Séamus Ruane MPSI looks at the evidence-based benefits of human contact and empathy among ‘social animals’ like ourselves and the impact of Covid-19 on these needs

Covid-19, and the associated lockdowns, have undermined our wellbeing in so many ways, but surely the most detrimental, and most difficult for the majority, has been the restrictions on our ability to interact and communicate face-to-face in a meaningful way with others. For many, this restriction has given us a new appreciation of the value and importance of the role that others play in our lives, and indeed that we play in the lives of others.

It’s a scenario that has been replicated in pharmacies the length and breadth of the country over the last 12 months. The pharmacy phone rings, and on the line is a regular customer, cocooned, isolated, and lonely. Calling under the guise of ‘just checking to see if I have any repeats left on my prescription’, or ‘could you tell me when my prescription is due?’, but really calling just to hear a friendly human voice and have a chat.

Or what about this? It’s a busy afternoon in the pharmacy, and as you glance up from your dispensing duties to survey the front of shop area, you see a customer, and think to yourself, ‘Jaysus, I could have sworn they were in here yesterday!’ And in many cases, you’re not wrong. It is common for many pharmacies to have a cohort of customers who visit the pharmacy multiple times each week, some admittedly out of habit, but most for the social interaction, the quick chat about the weekend’s sports results or hot news topic, or the shared laugh and banter with you and your colleagues.

Social creatures

As human beings, we are innately social creatures, and as such, we crave interaction and a sense of belonging. Indeed, evolution has hard-wired us to connect with others, and the ability to form stable interpersonal bonds gave our prehistoric ancestors a distinct survival advantage. Of course, we are all familiar with the phrase ‘No man is an island’ and Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, described us as “the social animal”.

When it comes to the effect of our human interactions on our wellbeing, the science is clear. In a 2016 review of studies in the journal Heart, researchers examined 23 studies involving 181,000 adults and concluded that social isolation (that’s loneliness to you and me) increased the risk of death by about as much as smoking cigarettes, and more than either physical inactivity or obesity. That finding is so astounding it warrants re-reading to fully absorb what it actually says.

Further evidence of the key role that relationships play in boosting our wellbeing and longevity come from the Grant Study, which is the longest-running study in all of psychology. The aim of this 75 year-long study was to identify predictors of healthy ageing. The research shows that of all the variables studied, “warmth of relationships throughout life has the greatest positive impact on life satisfaction”. Put simply, according to George Vaillant, one of the lead researchers, “happiness is love — full stop”.

In the enlightening book Compassionomics by Trzeciak and Mazzarelli, the suggestion is that compassion matters in not only meaningful ways, but also in measurable ways. Heart attack patients with a lack of emotional support have three times higher odds of death. Research from the University of Chicago shows loneliness predicts a rise in blood pressure, a 29 per cent higher risk of coronary artery disease, and a 32 per cent increase in risk of stroke.

A study published in JAMA shows a lack of human connection can increase susceptibility to the common cold, while patients with high-compassion physicians had 41 per cent lower odds of serious diabetes complications. For good health, human connection matters, and so the suggestion is that rather than providing the therapy, you become part of the therapy.

Rewards

And not only do your customers and patients benefit, but you too as provider of that care, compassion and empathy also reap rewards. Kindness is said to be a positive-sum game, meaning not only is it beneficial for the receiver, but also for the doer. Acts of kindness and connection release oxytocin, our love hormone, and endorphins, our feel-good chemicals, producing a ‘helper’s high’ and providing us with an immediate wellbeing boost. Studies show that high compassion is associated with low burnout, and that this effect may be due to an increase in a sense of meaning and purpose for the caregiver.

So how does this apply to you as a pharmacist? Taking into account your ready accessibility to the public, the frequency of patient visits, the regular contact, the informal, social atmosphere that exists in many pharmacies, would it be a step too far to suggest that the attentive, caring, and compassionate service you provide to your patients may be as powerful as some of the medicines you dispense to them?

Some questions to consider:

  • Can I shift my awareness from the ‘next customer’ to the individual in front of me?
  • Can I ‘put myself in their shoes’, and examine the customer experience from start to finish, with particular emphasis on kindness?
  • How can I create a warm, friendly, inviting atmosphere for my customers, colleagues and myself?
  • What can I do to strengthen and boost relationships with my colleagues?

If you would like to work with Séamus toboost your level of wellbeing or that of your team, he can be contacted at Tel: 087- 2274108 or email info@ithrive.ie.