Burnout: The Biggest Challenge Most Dentists Face and How to Overcome It

Being a dentist is rewarding, but it’s also really difficult.

It has been a long, tiring day. The stream of appointments has been crazy and added to that the challenge of a patient who was unhappy with their treatment. Life on the personal front has not been great either. The kids are asleep by the time you get home, and your partner is not happy that you recently missed a family event. Sounds familiar? You’re not alone.

Many studies find dentistry to be one of the most stressful professions. In a 2019 survey, over 50% of UK dentists said that stress in their job exceeds their ability to cope, with almost a fifth (17.6%) admitting that they had seriously thought of committing suicide. In the US, over a quarter of dentists reported moderate to high levels of depression in a 2015 ADA survey.

That said, dentistry is also one of the most rewarding professions. Half business and half clinical, it is a profession with potential for great impact. Dentistry is considered the fifth-best healthcare job and the ninth-best job overall, according to US News and World Report’s 2021 rankings of the “100 Best Jobs.” So, what causes stress among dentists, and how can you mitigate it?

Key challenges faced by dentists.

Common sources of stress in the dental practice include difficult or dissatisfied patients, the threat of complaints or litigation, time pressures, regulatory pressures, and team issues. Time management is the biggest concern, as dentists are under constant stress to meet demanding appointment schedules. They also have to spend a significant amount of time on administrative tasks—from ensuring the quality of materials to managing insurance claims and processes.

Some stressors in the dental practice are also self-inflicted. One key stressor is perfectionism, which also acts as a double-edged sword. While perfectionism among dentists is desirable, it also predisposes them to depression and addiction. Another key stressor among dentists is high, and even unrealistic, expectations of themselves and their support staff.

Challenge of a Poor Work-life Balance

Dentists spend most of their days indoors in confined spaces. Apart from an assistant, a dentist is usually alone the whole day, leading to a sense of isolation. Unlike other professionals, dentists do not get the opportunity to share and solve problems with their peers. This challenge is aggravated by the competitiveness between dentists. 

Long hours, busy schedules, and delayed vacations also mean that dentists get little time to socialize or even spend quality time with their families.

Physical Stress

Dentistry requires high levels of concentration and prolonged static postures with little movement of hands and eyes. This challenge leads to muscle fatigue, which results in pain in the back, neck, and shoulders. Continuously handling hard or vibrating instruments may also cause numbness or a tingling sensation in the hand. If unchecked, these result in musculoskeletal disorders, which may force dentists to prematurely quit their practice or severely cut down their hours.

Challenge of Financial Pressures

Apart from high student loans, dental practice owners have to pay high upfront costs for setting up the clinic, adding to their debt burden. Practice owners also need to take care of overheads to run their practice, along with personal expenses. This creates extreme financial pressures, forcing dentists to work long hours and delay vacations.

The challenge of COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the financial pressures on dental practice owners. During peak months of the pandemic, dental practices were open only for emergencies, and patient footfall was low. In a survey by the ADA in August 2020, over 50% of dentists reported low patient footfall. Most dentists had to manage revenue pressures and deplete savings to pay overheads, such as clinic rents, staff salaries, and maintenance costs. 

Increasing Pressure to Upgrade

Dentists are always under pressure to improve their clinical skills and learn the latest techniques. Increasing competition and technological advancements have also forced dental practice owners to continually invest in their clinics’ infrastructure—from the latest patient management software to state-of-the-art equipment. 

This challenge can cause severe burnout and exhaustion, which affects relationships, mood, and physical health. Burnout manifests itself in the form of physical symptoms, such as fatigue, headache, or hypertension. It may also take the form of emotional symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and difficulty in sleeping.

How to overcome the challenges. Take care of yourself.

The first solution is to practice what you preach. Spend more time in the sun, get some exercise, eat meals at prescribed intervals, and try to get adequate sleep. If you drink alcohol, do not resort to it as a coping mechanism for stress.

Invest in educating yourself about posture management. Bad posture can induce musculoskeletal disorders and shorten your active career by several years, if not decades. Avoid staying in a static position for long periods of time and take frequent breaks.

Make work-life balance a priority.

Invest time and effort in improving your work-life balance. As with appointments, schedule time with your family and plan activities in advance. Earmark certain days for meeting friends, peers, former colleagues, or friends from college. They can be a great sounding board and can significantly help reduce stress. You should also prioritize taking time off and not delay vacation time.  

Look out for signs of depression and burnout.

Watch out for signs of job-related burnout such as negative, indifferent, or cynical attitudes toward patients and staff, low energy, dissatisfaction with your own work, and negative self-image. If you notice any of these signs, consider seeking help from a mental health professional.

Delegate tasks.

Identify the key stressors of your dental practice and work to mitigate them. Key stressors may include administrative challenges, such as difficulty managing patient schedules, complex billing or insurance requests, or quality control of supplies. For most stressors, the delegation of those tasks to third parties or even software can help. For instance, patient management software can help better manage patient schedules. Several routine tasks can be automated, and dental service organizations can help manage insurance paperwork and supplies at a low cost. Delegating administrative tasks can free up a significant amount of time and help you focus on your core work.

Solve people issues.

If your stress stems from a lack of collaboration or communication among staff, take time out to build a personal rapport with them and try to understand their point of view. Spending time together as a team through group lunches and family get-togethers can improve communication and motivate the staff. You may also consider revisiting the practice management protocols and adopt best practices, so the effort of team members is optimized.

Learn to better manage your time. 

Effective time management can be crucial in reducing stress in your dental practice. One good way of managing time is “timeboxing,” or allocating a fixed time period for tasks such as answering emails, talking to suppliers, or managing insurance requests.

Stop expecting perfection from yourself.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you are unable to meet your own high standards of perfection. Sometimes, it is helpful to remind yourself of the fact that you have spent years training in your field and you may sometimes have to aim for what is achievable rather than what is perfect. The expectations of your patients can also add pressure to achieve perfection, and you need to guide your patients through the process and educate them on what is possible for their unique situation. 

Dentistry can be incredibly rewarding and challenging at the same time. You must take proactive measures to periodically clear your mind, take care of yourself, and improve your quality of life. A few ways to free up time can include better time management and delegating or automating tasks. Outsourcing key stressors, such as compliance requirements and litigation, can be liberating. Finally, don’t beat yourself up if you or your colleagues fail to meet your own high standards of perfection. 

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