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Job satisfaction mixed as workload increases

Friday, May 1, 2015

Since the recession ended six years ago, clinical research professionals have become more optimistic about the economic outlook of their companies. Yet job satisfaction levels are mixed—the workforce has seen its workload and responsibilities rise dramatically, while mean salary levels have increased only slightly when adjusted for inflation.

According to a new survey from CenterWatch and the Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP), a high percentage of employees also are worried about job security, have considered switching jobs within the next year and don’t see much opportunity for career advancement within their organizations.

Given these dynamics, the survey suggests sponsors, CROs, Principal Investigators and site directors need to pay more attention to job retention and opportunities for upward mobility to ensure experienced and committed workers stay on the job, as global clinical trial activity and workload continues to rise.

According to Randstad’s 2015 Workplace Trends Report, 65% of executives from various types of companies involved in drug development say their organizations are below headcount, up from only 50% last year. In addition, 61% are increasingly concerned about employees leaving, and 52% confirm turnover rates actually are growing at their companies. Executives also are concerned about the time it takes to backfill job openings, with 27% (the highest of any industry reported) saying it takes from four to five months to fill a position.

“The search for talent in this industry is highly competitive. I’ve been with Parexel for seven years and in that period of time it has become more and more challenging to find skilled clinical professionals,” said Tom McGoldrick, vice president of talent acquisition at Parexel. “The demand for talent has certainly outpaced the growth in the supply of people coming into the industry. Retention of strong talent is critical.”

Survey methodology

The 2015 CenterWatch-ACRP Salary and Career Survey was conducted online from September through November 2014. A total of 2,508 clinical research professionals from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, CROs, medical device companies, academic medical centers (AMCs), investigative sites and private-practice sites (affiliated with hospitals or office practices) responded. The largest number of responses came from clinical research coordinators (CRCs), clinical research associates (CRAs), clinical research nurses (CRNs) and managers. Other respondents included directors, scientists, data managers, quality control officers and independent contractors.

On average, more than half of respondents had at least a bachelor’s degree, which indicates a highly educated group overall, and a significant majority (90%) of the sample was employed full time. More than 90% of responses came from the U.S. 

CenterWatch conducts the biannual survey of clinical research professionals as part of an effort to create greater salary transparency and offer benchmarks that can benefit sites, vendors and CROs in managing salary expectations. Average salary figures for clinical research professionals are hard to find since the industry is made up largely of privately held sites and CROs.

The survey also explored various questions relating to job satisfaction and job security, career development, challenges in the work environment and the economy’s impact on careers and clinical research in general.

Job satisfaction levels

Since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, when clinical research professionals shared generally pessimistic attitudes about their workplace environments, job satisfaction levels have gradually increased. A total of 46% of respondents were either “extremely satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their current positions in 2014, compared to 40% in 2012 and 36% in 2010.

Many find work in clinical research rewarding since they can use their expertise and skills to help patients, evaluate new treatments and develop drugs that can improve healthcare.

“For people in this particular area, meaningful work is high on their list of desires in the workplace. They want to make sure they are contributing to the health of their human subjects,” said Meghan Weiss, senior vice president of human resources and administration at WIRB-Copernicus Group, who has worked in HR for more than two decades. “They are fulfilled by knowing they have brought value to the marketplace and have contributed to what they perceive as a change for the better of humanity.”

Yet one-third of respondents reported moderate job satisfaction, making the overall satisfaction level more elusive, and nearly 20% expressed dissatisfaction. In the survey and follow-up interviews, many clinical research professionals said their organizations are operating leanly to reduce costs. Companies and sites have downsized their workforces and shifted job responsibilities to other employees. More than 40% of respondents said their company expects them to take on more responsibility in their current role and 26% reported an “informal” morphing of job functions. Many have been given more responsibility for training and supervising new hires, for example, and are expected to do non-clinical activities usually supported by other functional areas, such as business development, regulatory affairs and medical writing.

“I end up taking on more and more of what never used to be my responsibility and without an increase in compensation. I feel taken for granted,” said one survey respondent.

“I am expected to ‘do more with less.’ That is a direct quote from management,” said another.

Nearly three-quarters of respondents say their workload has increased by more than 10% in the past three to five years. The volume of studies a typical study coordinator manages has nearly doubled in the past decade while, at the same time, clinical trials have become more complex and demand more procedures, which has increased administrative work and makes it harder to recruit patients. Regulatory requirements, particularly paperwork associated with GCP-ICH compliance, have intensified. About 60% of respondents said the two top job challenges they faced during the past year were an increase in their workload and the complexity of their responsibilities.

