On the Brink of Burnout

Feb. 9, 2011
Our annual survey results say you’ve just about had enough. Will 2011 be the year things turn in your favor?

For a PDF of this year's survey data and the figures referred to in the article, click here.

Neil Young sang that it’s better to burn out than fade away. Makes for a good rock n’ roll mantra, but hardly a viable career strategy. And even Young, still plucking at 65, would have to agree that staying power trumps youthful sparks and sizzle.

Given that it’s been a pretty rough couple of years on the pharma front, we took the opportunity of this year’s Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Job Satisfaction and Salary Survey to probe you, our readers, about burnout (see Figures 11-15). Are you feeling it? Are you dealing with it?

According to the numbers, one-fifth of you feel stressed or burned out most of the time, and another 54% some of the time. The reasons are varied, but relate to the amount of work you’re being asked to do, the lack of appreciation and support you’re given, and the challenge of managing your lives outside of work as well.

As in past years, more than half of you suggested that your workload continues to increase, while half of you do not take the vacation time that is coming to you. What’s more, the spectre of layoffs looms ever large: almost 7 out of 10 of you say that you are concerned about job security, continuing an upward trend from recent years.

Not even an Iron Chef could concoct such a recipe for burnout. Do your employers care? They should, if your advice is taken to heart. Half of you say that burnout at your workplace is hurting productivity, while three-quarters of you say that your company either doesn’t care, or doesn’t know how to address the issue.

“Management is very much aware of the situation,” a QA/QC professional from the Midwest wrote. “They offer an obligatory ‘thank you for your hard work,’ but that's about it. They expect those of us who are left—who didn't lose our jobs in the layoffs—to do what needs to be done in order to keep the business afloat.”

 “Some of us who have had no work/life balance for many months are finally starting to rebel, and just refuse to take any more work home,” she adds. “If it doesn't get done during the workday, then it just doesn't get done.”

It’s not just the lab and shop-floor workers who are suffering. “Our facility is small,” one plant manager wrote in confidence, “with 75 employees, many of whom are high-school educated and don't have the scientific background to perform or assist with upper management or technical requirements. Since I am part of the upper management, there is no one to really pass the workload to.”

This same manager says that there’ll be no more hiring until new products are approved by FDA. The problem is, he says, that past drug submissions were executed hastily and were, in the Agency’s eyes, inadequate. “The management outside of our facility expects us to maintain the same cycle while continuing to address the new deficiencies rolling in from FDA review,” he says.

The Pendulum Swings?
If the economy were better, if companies were hiring, this exploitation of the pharma workforce would not be happening to the degree it is. Is 2011 the year when the pendulum swings back in workers’ favor?

“I think the pendulum has to swing back,” says Megan Driscoll, president of PharmaLogics Recruiting (Braintree, Mass.). In the past few years, she says, jobs were taken away but not replaced. “People were therefore working two or sometimes three different roles with no increase in pay . . . they can do that for six months, for a year, but they can not do that continuously. As the market gets better and companies start to rehire, you’ll see those positions start to be filled, and you’ll see that responsibility start to shift back. If it doesn’t happen, you’ll see those companies start to lose good employees.”

“We’re at a turning point here,” she adds. “Up until now, companies didn’t ultimately care where employees were going to go because there weren’t any jobs.”

Most of the new jobs that Driscoll is seeing are in biopharma, especially in downstream manufacturing. Traditional pharma will lag biotech, Driscoll says, but the hiring should begin in earnest towards the end of the year. (Hear more from Driscoll on the current job market in this downloadable podcast interview.)

Others aren’t as optimistic: “I’d love to say that companies are going to hire in 2011, but I can’t,” says Amanda DeSalvatore, project manager with Avant Executive Solutions (Vancouver, Wash.). “We just don’t have that data yet.” DeSalvatore specializes in recruiting personnel in drug safety/pharmacovigilance, regulatory affairs, and quality, particularly in biopharma. (Here's our full interview with her regarding the 2011 job market.)

Hiring in 2011 will be company-specific, she says. “With small and mid-sized companies, everything is riding on their clinical trials. If they’re doing well, they’re definitely hiring. As far as bigger companies go, hiring and firing is dependent on mergers and acquisitions, as well as successful products.” Abbott, for example, recently hired 50 regulatory affairs professionals because it is undergoing a restructuring related to its merger with Solvay. (This news is tempered, of course, by reports of major layoffs at Solvay’s Marietta, Georgia site.)

Michael Steiner, head of RegentAtlantic Capital’s life sciences recruiting, also sees “anecdotal” reasons for optimism. Firms that develop and manufacture diabetes, oncology, and neurological drugs are generally hiring, he says, and venture capital companies that support small biotech companies have built up significant cash reserves and will begin to open their wallets. Also, QA/QC and regulatory professionals are in demand—recent high-profile recalls mean that manufacturers are placing a premium on professionals who specialize in ensuring product quality and safety.

Still, Steiner says, there is no concrete data to support the idea that broad-based hiring is happening. And if the jobs do come back, he reminds, they’re not always going to be “recycled domestically” but will oftentimes go overseas—a trend in pharma that predates the economic crisis.

Burnout Busting
So what choice do workers have but to grind it out. Complaining won’t help, Steiner notes, and employers will continue to expect workers to pick up slack—“even though it’s not something you’re going to see written in the employee manual,” he says.

