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Caring for the carer: the importance of wellbeing

17 September 2020

Dr Kiran Keshwara, dentolegal consultant at Dental Protection, explores the issue of caring for ourselves, so we can care for others. 2020 has been a tough year, but as with all challenging times, it can be helpful to view this as an opportunity and take stock of our lives, and see if we can take any steps to reduce our stress. 

You’re already running 15 minutes late, and that simple extraction that was meant to take you a maximum of ten minutes has now turned into a surgical. On top of that, the only staff member that has any idea of how to set up the surgical handpiece is busy assisting another clinician – you know it’s going to be a long day…

The day ends and you have to write up your referral letters, check your emails and check that you have the lab work for the patients coming in the next day, and when you get home, along with feeding the kids (and yourself), you’ve signed up to another webinar…

And the next day, the cycle starts again.

Most clinicians can identify aspects of themselves in the description above and have found themselves stressed, frustrated and extremely busy. In being so busy looking after others, many forget to care for themselves.

Clinicians should take time to introspect to try to identify if they are getting enough sleep, if they feel constantly exhausted or frustrated, and whether they are looking after themselves and, by extension, their relationships.

Self-care is important for everybody – it involves purposefully taking time to care for yourself and pay attention to your needs. It can be both preventative and therapeutic. Self-care involves setting boundaries, maintaining a work-life harmony and building the foundations for better long-term physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. If we care better for ourselves, we will be able to care better for others.

Self-care strategies

There are many things that you can do to practise self-care. It is best to identify what works for you and by making slow and intentional positive changes towards self-care, you can function better and find more enjoyment inside and outside work. While it is natural to want to help and serve others, it is important to put your oxygen mask on first.

Breaks – take regular breaks throughout the day to help you reset and recharge. Make use of your lunch break and use this time to eat healthily and perhaps go for a walk outdoors.

Holidays – many clinicians do not take time off for a number of reasons. For example, they may be self-employed and so no work means no income, or they are worried that their backlog of patients will increase and there is no-one else there to help them. It may even be the spectre of Imposter Syndrome prevents them for being away from the clinic for the fear that their perceived shortcomings will be exposed to their colleagues through their absence. It is important to give yourself some time away from work as it will allow you to come back recharged and reinvigorated and, ultimately, in a better position to help your patients.

Realistic expectations with a good work-life harmony – trying to fit in an extra patient at the end of the day or before lunch can make your day feel much more rushed and stressful. You should identify how long you need for appointments and try not to over-commit yourself. Many clinicians have taken to working part-time and found that this helps significantly with maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Strong relationships – for most people, their families and friends are important to them. I find spending time with friends and family members and talking about things outside dentistry is a great way for me to relax, laugh and reduce stress. Everyone needs support from their inner circle, be it family, friends or close colleagues and we should spend time nurturing these relationships. On the other hand, if you find that a relationship is toxic or draining, it would be a good idea to reduce contact with them.

Exercise – this doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym and spending hours on the treadmill or lifting weights. You could play a sport, such as soccer or basketball, or join a dance class. Walking the dog counts too! Exercise can be a great way to relieve stress, practise mindfulness and focus on your enjoyment.

Eating well – eating can be a social activity and trying out a new restaurant or a new recipe can help you be more aware of your surroundings and yourself. It is important to take time to eat well and actually enjoy and taste your food, instead of swallowing and gulping in a rush.

Sleep – lack of sleep can cause irritability and tiredness throughout the day. This is a dangerous combination for you and your patients and can lead to increased risk of an adverse outcome. Setting up a regular sleep routine helps gets the mind and body ready for sleep. Practising good sleep hygiene by putting down the phone, avoiding caffeine and intense or stressful TV shows can aid a restful sleep.

Self-compassion – it is common to find that increased awareness of or exposure to negativity surrounding us will lead to us focusing more on the negative aspects of ourselves. We are the most critical of ourselves and always think that we can do better and, while this can be useful, focusing solely on the negatives can have an overall detrimental effect on you and your emotional and mental wellbeing. A good way to manage negative thoughts can be to identify it as a negative thought and consider how these thoughts are impacting you.

Enjoying yourself – simply doing things for no other reason apart from the fact that it brings you joy – this could be anything from playing an instrument, singing, going for a drive or watching your favourite sports team.

Don’t be afraid – don’t be afraid to identify negative thoughts, frustrations and stress. It’s OK to talk to your colleagues, GP or other people about this. Look after yourself and make changes for a better you.

Incorporating the above tips all in one go can be overwhelming and can lead to further frustration. Start introducing some of the tips, or others that you think may work for you, and focus on caring for yourself first.

Dental Protection has extensive resources on wellbeing and taking care of yourself. These include:

There are other external resources widely available, such as the Self Care for Dentists booklet produced by the New Zealand Dental Association, which can help you on the path to introspection and self-care.