“The workload has grown exponentially since I’ve been in research. But unfortunately, there have been no pay increases in five years,” said a clinical research manager for a hospital who has worked in the industry for two decades and who asked to remain anonymous. “The protocols are vastly more complicated. Each protocol wants multiple data points—including things that are not related to the endpoints. And the budgets offered are much more stringent. We have to be experts in regulations, patient care, all procedures, IRB submissions and people management.”

As cuts in government funding have led to greater competition for clinical research grants from the NIH and other federal sources, a greater proportion of professionals at AMCs report their workload has increased significantly (43%) than those at private-practice sites (35%) or other sites (38%).

“For the projects to get funded, you throw everything in there, including the kitchen sink. Everything has to be that bolder next step,” said Janine Kampelman, a clinical research nurse practitioner working on a federally funded research project through the University of Missouri. “You’ve got to target for massive amounts of funding. For example, you ask for $50 million and are lucky to get $20 million, but you’ve promised all of this work. When it was going to cost you $50 million, you were going to use twice as many people. The staff is cut back, but they still leave in all of the promises to whatever group they’ve gotten the money from. We have to try to make it work.”

Job satisfaction levels also suffer when workers feel their skills and achievements are unappreciated or undervalued. For example, only 12% of CRNs are extremely satisfied with their jobs. Kampelman, who has worked in clinical research for 18 years and co-chairs the educational committee for the International Association of Clinical Research Nurses (IACRN), recently interviewed other CRNs for a dissertation project and found they typically feel their medical training, ability to build relationships with study volunteers and efforts to ensure trial compliance are under-appreciated. Research nurses, she said, often want more involvement in decision-making on study teams.

“I see clinical research nurses as the ‘doers’ of the research, yet we rarely get listed on papers. I am the one doing all of the procedures for the investigator. If I don’t do it right and if I didn’t do such a good job, his data are going to be nothing but junk. The investigator can’t analyze the data unless I collect it properly,” said Kampelman. “But clinical research nurses don’t feel like they have much of a say in anything. They feel like they don’t use critical thinking at all. That is the frustrating part of research.”

Another CRN said, “I love research. I find it exciting and I have great staff members. However, clinical research is not respected in our facility. It constantly feels as though we are at the bottom of the pile. I am tired of practitioners not respecting or understanding the research value.”

Job security remains a concern

Compared to four years ago, when the industry had just experienced massive layoffs as a result of the global economic downturn and widespread consolidation, survey respondents in 2014 were more optimistic about the overall economic outlook for pharma and biotech companies. Nearly 90% of respondents expect the economic situation for their companies and the industry will either improve or stay the same. Only 12% believe the overall economy will worsen during the next year, compared to more than 25% of respondents in the 2010 survey.

The outlook for jobs in R&D remains strong, particularly as oncology development activity expands, new regulatory pathways spur work in biosimilars and scientific advances, such as genetic sequencing, offer promise for new research in areas such as severe depression and Alzheimer’s.

“There is a lot of strength in the industry. A lot of exciting stuff is happening and I feel it’s going to continue for quite a while. It’s a good area for careers,” said Comprehend Systems CEO Rick Morrison, an industry veteran whose company provides software that connects various data collection systems across companies to improve study efficiency.

Respondents say they feel more secure in their jobs today compared to two years ago. Yet concerns about job security remain high, as industry consolidation, restructuring and facility closures—which can result in hundreds of layoffs—continue to dominate headlines. Less than half (44%) of respondents feel “very secure” in their current positions; the other 56% expressed varying degrees of wariness about their jobs, ranging from “somewhat secure” to “not at all secure.” In addition, only 31% feel overall job security has improved compared to four years ago, while the other 69% feel overall job security for clinical research professionals has either stayed the same or worsened.

“Many of the pharmaceutical companies and CROs have experienced downsizing. At some point I think, or maybe hope, there will be a realization that there is only so much downsizing that can occur without it affecting the quality of work,” said Jenny Fuller, principal CRA for Roche Diabetes Care, a medical device diagnostics company.

Dee Tilley, a CRC and CRN with ID Clinical Research, an Ohio-based company that conducts clinical research through a hospital, said job security at her facility relies on the ability of site staff selecting studies that make money.