Burnout, thus, is inevitable. Researchers have it down to a science—there’s something called the Maslach Burnout Inventory that is used to gauge the duress that workers are feeling. (Worried about yourself? Take a burnout self-test here.)

For many manufacturers, burnout only becomes an issue of concern when there are tangible declines in productivity—which is hard to quantify. Larger pharma organizations tend to be more savvy and have more systematic approaches to keep burnout at bay. “There has been plenty of turmoil for workers in the industry,” acknowledges Merck’s Josee Bouchard, whose official title at the company’s Montreal facility is Learning and Development Manager and High Performance Organization Change Lead. Besides the economy, Bouchard says, mergers and acquisitions have forced companies to reinvent themselves, through outsourcing or reengineering processes, which can weigh on the psyche of their  workers .

It’s okay for companies to ask more of their workers because of business imperatives, Bouchard says, as long as there is a clear rationale and communication about why they’re doing so. “You need to support your people through those phases and be transparent about your expectations and what’s going on,” she says. “If you’re not transparent, people will feel that they’re not in control. People won’t go the extra mile if they don’t know why and don’t have a clear view of the intent and solutions.”

Merck has change management tools to survey workers and chart “people capacity” and monitor signs of dysfunctionality at facilities. Bouchard and colleagues regularly assess how workers are doing, individually and collectively.

There are four keys to preventing worker burnout, she says. Companies must give workers a sense of purpose, control over their work, autonomy to make decisions, and treat them fairly. “People want to know what is going on, they want to be able to predict in a certain way what lies ahead of them to be able to make cloices. When you feel that life is not fair to you, when you’re not in control, you get more stress and you’re more prone to burnout,” she says. “It could happen in work, or in your personal life. The person who is passionate, has control, and autonomy, is usually able to meet many challenges and control stress.”

Bouchard recommends two books for workers and managers dealing with stress and burnout: “Managing Changes with Personal Resilience” by Linda Hoopes and Mark Kelly, and “Your Brain at Work,” by David Rock. These books emphasize autonomy, control, purpose, and fairness, she says. “The moment I understand and start to talk about those four elements, people understand why they behave in certain ways, and why they may be more prone to react to stressful situations . . . It’s a good tool to assess what you’re going through, and to refocus.”

Finally, workers bear a responsibility as well, Bouchard says, particularly in scheduling, and taking, the time off that is due them. Steiner concurs: Employers will always want people to work longer and harder, so it’s up to the individual to push back. “You owe it to yourself to recharge your batteries,” he says, and most employers will ultimately respect this.

Easier said than done, of course. “I tend to push through burnout well,” says the aforementioned plant manager. “But any time I take off to recharge just means longer hours to catch up when I return.”

A Desire for More
One of the coping mechanisms that stressed-out pharma professionals are using is to reevaluate their work lives, and to shift energies in the direction of what’s truly important to them. Again this year, our survey numbers show a bump up in the value of challenging work, with salary far behind on the priority list (Figure TK).

The desire for challenging work, says Driscoll, is not unusual in an industry that values innovation and requires it to survive. “As we’ve been forced to be more innovative, our employees have been given more challenging work, and they’ve been benefiting from the way that makes them feel,” she says. “And I would expect that to continue. As we innovate and create new approaches to manufacturing and drug development, people are going to get a taste of it and want more of it.”

“I work with a lot of people who are driven by intellectual curiosity,” says RegentAtlantic’s Steiner. “If I love what I’m doing, the financial remuneration is secondary.” That is, as long as the bills can be paid. Steiner advises all pharma professionals to have a keen sense of not just how much money they want to earn, but also how much they need.

Many of you have already done this calculation. “I am itching to find a company that I feel will appreciate my knowledge, experience and hard work,” says the QA/QC professional from the Midwest. “This job situation has made me realize that having a rewarding career and a supportive and appreciative employer is much more important than the dollar figure of my salary.”

Check Your Ego at the Door
So 2011 promises to be a year that will again test pharmaceutical workers, but will perhaps offer new opportunities. “The key is to be flexible,” says DeSalvatore. “A lot of times you have to be willing to move across the country, or even out of the country. And you have to be flexible with your job title. A lot of VP’s are taking director-level jobs to stay in the area that they like, for instance. I’ve seen a lot of lateral moves and downward shifts . . . but good candidates are still getting jobs.”

Also, she adds, “Egos have to go by the wayside. If there are big egos, they are the first to go.” Or the last to be hired.

“Last year I told people: head down, don’t ask too many questions, don’t make waves, go above and beyond and make it a no-brainer that you should keep your job,” says Driscoll. “That advice should hold true for at least another quarter or two. But towards the second half of this year, the sacrifices that you’ve made should pay off. There should be opportunities for you internal to your company as well as external.”

Those who’ve managed to stay employed through the past few years are at an advantage, she says. “An employer is going to see that as: ‘They must be good at what they do. They must work hard.’ The people that have been able to survive the last three years . . . are going to be in a much better position to find the job of their dreams or their choice in the second half of this year.”

“No matter what it’ll be a fun year,” Driscoll adds, “and I could not say that in the past few years.” Here’s hoping she’s right.

About the Author

Paul Thomas | Senior Editor