In the last month, at least once, concern or worry for a patient, colleague or my place of work has crept into my mind outside my working hours, potentially disrupting my sleep, my home life, or at the very least interrupting my time away from work. Dr Annalene Weston, dentolegal adviser at Dental Protection, asks if this has also happened to you
Regretfully, it is highly likely that it has, as this type of anxiety is commonplace and affects more dental practitioners that you would perhaps suspect. This way of thinking is also a precursor to burnout, which has the alarming global incidence of over 50% of dental practitioners at any one time.
What is burnout?
Let’s start with what it is not. It is not a sign of weakness, nor evidence that you are ‘less’ than others. It is not a sign that you are ‘not cut out for dentistry’ nor is it evidentiary of a need to ‘harden up’. There are many definitions of burnout, and one we believe best describes burnout in dental practitioners is:
“Burnout occurs when passionate, committed people become deeply disillusioned with a job or career from which they have previously derived much of their identity and meaning. It comes as the things that inspire passion and enthusiasm are stripped away, and tedious or unpleasant things crowd in.
Take me back to the start
It begins at dental school. To even get there we first have to engage our Type A tendencies into overdrive, and strive to hit the top. Top of our class, the leader of knowledge, become an expert in all things. Studies show that burnout and stress in dental practitioners begins at dental school, with the primary stressors identified as concerns about manual dexterity, reduced holidays with increased difficulty of coursework, moving away from home, clinical transition and staff inconsistency.
Naturally, as we exit dental school and progress through our careers, some of these stressors fall away, only to be replaced by fears that are equally damaging. While there is a commonality in the pressures identified across the profession as being most harmful, each country has its own unique factors, deeply rooted in the payment structure and mechanisms of that region.
The most commonly occurring stressors across the board have been identified to be time and scheduling pressures, professional concerns (specifically concerns regarding complaints and the regulator), patients’ perceptions of dentists, staffing problems, pressure associated with treatment of patients and business process stressors.
It is not the weight of the burden you carry, but also the length of time you carry it for that is significant. Regretfully, many of our plates are fuller than we would like. External pressures such as ailing parents, young families and even our mortgage payments sit atop our business and clinical stressors, compounding their weight and amplifying the risk of burnout to an alarming level. Having a child younger than 21 increases your risk of burnout by 54% and, further, having a spouse who does not work as a healthcare provider is reported to increase your odds by 23%. This leaves me, the wife of an electrician and the working mother of six and eight-year-old boys, at a significant risk of burnout. Where does it leave you?
Our own biggest critic?
And when we are stretched to the max, our inner voice can unhelpfully chip in when we are at our most tired and vulnerable: psyching us out by whispering in our ear the one thing that we have secretly always feared. Perhaps it is “I am not good enough at this” or “My patients and my staff are all against me”, “I am going to have a career ending complaint” and even “I can’t do this anymore”.
The problem is real, and brushing it under the carpet will not address it, and certainly will not make it go away. It is not all bad news though – burnout is identifiable, perhaps preventable and certainly curable.
Dental Protection would never raise a practitioner problem without providing a solution. For those of you who wish to know a little more about the internal and external factors that lead to burnout, and explore the active steps you can take to gain control of this, book now for our upcoming workshop ‘Building Resilience and Avoiding Burnout'.
 Astill S, Ricketts N, Singh L-A et al, Environmental and perceived stress in Australia dental undergraduates: Preliminary outcomes, J Dent Res Dent Clin Dent Prospects 10(4): 270-279 (Autumn 2016)
 Burnout among healthcare professionals, a call to explore ad address this under-recognised threat to safe, high quality care; Dyrbye et al, Perspectives, July 2017