“The bottom line is money. If you can make money, you are doing fine,” she said. “But our CEO has come out and said, ‘If you are not making money, you are gone.’ You can no longer do studies just because they are great studies. They have to make money.”

As the amount of work outsourced to CROs has increased, employees at CROs feel more secure in their jobs compared to those who work for pharma or biotech companies. A total of 54% of CRO respondents feel “very secure” in their jobs, while only 29% of respondents from pharma/biotech companies share that same level of confidence.

“There has been a shift in clinical development work over the past couple of decades out of the pharmaceutical industry and into CROs,” said McGoldrick of Parexel. “That shifting of work has kept pace or even accelerated in the past five years. You are seeing significant headcount growth in the CRO space but you are not seeing any growth, and in some instances there is even a decline of headcount dedicated to the clinical development space in the pharmaceutical or biotech companies. That trend in outsourcing is slated to continue. He said Parexel has added 970 new employees worldwide in the last six months.

Of respondents who work either at a private-practice or other non-academic site, 47% feel “very secure” in their jobs, compared to 45% who work for AMCs.

Some worries about job security stem from the fact that sponsors and CROs have adopted new technologies to optimize processes, which can lead to reductions in headcount and can increase the skill level needed for some clinical research jobs.  Computers can automate work previously done by data managers, for example, and the role of clinical trial monitors, which already has changed as paper-based processes have become digitized, will continue to evolve as the industry moves toward risk-based monitoring. While source document verification now consumes most of a study monitor’s time, new strategies will require monitors to have greater skills in statistical analysis, data interpretation and the ability to teach others new technologies. “Technology is going to start empowering people to do things different. That is going to clearly make it so that there are new positions or new job descriptions compared to what they have been in the past,” said Comprehend Systems’ Morrison. “Things are going to be done differently. But if you are willing to adapt and learn, I think there are a lot of opportunities.”

Fuller said she doesn’t feel “super confident” about the security of her CRA job, as technology changes the nature of clinical research jobs, although her position includes not only study monitoring, but also protocol writing, negotiating contracts and budgets, site selection, training, site closeout and report writing.

“I think there always will be a need to have human involvement,” she said. “Technology can assist with making our jobs easier, but I don’t think it can completely eliminate the need for human involvement and interaction with study sites.”

Lack of advancement opportunity

Significantly, about one-third of respondents are considering a job change in the next year. Another 27% say they don’t know if they will stay in their current jobs. Those who worked at CROs are more likely to change jobs (35%) than pharma company employees (30%), although 37% of respondents from medical device companies indicate the possibility of leaving their positions this year. Meanwhile, 32% of professionals from both AMCs and sites are considering a job switch, compared to 29% of staff at private-practice sites.

Downsizing and unrealistic workloads have contributed to eroding employee loyalty in recent years. Yet, the top two reasons professionals cited for considering a new job were for professional advancement (61%) and a higher salary (54%). Employees who have worked in the industry for more than a few years say they have no upward growth opportunity at their organizations.

“There should be some sort of ladder system that you could climb based on your knowledge and your performance,” said ID Clinical Research’s Tilley, who has worked in research for two decades.

The best sector for upward mobility and high salaries, according to 55% of respondents, is the pharma/biotech sector, with major companies offering the most opportunity. Another 26% identified large or mid-sized CROs as offering the most job opportunity and highest income, while only 11% said AMCs or investigative sites were the best sector for upward mobility.

Greg Coir, president of Randstad Pharma, a division of Randstad Holdings that focuses on the clinical side of the pharma/biotech industry, said historically, particularly when the job market was tight and employment opportunities were limited, clinical research professionals would move to a new company to get the experience needed to land their next job. Now that the job market has loosened up, candidates are “looking harder” at potential employers to see if the opportunity will be a good, longer-term fit.

“We see candidates thoroughly researching potential employers and being more selective when making a move. They want to make sure that both the particular job/vocational growth opportunity and the corporate culture and workplace environment suit their needs,” said Coir. “Therefore, employers are wise to pay attention to this trend and understand their ‘employer brand’ truly can hurt or help them in the hunt for talent. Those organizations that proactively address employee needs and preferences—and then clearly communicate their efforts—will have an advantage in both their recruiting and retention programs.”

In many workplaces, managers have recognized the need to retain high-value employees and increase engagement levels. In a 2015 Randstad workplace report, 70% of pharma executives said they proactively work to reduce turnover through strategic retention programs. Of CenterWatch-ACRP survey respondents, 45% say their companies have in-house training and development programs; nearly half of respondents say their companies pay for certification exams, external training sessions and association membership fees. Respondents also report receiving from $1,300 to more than $15,000 in bonuses, primarily to reward performance.

