Mental Workload

The Effects of Mental Workload on the safety of drug delivery in community pharmacies

  • Mrs Hannah Family, Professor Marjorie Weiss, Dr Jane Sutton Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, University of Bath.

Aims and objectives of the research

This study aims to investigate whether mental workload is related to the community pharmacist’s ability to pick up medicine errors, and if so, does the design of the task and the environment the task is carried out in affect community pharmacists’ mental workload and/or their ability to detect medicines errors.


The workload of community pharmacists is continually growing. This is due to several factors including the new roles that pharmacists are taking on (e.g. providing screening services for diabetes), ever increasing numbers of medications being dispensed (preparation and distribution of medicines) and the increasingly competitive business environment that community pharmacies are part of. This increase in workload has not been matched by increases in staffing levels and this has led to concerns that pharmacists may be being asked to do too much work. One potential consequence of community pharmacists’ increased workload is that an error is made or missed when medications are being prepared and given to patient.

One aspect of community pharmacists’ workload which hasn’t been explored in detail is the mental workload or mental pressure that community pharmacists are experiencing at work. Mental workload is a measure of how much of our mental resources are being used when we carry out a task. It is important to measure mental workload because there are limits to how much our brains can think about or do at any given moment. We all know there are limits to what we can feasibly achieve in a given amount of time, the difficulty is we tend to focus on what we can physically achieve, and overlook what we can mentally achieve and sometimes the two do not match. It is important to be aware of how much work we are asking our brains to do because we know from research in other industries (e.g. aviation) that, when our mental workload is very high, we are more likely to make errors. Studies of employee’s mental workload are important because we know that not only the amount of work we are asked to do, but the environment we are asked to do the work in, and the way we are asked to do the work can affect how much mental workload we experience. So not only can the amount of work we are doing cause high mental workload, sometimes the work environment or the way a task is carried out can create even more work for our brains.


To look at the community pharmacist’s mental workload and how it relates to errors they make we have carried out two simulated pharmacy tasks. Both tasks involve qualified and practising, community pharmacists carrying out routine pharmacy tasks in a simulated community pharmacy at the University of Bath. Simultaneously, task and work-environment factors known to affect the amount of mental workload individuals’ experience are varied for different groups of participants. A follow-up study with a small number of community pharmacists who took part in one of the simulated studies will also be carried out. This will involve community pharmacists completing a diary of their mental workload levels during a day at work and afterwards an in-depth interview about their experiences of mental workload.

How the results from this research will be used

The results of this research will be used to inform the way that safety critical aspects of medicine preparation are carried out in community pharmacies. This will also have implications for the training of community pharmacists and the way community pharmacy staff work together.

Presented at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Annual Conference 2014

Please feel free to download the slides from Overloaded? Dispensing errors in community pharmacy presented by Hannah Family as a fringe session at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Annual Conference 2014 and this short clip developed by the team.