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How to Manage Workplace Stress in a Pharma R&D Environment

Posted on October 31st, 2016 by in Pharma R&D


Developing a learning culture in any organization can be a challenge, especially in the highly regulated environment of pharma R&D, where people are required to follow protocols and operating procedures. However, the ability of the people within an organization to respond proactively to business needs and changing priorities is important in meeting goals. It is a well-known maxim that “It is not the strongest that survive, but those that adapt well”. Developing a learning culture promotes continual improvement, inviting us to ask how we can be more efficient and effective in delivering against our objectives. This approach is key for groups to adapt to the changing business environment across the R&D phases.

But there is perhaps one area where the development of a learning culture can often be overlooked. This is the role of a learning culture in the mental health and well-being of the staff.

The pharma industry is heavily action-orientated. We plan ahead for years, our product life cycle is much longer than many others, and there is huge complexity in managing activities. I have often found it interesting that, despite having long lead times for our product cycle, we develop intermediate gateposts that can be critical milestones for the fate of the project, team, and even organization. The focus on performance no doubt has an impact on the rate of change. This relentless focus on action and speed may be a distraction in the area of safety and mental health.

Safety is paramount in R&D, particularly the health and safety of individuals and co-workers on site, and also safety in terms of the environment and in developing safe medicines for end users. Working safely in R&D labs and sites, and developing safe medicines, is a major focus of supervisors and leaders. Several years ago I had department and site safety roles, and we embraced a learning culture by learning from the “near miss” and also by utilizing the skill of several experienced members of the lab staff to provide immediate feedback and support for people in the labs. This was not only during formal inspections but also informally as mentors to develop the learning culture. This was also manifest in our risk assessments of the projects and “drug targets”.  We were always looking to discharge risk around potential safety issues, especially if they were not linked to the expected mechanism of action. Significant investments were made into bringing back-up molecules through various stages of pre-clinical and even clinical development. These back-up molecules were an insurance policy against risks that we were able to identify.

One area where I remember we paid less attention with our business processes was in the mental health of our team. We had a range of training programs focused on building personal and team resilience in a range of areas. Resilience is an interesting concept because it is not about doing more with less. Being resilient is about preparing and recovering from significant change or adversity, and it can apply to personal and work lives. Pharma R&D is fast-paced, uncertain with lots of challenges and changing priorities, demands and timelines; it needs resilient individuals to be able to work within it. There is a legal, moral, and business imperative to support people with the resources and environment to stay healthy and well.

In the UK, the Health and Safety Executive has established 6 Management Standards (1) to minimize the impact of stress in the workplace, which seems very appropriate for developing a learning culture. These standards include managing the demands of work and working patterns, the control over what people can do, ensuring role clarity, building utilizing support resources, and promoting positive relationships. In my opinion, a learning culture is one that creates discussion and encourages participation with honesty and a willingness to raise concerns. When this happens, the organization learns from what they do and how they do it. A learning culture can therefore have a beneficial impact in all areas of the workplace standards to manage stress.

There are several leadership challenges involved with building a learning culture around workplace stress. The first is that cultures emerge rather than are created. This is a key principle to keep in mind. Leaders need to focus on creating appropriate business processes and the right infrastructure to allow a learning culture to develop around managing stress in the workplace. The 6 Management Standards provide a useful guide. The best way to develop something powerful is to get the team involved: the leader needs to set objectives, performance measures, and expectations. The most important aspect is that leaders must walk the talk – keep this as part of the agenda and seek feedback.

Promoting mental health in the workplace is becoming more important as complexity and uncertainty grows in the pharma industry. Looking at our processes for managing health and safety, and for assessing the risks and benefits of our R&D projects, could offer some useful approaches for creating that learning culture for mental health in the workplace.

For more information visit ScienceDirect.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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