Pharmacists want to be part of a helping profession and have control over their work, and if these aspirations are met they are likely to feel that their careers are meaningful. But work place demands and changes under way in the profession are threatening to turn “meaningful” to “meaningless”
Christopher John A pharmacist working in education, training and workforce intelligence
When does a job feel meaningful? When it allows us to generate pleasure or help others?
“Meaning” and “meaningful” are words that have found their way into the pharmacy discourse. The “Modernising pharmacy careers” literature describes “meaningful clinical experience” as an aspiration in the proposed pharmacy undergraduate curriculum. Do pharmacists get meaning from their work?
The term “meaning” can be viewed in two senses. The first is that of general significance: how much (or how little) something means to us, or personal significance. The second goes beyond the personal and involves the understanding of the world around us: for example, what is the nature of the pharmacy profession and its various sectors of work?
From an emotional standpoint these two senses are linked because it is the ability to find meaning in the second sense that enables us to find a more personal meaning as described in the first sense.
Many of us ask ourselves whether, if we had our time again, we would embark on a career in pharmacy or whether we would recommend it as a career for others. These questions at some level help us to ascertain the personal significance of our own career choice.
Many pharmacists will have spent years working in the profession following a decision often made as a 16-year-old when choosing “A”-level subjects, with pharmacy as their first choice of profession. Some individuals will have been influenced about their career choice by parents or teachers, or possibly by friends of the family. For others, the choice of vocation will have been a later decision — a back-up plan — and some pharmacists may feel that they have missed out on their true calling.
Whatever the basis of the earlier decision, a personal impact will have been made on how a pharmacist’s subsequent career has been experienced.
A means to an end
The first question new non-professional acquaintances most commonly ask us is “What do you do?”. It is as if our choice of occupation is held to define our identity to the extent that a meaningful existence can only be had via remunerative employment. But many of us will feel that our identities are defined by other things first and our work is secondary — or a means to an end. A large number of pharmacists work in part time jobs.
For some this is so they can have control over their lives and balance their work with other commitments. For others, full time work in a single job or a portfolio of jobs is more meaningful to them.
The depth of engagement with work depends on a psychological contract — a series of mutual expectations and satisfaction of needs arising from a relationship between an individual and an organisation. (The organisation could be viewed as an employer, a profession or a contracting body.)
The psychological contract covers a range of expectations of rights and privileges, duties and obligations that do not form part of a formal agreement but still have an important influence on an individual’s behaviour and experience. The nature and extent of individuals’ expectations vary widely, as does the willingness of the organisation to meet them.
Pharmacists gaining greater job satisfaction have their psychological contract fulfilled. Previous research has shown that pharmacists want to be part of a helping profession, achieve a satisfactory work/life balance and have control over their work. If these aspirations are met, meaningful work and careers are more likely to be found.
If mutual expectations and needs between the new professional body and all pharmacists can be clearly defined, membership of the relaunched Royal Pharmaceutical Society is more likely to be meaningful.
The demand work places upon us as individuals and the changes under way in the profession could either result in meaning being lost or not discovered. In order to recover or discover the meaning of what it is to be a pharmacist in the various sectors that constitute the profession, the key features of our professional identity as a whole, including values, attitudes and behaviours, need to be further articulated.
The profession needs to be greater than the sum of its parts. There has to be a link between our individual values and ideals and those of our profession. We need to make sense of our profession in order to get greater meaning from our work. With the ongoing debates about supervision and membership of the professional body, we are at a crossroads. What do we want to be when we grow up? There are important discussions to be contributed to and decisions to be made about our future direction.
To say that the pharmacy profession is going through a period of great change is to state the obvious. For some, working as a pharmacist will mean broadly operating as they have done in the past. For others, meaning will be found through change, taking risks and developing.
Generally, change causes anxiety in human beings. This, added to other pressures (such as increased emphasis on efficiency, cost-effectiveness and value for money, ie, doing more for the same or less), can make work feel meaningless at times. Yet without change, we become increasingly out of touch with what we should be doing and removed from the society we are meant to serve, putting our existence at risk.
If the discovery or recovery of meaning is left only to individuals and not sought at a profession-wide level, it will be increasingly difficult for pharmacists to relate to the work that they are doing. We will stunt our own development by not acknowledging the need for meaning and the cost of survival will be the maintenance of our discontents.