Why do we continue to close for lunch?

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As most of our regular customers will have noticed by now. we are continuing, for the time being at least, to close for lunch between the hours of 1pm to 2pm.

We first started closing for lunch in 2020 as the covid-19 pandemic, and all the accompanying panic, first arrived. At that stage the doctors’ surgeries were closing their doors, the government were scrambling to introduce a testing system, and many customers were anxious and upset. All this led to increased pressure and stress for our staff, and one obvious way to try to alleviate this was to close for that set hour each day to allow everyone to take a breath and mentally prepare themselves for the second half of the day. Many other pharmacies around the country followed the same path.

Before the pandemic arrived we had always stayed open through lunch. When I originally started in Tullow in 2004 things were a good bit quieter and all the staff were generally able to sit down at a table at the back of the shop and have their lunch, and a bit of a chat, with maybe one or two quick interruptions over the hour. As the business became busier however, that quickly became unviable, forcing us to switch to a rota system where lunch-hour breaks were spaced out over a three hour period.

While we all got used to this system, as it seemed the only practical way to avoid closing for lunch, it did also cause some persistent issues.

Firstly, while all the other staff members were able to step away completely for their lunch-hour, the pharmacist on-duty legally had to remain on-site and available to customers, and therefore (except for the days when there was a pharmacist on duty) it was usually a case of grabbing five minutes if possible to gulp down a sandwich while working at full speed for the other fifty-five.

Secondly, for the rest of the staff, the lunch-hour rota always led to there being winners and losers. There always had to be those who had the the ever unpopular “early lunch” foisted upon them, while those who had previously looked forward to spending the break chatting to other staff members now found themselves sitting alone in the canteen. On top of this, the rota system itself sometimes meant that the process of swapping a lunch-time at the last minute so that you could get to the bank before it closed, sometimes came to resemble a UN security council negotiation.

By far the biggest problem with lunchtime closing, however, was the effect it had on staffing levels. In order to avoid getting completely overrun we spread the breaks out over three hours, but the flip side of this was that for those three hours (one-third of every day) we were operating with less staff than we would have liked to. This led to slightly increased customer waiting times, slightly more frazzled staff and slightly reduced service levels over those three hours. Murphy’s law would always seem to operate, so that the most pressurised hour would always be the one when the least staff were on, no matter how well the rota had been planned. If even one staff member was out sick or on holidays the effect became more obvious, and slightly frazzled staff members sometimes became quite stressed out staff members.

One obvious answer to this would have been to hire someone to just cover lunch hours every day, but for many reasons that would not have been realistic.

While all the above issues existed, in general it was something we all just accepted as part of what was to be expected in the daily rollercoaster of working in a Community Pharmacy.

However, once we started closing for lunch, it suddenly put all those issues into stark contrast. All of a sudden, we had full staff levels for the whole working day, and we began to notice the impact that had upon customer waiting times and overall customer service. Staff morale improved dramatically, the giggles and laughter had returned to the canteen, and people were coming back from lunch with an extra pep in their step.

At this stage in the covid-19 crisis, while we (hopefully) work our way back towards normality, most of the other pharmacies who closed during lunch have now returned to their previous opening times. I have thought a lot about this and decided not to follow suit. Obviously most customers would prefer us to remain open for as many hours as possible (24/7 if it was viable), but what they don’t need to think about is the impact that this would have on the quality of service provided. Other shops are going back to a full speed for six hours plus half speed for three hours situation. I think that we can achieve more by giving it our all for eight hours, with a break in the middle to recharge, bot physically and mentally.

Richard Branson once said that “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of the Employees, they will take care of the Clients”. While I wouldn’t have put it as bluntly as that, we, as a team, have seen the truth in those words. We believe that giving ourselves the extra break has allowed us to look after our customers better and hopefully make them feel more valued.

While the Covid-19 brought a lot of pain and heartache to so many people, it also forced many people to press pause and re-examine their lives and their priorities. For my part, I’ve finally realised that the rising levels of pressure involved in the pharmacy sector was not sustainable, for me, for my staff, or for our customers. If we are to keep looking after our customers properly, we need to look after ourselves properly too, and remaining closed at lunchtime is one attempt to step in that direction.

While, as you can see, I’ve thought a lot about the pros and cons of closing at lunchtime, our customers views are of course very important. I would love to hear your thoughts on the above. The more feedback the better.

About the Author
Morgan Drea is the Superintendent Pharmacist and owner of Morgan's Medical Hall, Tullow, Co. Carlow.