Overcome Burnout and Start Loving Dentistry Again
Strategies to identify stressors, eliminate anxiety, and achieve greater happiness
Eric Block, DMD, CAGS
Let's face it. Dentistry is a complex and demanding profession, and dental school doesn't prepare graduates to deal with the real-world stressors of business and private practice. Many dentists struggle with the same issues, such as feeling crushed by student loan debt, insurance problems, broken systems, and the daily demands of practice management. Even worse, despite the commonality of these problems, many dentists feel deeply alone in their struggles to overcome them.
Dentistry is not only one of the rare professions in which one can start a business with absolutely no business experience but also one that expects its practitioners to spend their time staring into tiny spaces in awkward positions for long periods of time with patients who are moving targets that must be kept comfortable and pain free. I'm exhausted just reading that sentence. And we go from room to room all day long doing it over and over again. To be successful, we have to be totally focused on our patients and give them our all. No one wants to be worked on by a sad dentist who is having a bad day; therefore, when we aren't at our best, we have to at least act like everything is great. Do this for 40 years, and it can create the perfect storm for burnout. Trust me, I know all about burnout. I was on the verge of leaving dentistry. But after making some major changes, I was able to overcome the stress and get back to loving dentistry again. So, how did I ultimately beat my burnout? The following strategies worked for me, and they may be helpful to you.
1. Look in the Mirror
In order to figure out your best steps back to greater health and happiness, you first have to recognize what the problems are. We spend so much time focusing on our patients, staff, and businesses, but many of us need to take a good look in the mirror and start taking better care of ourselves. These problems aren't going to go away on their own.
2. Get Help
Once you have affirmed that you are dealing with stress and anxiety, now is the time to take action and seek help. Personally, I took action by reaching out to a local therapist. But for you, this could involve a mentor, consultant, life coach, or even a friend who is willing to support you. The most important thing is to get some help-any help—instead of going it alone.
3. Understand What Makes You Tick
I learned that I am both an introvert and a people pleaser. The nonstop social interactions with patients were exhausting to me. I was constantly trying to please everyone else and, in the process, sacrificing my own happiness. Being terrified of receiving a bad review made me obsessed with ensuring that everyone liked me at all times. I avoided uncomfortable situations because I didn't want to upset anyone. Over time, I internalized all of these feelings, and as a result, I was saying yes to everyone else but no to myself. Understanding this helped me to start saying yes to myself and to acknowledge that doing so sometimes meant saying no to others.
4. Be Picky About Patient Selection
I get it. You are a young dentist with a six-figure debt, and you need to pay off those loans. You also may be eager to acquire experience in a broad spectrum of procedures for all types of patients. Be careful that your drive doesn't leave you overwhelmed, and remember that you don't have to treat every patient. In fact, referring patients out or saying no to ones that you don't feel comfortable working on can be the best decision for both you and them. For example, if a patient doesn't agree with your treatment plan or wants to dictate treatment, then he or she isn't a good fit for you. Sometimes, it's best to move on before you get involved with treatment.
5. Carefully Select Cases
The same goes for case selection. You may have a favorite patient, but he or she needs a treatment that is outside of your comfort zone. Again, this isn't a good fit for you. What happens if you begin the treatment but can't complete it or if it has a poor outcome? You will lose the patient's trust, and it will also cause you emotional and financial pain that is 100% avoidable if you simply refer them out. In these cases, tell patients that you only want the absolute best for them and that this means that their treatment needs to be performed by another doctor. Inform them that the clinician you are referring them to is highly skilled and will take excellent care of them, and reassure them that you will be there for support and to do all of the follow-up to make sure the work is solid.
My advice is to figure out which procedures make you happy. I learned the hard way that I don't enjoy performing difficult extractions or endodontic treatment. As a young dentist, I undertook a couple of procedures without the proper training and ended up with undesirable outcomes that resulted in a lot of sleepless nights for me. It may be difficult for a young dentist or associate, but the sooner you figure out your strengths and weaknesses, the happier you will be. In addition, your patients will respect your honesty. If someone else can perform the procedure better than you or will enjoy performing it more than you, then let them do it. Your patients will be happier with the work, and they will be impressed by the fact that you referred them to the best clinician for the job. They trust you to make the best decisions for their care, and saying no is sometimes the best treatment plan that you can offer them.
6. Automate Your Team and Your Brain
I automate as many aspects of the office's clinical tasks as possible. For example, my team knows exactly how to set up for each procedure, including what instruments and materials that I need and in what order. They also know how to properly speak to the patients. How? Because we practiced on a typodont. I show them how to do procedures themselves so they can better understand their support roles and anticipate my needs.
I tell my team that the greatest compliments we can get from patients are ones such as "Wow, that was fast!" or "Wow, you and your staff are like a well-oiled machine!" When everyone on the team knows what steps are coming and can go through a checklist in their heads, the procedures become efficient and low stress for you, your staff, and your patients. And we all know that patients are more willing to rebook when they have quick and pleasant experiences.
I have put in my 10,000 hours of practice. Every procedure that I perform is completed the same way, step by step, every single time. If you do the work and develop a consistent process for all of your procedures, you will relieve doubt, combat imposter syndrome, and feel much more relaxed and fluid while you work.
7. Prioritize Peer Engagement
Connecting with peers was pivotal in my efforts to beat burnout. I suggest joining study clubs and Facebook groups that are full of dentists just like you. In my experience, people in these groups are honest. They post questions, problems, and mistakes, and everyone chimes in with helpful suggestions and support. I used to only go to lectures. I'd watch as amazing clinicians demonstrated procedures with impeccable outcomes, but many of these experiences just left me feeling insecure. I needed to hear how people were learning, failing, and getting back up to fight another day. I can't overemphasize how indispensable these groups have been in helping me overcome self-doubt and providing me with a real support network.
8. Relieve Physical Pain
Being in physical pain is mentally exhausting and can be a major contributor to work-related emotional stress. What's the solution? Take action to eliminate pain, preferably before it starts.
Figure out your ergonomics. There are consultants you can call who will help you assess your risks and evaluate solutions. While you work, have a staff member take photographs or record a video of your posture and how you hold your instruments so that you can get a better understanding of what may be hurting you and if you are a proper fit for helpful devices such as loupes.
In addition, take care of yourself when you are outside of the office because dentistry is a contact sport, and you need to have both protective equipment and good judgment. For me, that means I don't engage in activities such as skiing or mountain biking with my friends because I feel they're too risky. If I hurt my wrist or hand, I could be out of a job for an extended period, and it's just not worth it. Find ways to prioritize your comfort, and you will feel better physically and mentally.
Are you in danger of experiencing burnout? You need to spot the signs and identify your stressors before it's too late. If you take appropriate steps toward less stress and greater happiness, it can reignite your passion for your job and your life!
About the Author
Eric Block DMD, CAGS, is a fellow of the International Congress of Oral Implantologists, the founder of dealsfordentists.com, and the author of The Stress-Free Dentist. He maintains a private practice in Acton, Massachusetts.