Beating burnout

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beating burnout
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There’s no denying dentists are at risk of burnout. Here’s how to maintain passion and motivation through the next phase of your dental career. By Angela Tufvesson

In the wash up-of the pandemic and owing to the growing, often relentless, demands of the profession, many dentists are flat-out exhausted. A recent University of Melbourne study found one-quarter of dentists, as well as dental specialists, oral health therapists, dental therapists, dental hygienists and dental prosthetists, are likely to be experiencing burnout. 

Coupled with the findings of the 2023 State of the Future of Work report showing 50 per cent of workers aged 25 to 55 are reporting burnout—more than those at any other age—it’s clear that mid-career is prime risk period for the serious and potentially lifelong consequences of burnout.

Why dentists are at risk of burnout

Burnout is an occupational phenomenon that results from chronic workplace stress, according to the World Health Organization. Its telltale signs are energy depletion or exhaustion, negative or cynical feelings relating to work, and reduced professional efficacy. Ignored or unaddressed burnout can lead to fatigue, insomnia and irritability, as well as chronic conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. 

Dr Gabriela Tavella, a research officer at UNSW’s discipline of Psychiatry and Mental Health in the School of Clinical Medicine, says her recent research has identified additional symptoms that it’s hoped will expand our understanding of burnout.

“One is around social withdrawal and insularity—having a lack of interest in your social life and withdrawing from others around you,” she says. “Cognitive issues also seem to be another group of symptoms, so things like difficulty remembering things, having to reread things because you can’t focus and concentration problems. On top of that, there’s some additional symptoms like low mood and the ability to remain calm.”

Despite widespread recognition as a stressful profession, little is known about the mental health of Australian dental practitioners and the causes of burnout. Along with scheduling pressures and demanding patients, evidence shows an association between perfectionism—specifically around concerns over making errors or discrepancies between expectation and performance—and an increased risk of burnout. 

“Given that we rebuild smiles and provide significant healthcare benefits for our patients, there is often an expectation among dentists to always strive for perfection,” says Dr Kaejenn Tchia, a Darwin-based private practice dentist who has burnt out several times in the past four years. “We tend to be a type-A personalities and we’re hyper-focused on what we do.”

Plus, working as a dentist can be can isolating experience that’s often compounded by the influence of social media, explains Dr Tchia, who now runs The Limitless Dentist, a motivational coaching company that aims to help dentists overcome burnout. 

What we’ve been finding in our studies is that people who are identifying as burnt out are scoring really high on measures of distress—they are really distressed. 

Dr Gabriela Tavella, mental health research officer, UNSW

“Mid-career dentists who are active on social media are seeing a lot more dentistry after they leave their dental practice each day, whether it’s people posting their cases or highlight reels of people doing some amazing work. A lot of times what that then breeds is comparison, which leads to people feeling inadequate and negative about their work.”

Practising self-care and a growth mindset

Dr Tavella says burnout isn’t recognised as an official mental health condition in Australia, which makes it difficult to assess its long-term impact and effective treatments. She says research shows exercise, meditation and practising mindfulness can “reverse some of the physiological changes associated with exposure to chronic stress”. 

Given mid-career can coincide with increasing professional demands like promotions and practice ownership, and personal pressures like juggling work with children or elderly care, Dr Tchia says walking or running is an effective form of self-care that’s easy to schedule into your calendar.

“I aim to do a five-kilometre run every week,” he says. “I love the endorphins I get afterwards and, more importantly, the mental resilience and fortitude that it breeds because I basically re-earn my confidence and self-esteem each week when I hit that finish line.”

To keep his perfectionist tendencies at bay, Dr Tchia employs a growth mindset that encourages him to “choose progress over perfection”. He’s also working to broaden his understanding of his identity. “When people ask who I am, I don’t say I am a dentist. I say I do dentistry as a profession, because only one part of my identity is dentistry.”

Seeking professional help

Mid-career dentists have clocked up many hours beside the chair, and Dr Tavella says seeking professional help at the first sign of any burnout symptoms is crucial. “What we’ve been finding in our studies is that people who are identifying as burnt out are scoring really high on measures of distress—they are really distressed.” 

Dr Tchia agrees early intervention is best. “Having a psychologist or mental health professional help you when you’re noticing things are starting to go awry can be a great way to put out the spot fires before you get a massive flame that is really difficult to control.”

Because there’s considerable overlap between the symptoms of burnout and depression, Dr Tavella says a mental health professional can “tease apart whether the presenting concern is burnout or depression, which will help to work out what the best step forward is in terms of treatment”.

A mental health professional can also provide techniques to help adapt personality styles to focus less on doing everything perfectly. “This can make sure you’re not getting too overwhelmed at work, even though some things at work aren’t going to be in your control,” Dr Tavella says.  

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