Team bonding

team bonding
Nurses Jo Zopf (back) and Tania Hall (front) with some of the young monks from Kopan Monastery, Nepal. Images courtesy of River dental.

Team bonding that also provides inspiration is the best way to create a sense of loyalty and belonging among your staff. River Dental in the regional town of Gympie is doing it right. By Frank Leggett

While there are many ways to encourage team bonding among staff, one of the most effective methods is to facilitate the sharing of experiences. If those shared experiences can also incorporate learning, overcoming difficulties and teamwork then the bonds become even stronger. When individuals work together, relying on the strengths of each other while creating a positive impact, the result is a cohesive, inspired team plus the formation of meaningful friendships. 

While many dentists volunteer their time to help people in under-developed countries, Dr Tim Topalov of Gympie’s River Dental in Queensland has taken it a step further. Twice a year he travels overseas for two-week sessions providing dental care in under-developed countries—and he takes River Dental staff members with him.

“I had always thought about doing some voluntary work overseas but knew I could only be away for two weeks at a time,” says Dr Topalov. “I did some research and came across Dr Petrina Bowden who had set up a dental surgery in an orphanage in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. They are assisted by dentists from Australia who try to space out their visits so the locals don’t have to wait too long to get treatment.”


Tania Hall, a receptionist and dental assistant at River Dental, was very involved in organising the journey to Cambodia and also keen to do some volunteer work. Dr Topalov could see the sense in bringing a nurse who was familiar with the way he worked—so he invited her along.

“It was a wonderful experience,” says Hall. “It changes the way you see life. It makes you feel really grateful for what we have in our own country. It’s also quite heartbreaking when you realise you can’t help everybody—but you’re there to help as many people as you can. From a purely professional viewpoint, you’re seeing things and solving problems that you just wouldn’t experience in Australia.”


Following this, the team at River Dental became involved with Dr George Manos from South Australia—featured in the May 2017 issue of Bite—who set up a dental surgery in a monastery in Kathmandu. Dr Manos has organised dentists to arrive at the monastery throughout the year so that there is regular dental care provided. 

“Some of the newer and older monks speak little or no English so we have translators on hand to help,” says Dr Topalov. “We treat the people who work and live in the monastery. We treat people from the surrounding villages. And we treat people who volunteer at the monastery doing all types of different work.”

Jo Zopf, another of River Dental’s receptionist/dental assistants, has been to the monastery a couple of times with Dr Topalov.

“The monastery is a large establishment with many people,” says Zopf. “On our second trip, we also visited a town up in the hills. It was a 12-hour hike just to get there.”

The dentists and support staff who do this work take time out of their holidays in order to make the journey. 

“I love the idea of going to somewhere where this work’s needed,” says Zopf. “In the past, I’ve spent holidays on beaches in Bali but this is completely different—and much better. I’m a doer not a sitter. I can’t think of a better way to spend my holiday time.”

Tania Hall agrees. “It’s an experience and a privilege to help people in a developing country.”


Recently, the River Dental team have been assisting a private hospital in Malawi, Africa. It’s situated about 50 kilometres from the capital, Lilongwe, and looks after the needs of 200,000 people from the surrounding area. Dr Topalov and the team have been instrumental in setting up a dental surgery in the medical centre.  The logistics of sending dentists, staff, partners and equipment to Africa for two weeks are considerable.

“We pay the way of any volunteer who works at River Dental,” says Dr Topalov. “If someone is from outside the practice—a husband or partner or whoever—they have to pay their own way. All my staff take time from their annual holidays. My practice partner, Dr Brian Maher, picks up the slack while I’m away. We also run a huge raffle to help pay for equipment, supplies and other instruments. Lots of local businesses have come on board and donated prizes for the raffle. Unfortunately, the raffle doesn’t fund everything but River Dental makes up the shortfall. I mean, why else are we on the planet?”

While River Dental’s charity work is changing lives for the better in developing countries, the impact on staff morale, spirit and attitude has been remarkable. 

“There are not many practices that do what we do,” says Hall. “It’s pretty amazing. The whole experience is so rewarding, and it brings everyone together. We’re an incredibly tight team at River Dental.” 

Zopf agrees. “I really feel like we are family now. All the staff have had unique experiences that they’ve shared with each other. Any practice struggling with team bonding or staff engagement should consider adopting a charity—local or international. It will instill a sense of pride and self-worth in your staff.”

“We are very lucky to be working in such a giving practice,” adds Hall. “I’ve been at River Dental for 10 years and I feel like I’ve won the employment lottery.”  

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