Thinking about chucking it all in and starting a new career? Many dentists slump over the finish line come the silly season but these lifestyle changes will help you to combat stress, writes Angela Tufvesson.
Are you mentally and emotionally exhausted? Dissatisfied with the year’s accomplishments? Getting snarky with staff and patients? If you’re anything like many Aussie dentists at this time of year, you may be suffering from burnout.
Defined, rather depressingly, by one study published in The Journal of the American Dental Association as “gradual erosion of the person” as a result of chronic job stress.
“Exhaustion is considered the central feature,” says Bronwyn Eager, a researcher from Swinburne University investigating stress and coping strategies in business owners. “It’s characterised by physical fatigue as well as dysfunctional traits such as apathy and feelings of helplessness.” If left untreated burnout can lead to health problems such as substance abuse, increased anxiety, irritability and depression. On the job, exhaustion may cause withdrawal, which in turn may lead to negative outcomes such as lowered productivity and decreased job satisfaction and commitment, which can also spill over into home life.
In the very worst cases, burnout has been linked with increased vulnerability to some of our most common modern malaises, including heart disease, high cholesterol, type-2 diabetes, obesity and stroke. Burnout is especially common among high achievers and frontline medical professionals like dentists. “Burnout is regarded as an occupational hazard for those involved in people-orientated professions, which may be particularly relevant to dentists given their high level of client contact,” says Eager.
Dental management expert Dr Jesse Green says dentists who run their own business are especially susceptible to stress and burnout.
“The biggest issue is dentists are typically the owner-operator and that’s the nature of this type of business-you make your money during the day and run your business at night. When you have that sort of business model it’s going to mean you’re pedalling even harder.”
Research shows that certain aspects of dental practices, like time pressures, patient-related problems and staff management contribute to burnout, but a lack of career perspective is the most crucial aspect in the development of the condition. You might have lost touch with the reason you became a dentist in the first place or feel disillusioned about the direction your practice is headed.
The good news is this can be rectified. “My results indicate that entrepreneurs who cope using proactive coping strategies, enacted in anticipation of sources of stress that may or may not occur in the future, appear to be less stressed than entrepreneurs who were coping using reactive strategies,” says Eager.
“What this means is that entrepreneurs who are engaging in developing their resources, whether it be social networks, engaging in health behaviours or things like increased education, seem to show less signs of stress than those who aren’t.” And there’s no better time to implement proactive coping strategies that the beginning of a new year.
Allocate some time off over the festive season to unwind and spend time with family and friends. “Schedule adequate holidays and plan your year out ahead of time,” says Dr Green. “Make sure you do take a break. If they don’t schedule a holiday at the beginning of the year, many people find that by the time the end of the year rolls around they haven’t taken one and they really are burnt out.” He says long weekends and the ultimate pyjama-fest-the ‘staycation’-can help you to relax and re-focus throughout the year.
Dr Green and Eager agree that enjoying interests outside of dentistry can help to ease stress and aid career perspective. “One of the things I noticed when analysing the data [in my research] was that entrepreneurs who were taking time out from their business-even just an hour-in order to engage in activities not directly related to their work, like woodworking or listening to comedy while at the gym, seemed to be experiencing lower levels of strain than those who were working 24/7,” says Eager.
“Based on this I think it’s important to create time away from the business and not feel guilty about doing so. Spending an hour or so playing cricket, painting
or having lunch with a friend may feel like you’re ignoring your business, but in the long run these short breaks may actually result in you being more engaged in your business. Engagement is the antithesis of burnout.”
It might sound boring but focusing on the three core elements of good health, a nutritious diet, regular exercise and sufficient sleep can really make a difference to your mood. Food and drinks that contain stimulants like caffeine and sugar can aggravate stress, while fresh fruit and vegetables contain an array of vitamins and minerals that nourish the body and help to decrease stress-not to mention reduce your risk of the aforementioned chronic conditions.
Exercise pumps the brain full of feel-good endorphins and over time can increase self-confidence and lower symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety. It also creates a meditative-like state where you’re able to forget the day’s stresses and only focus on your body’s movements.
The average adult needs eight hours and 15 minutes of sleep each night. Stress is an obvious sleep inhibitor, developing a calm bedtime routine that helps to prepare the body for slumber can help to separate sleep time stress.
Dr Toni Surace, managing director of dental practice consultancy Momentum Management, says after burning out 10 years ago developing a network of friends working in the dental industry helped her to get back on her feet-and stay grounded. “Dentistry is so emotionally, physically and mentally draining and speaking to other dentists who had similar issues was really important to me and really helped,” she says. “I’ve definitely found in the work I’m now doing that single practice dentists often feel very isolated and don’t quite understand that other people feel the same way.”
There’s also a lot of good evidence to suggest that mindfulness-the practice of training your mind to focus on the present moment rather than worrying about the past or the future-may be a helpful treatment for stress, depression and anxiety. “A lot of people don’t know about mindfulness,” says Dr Surace. “We need to start practising just being and enjoying the moment. Instead of going home and putting on your computer when you’re sitting with your kids at night, go home and really be with your kids.
“People get scared away by meditation but you don’t need to sit down cross-legged and have your hands on your knees and say ‘om’. You could find meditation in the sport you play, through cooking, gardening or walking. It’s about finding time for your mind to be still.”