, I can take micro pauses throughout the day and become more aware of my experience. I notice if I’m getting triggered, or if certain emotions are coming up, and I allow them to be there. By pausing, leaning in to the emotions, and befriending them, I find I can respond in a kinder way. 

In the past, I was relentless at pushing myself beyond my capacity. Now I say ‘Let’s take a breath.’ The self-awareness helps to regulate my emotions and I also find it helps me to be with the challenges that other people may be experiencing. Finding inner compassion helped me to be a more empathetic person and to better support the people around me.

BLOOM: I think many staff may feel burnt out, but are afraid to approach someone with what they’re going through.

Amy Hu:
That’s why I want to share this story. I think there can be a lot of fear and shame and guilt around recognizing that you may need more support. And it’s not your fault.

The work is quite challenging: we go towards people’s suffering every day. There can be stigma around seeking support, and it’s so important to share the message that getting help is okay. In fact, it takes a lot of inner courage and kindness to go towards our own challenging experiences and emotions.

I had to learn that getting support didn’t take away from my ability to perform—it enhances it in so many ways. I gained so much self-knowledge from this experience and that enabled me to bring a lot more depth and care into my work.

BLOOM: So when you came back from leave, were your hours staggered?

Amy Hu:
Yes, it was a very gradual approach over many weeks, and I kept the counselling support on the side. My manager and teammates were very accommodating, and I'm grateful for their support.

BLOOM: Was it hard to find a therapist?

Amy Hu:
I started with our Employee Assistance Program, and then they suggested I find someone I can work with over the long term. That has been incredibly helpful. 

As I transition into my new quality role and train my team members, sometimes they ask me ‘How do you do it all?’ I remind them that I continue to seek counselling support for my own wellbeing.

For another person, maybe it’s not a counsellor that makes the difference—maybe it’s a friend or a colleague that you trust who is able to be there for you. Through that relationship and self-reflection, you come to a deeper level of understanding yourself. There are people who care and can support you. No one has to do it alone.

BLOOM: What qualities are important on the pharmacy team?

Amy Hu:
The medication safety process is so intricate that you need to be detail oriented. Collaboration is also crucial because it takes the whole team to deliver the right drug to the right person at the right time. One person can’t do it. You need a lot of problem-solving skills. And more and more, we need resilience to change.

BLOOM: You said there’s been a change in the type of clients who come through our doors.

Amy Hu:
They’re coming in with more medications, and more acute medications that have higher risk profiles. Our clients are also younger, so they’re more vulnerable in general to side effects of medicines. We’re also seeing a psychosocial complexity with the families we’re working with.

BLOOM: What’s an example?

Amy Hu:
We may be supporting families who are involved with children’s aid, or who are trying to cope with huge financial challenges. Finding them drug coverage is becoming more challenging. Our families are pulled in so many directions. Trying to figure out equipment, where will they live, how do they feed their child, and on top of that there’s the medication. It’s a lot for them to manage, and in a short period of time. We work with our social work colleagues and our whole team to try to problem solve.

BLOOM: How do you cope when, despite best efforts of everyone on the team, an error occurs? Because we know that every person in this building has made a mistake at one point or another.

Amy Hu:
When medication incidents happen they can be very challenging. We have a good system from a problem-solving perspective. We have a clear process to disclose to the family. As a team, we come together to debrief about where the system could have gone wrong, what the contributing factors were, and what we can do to reduce risk moving forward. From this process perspective we’re very experienced.

The part I find more challenging—and I know other clinicians find challenging—is the emotional impact. It’s the guilt and self-judgment of ‘How could I have done that? How could we have failed?' It’s a tough burden.

No clinician wakes up with the intention to harm somebody. When the stress isn’t so high, these incidents don’t happen. They happen when the system is being stretched, often for a long time, and relies on humans to hold it together, and something eventually falls through the cracks.

These incidents stay with you, and they affect your sense of competence. There's not too much about this in the literature yet. I know from speaking with colleagues at other hospitals that this is something they struggle with.

BLOOM: I know that in the narrative group for inpatient nurses we ran, participants came into the intervention thinking that they were the only ones who struggled with guilt or regret when an error occurs.

Amy Hu:
I agree. That’s why I believe we need to place more priority on debriefing, and foster psychological safety in these conversations, so clinicians aren’t living with the guilt and fear by themselves. If you can process as a group what happened, find support in each other and feel you’re not alone, it helps everyone to cope better. I think it takes time, and every person may be at a different stage of readiness for conversations like this.

BLOOM: If you could change one thing about our workplace, what would it be?

Amy Hu:
It would be to make staff mental wellbeing a priority in our organization. That could be at multiple levels. We could support teams to have open conversations about challenging experiences that make clinicians feel vulnerable. It could be supporting more mindfulness programs at the hospital, so more staff have access to these tools.

It could also be at the individual level—for each of us to reflect on what wellbeing means to us, what matters to us, and what we can each do to support ourselves and each other. It takes a whole village to run this operation and care for our children and families. We need a cohesive approach to addressing this.


Thank you so much for sharing your story and acknowledging what many front line clinicians are experiencing. There is a lot to be said for the challenges inherent in the work we do and seeing first hand what families go through, but also recognizing that we have many other responsibilities outside of work as caregivers to children and or parents. Work life balance and staff wellbeing are key, but often this concept is not really championed until a crisis occurs. More needs to be done to prevent this type of event and put measures into place to recognize the risks, ensure individuals take vacation days, time for self care and compassion, and feel that they can manage their work during the work day rather than working long hours or taking work home. Thank you again Amy, for sharing this important story!