“If a company is spending a lot of time and money on an employee, it should be willing to try to help that employee remain. A happy employee is a more productive employee,” said Roche Diabetes Care’s Fuller.

Some sponsors and CROs have responded by offering flexible work schedules to improve employee satisfaction and engagement levels. FlexJobs, a job service company specializing in remote and flexible job opportunities, named Forest Laboratories (acquired in 2014 by Actavis), Parexel, PPD and Covance to its 2015 list of the top 100 companies with flexible job opportunities.

Parexel, which formalized its work-from-home policy in 2009, offers nearly 20% of its global employees flexible work options, including telecommuting, flexible schedules and home-based employment. In North America, more than 40% of Parexel’s employees take advantage of flexible employment opportunities in clinical research, biostatistics and regulatory affairs.

“In order to attract the best and brightest talent that can help drive our projects to completion and keep our clients engaged and happy, we’ve needed to become more flexible with how we offer employment,” said Parexel’s McGoldrick. “The cost of turnover really is significant; it can cost between 30% and 45% of a person’s salary. It’s important to make sure you are keeping your great people, and these programs are a much more cost-effective way of doing that. Also, by keeping our people engaged and on the projects we are working on with our clients, it leads to greater client satisfaction. Our clients also are not pleased when there is turnover on their accounts.”

Salary levels

Overall, survey respondents reported only modest growth in salaries during the last couple of years. The mean salary increase for clinical research professionals was 3.3% from 2012 to 2013, comparable to national levels during that time period.

Salaries have increased the most for CRAs, project managers and directors—6% from 2012 to 2013. Median salaries in 2013 were $85,000 for CRAs and project managers, and $102,392 for directors. Median salaries for CRCs increased 5% during the same period, reaching $50,000 in 2013, while the median salary for CRNs increased 3% to $67,000.

High turnover in study monitors can undermine a CRO’s relationship with a sponsor or cause an outsourcing company to lose a bid for new work, which can help explain the higher salary increases. Also, project managers can command larger increases, as the demand for this position has increased at a faster rate than for other clinical research jobs, according to Randstad analysis based on economic projections and market trends.

“This role has become critical,” said Randstad’s Coir. “Our clients are looking for clinical project managers that preferably have global experience and have worked across multiple functional and therapeutic areas, because these people need to have a good understanding of the whole drug development process. The critical nature of the role, coupled with the difficulty a lot of our clients have in finding people like this, has vaulted it into one of the highest-demand roles for us to fill.”

Study monitors, managers and project managers who worked for pharma or biotech companies reported higher median salaries than those working for CROs. In addition, CRCs who work for AMCs earn a higher median salary than those at sites or private-practice sites.

The analysis also shows certification is associated with higher salaries. In 2013, the median salary for CRCs was 11% higher for those with certification, while certified monitors and CRNs earned 6% more than their non-certified counterparts. Overall, respondents say they received a median salary increase of $2,080 and a median $750 bonus as a result of certification.

Looking ahead

Employee satisfaction levels are mixed, with a high proportion of workers feeling overworked and undervalued. A majority feel the only chance to increase their salaries and advance their careers is to move to another employer; at least a third of professionals are considering a job switch this year for new career opportunities.

Managers at sponsors, CROs and sites are concerned about employee turnover, and many believe they are addressing the problems of retention and upward mobility. Yet the survey results questions how well these programs are working and suggest companies need to focus greater attention on these areas to retain committed, high-quality employees.

“We all understand the cost of losing talent. There is a tangible cost, and there are a lot of intangible costs as well,” said Coir. “Companies should be doing as much as they can with career development and creating internal opportunities for these people so they don’t lose them.” 

 

Karyn Korieth has been covering the clinical trials industry for CenterWatch since 2003. Her 30-year journalism career includes work in local news, the healthcare industry and national magazines. Karyn holds a Master’s of Science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Email karyn.korieth@centerwatch.com.

Annick Anderson has been conducting market research since 1998 in both the health care and consumer packaged goods industries.  Annick holds a Master’s of Business Administration from the Boston University Graduate School of Management. Email annick.anderson@centerwatch.com.

This article was reprinted from Volume 22, Issue 05, of The CenterWatch Monthly, an industry leading publication providing hard-hitting, authoritative business and financial coverage of the clinical research space. Subscribe >>

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