A smile can open the world, in love, with friends, and at work. But statistics are grim. 48% of young American adults untagged themselves from a photo on Facebook because they were not happy with their smiles. 57% of Americans cover their mouths in embarrassment when they laugh. We’ve come a long way since the 1800s when dentistry was a side service offered by blacksmiths and barbers, tools were rudimentary and patient care was an afterthought. Even so, odontophobia (fear of dentists) is still very much present and a real impediment in benefitting from prophylaxis oral care.
Psychologists have proven that a good patient-doctor relationship is key in managing odontophobia. And one thing that has a great bearing on that relationship is staff burnout.
Coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in relation to “helping professions,” burnout is the result of chronic workplace stress left unmanaged. In 2018, the International Classification of Diseases confirmed it as an occupational phenomenon. Visible warning signs include physical and mental exhaustion, alienation from the workplace, and reduced performance. As is the case with all stress-related conditions, the cause and effect feed off each other, making burnout a tough vicious circle to break. The fighting chance is to catch the effects early or, even wiser, to address the stressors proactively.
Research shows that there are three main categories of stress factors that influence the likelihood of burnout among dental staff. Career-related factors include stressors, such as legal limitations and regulations and perceived lack of career opportunities. Daily routine stressors have a much better improvement opportunity. These include subpar support from the management, monotonous work, poor ergonomics leading to physical pain, work pressure, and workplace relationships, as well as dealing with difficult patients. A poor work-life balance comes to complete the picture.
Avoiding burnout should be a mindset and a company value. This should be clear in everything from choice of chairs to break schedules, and from finding a purpose to finding a healthy balance. It is a joint effort between practice owners and dental professionals, working towards a common goal: staying ahead of burnout, and ensuring a thriving dental practice.
Here is how dental practice owners can lead the way
Acknowledging and continuous monitoring of stress factors show a commitment to staff wellbeing. These contribute to a trusting, safe working environment. Timing is crucial in preventing burnout. Up-to-date, actionable information on legislation, professional development opportunities, the expectations, and the challenges of the staff can support management’s efforts against burnout. Weekly status checks and regular employee engagement surveys can be used to gather feedback from front line staff, which can be translated into realistic and beneficial action plans.
Efficient human resources management means structured and coherent daily operations, as well as a medium- to long-term plan of career development strategies. Practical improvements in workflow and schedules are one click away with the right workforce management tools readily available. Fast decision making and seamless internal communication translate into clear guidelines, transparent compliance, and improved staff support. This is especially important in challenging times, such as a pandemic or other systemic turmoil, or when labor legislation imposes strict guidelines for working hours. With a healthy, solid company culture, management can then direct their efforts towards long-term human resources development.
Open and clear channels of communication allow managers and owners to be present and involved in the daily battle against burnout. An open-door policy, which encourages employees to be mindful and open about their needs and limitations, supports a proper, fast response. A no retaliation strategy can stimulate the timely exchange of information and the empowerment of front-line staff. Management should make clear that burnout, while an individual struggle, affects entire systems and can only be averted if the entire staff rally against it.
Leading by example is a go-to strategy for any and all employee-facing management plans and for good reason. Burnout can manifest itself at all hierarchical levels and setting the tone for dealing with work and life stressors should come from the top. Owners and managers should be as candid as possible about their struggles and limitations. Modeling healthy behaviors can serve both as a practical example and as a team-building approach.
Here is how dental hygienists can take a stand
Peer support groups work to lessen the pressure of an otherwise solitary profession. Stress factors dig deeper when individuals feel disconnected and alone in their struggles. Sharing one’s concerns with like-minded individuals opens access to alternative coping strategies. A compliment or a word of encouragement work wonders for workplace morale, the sense of belonging, and one’s job satisfaction.
Career planning and continuous education work to reignite the spark and passion that led to the initial choice of occupation. By actively pursuing improvement opportunities in specialized or related fields of interest, dental professionals can cultivate a sense of ownership and control over their professional trajectory. This leads to a boost in confidence and daily, tedious tasks start loosening the grip.
Willingness and courage to speak up when a situation is (or feels) not quite right are the best way of taking charge of workplace wellbeing. It can be something minor in appearance, like a moody coworker. Or it can be as big as an avalanche of improperly scheduled appointments that swipes everything in its path. Whatever it is, a solution starts by speaking up, informing decision-makers, and holding them accountable. Sometimes, it can feel easier to let it slide, make no waves. But burnout creeps silent and almost unnoticeable and staying one step ahead is possible only if everyone is alert, and involved.
Few other professions have the uncomfortable position of dentistry: intimate, emotionally charged, and, with more than 90% of systemic problems having oral manifestations, critical, yet utterly neglected. With a rise in income and a better education, young generations can be wooed into understanding the benefits of oral care. It is up to dental practice owners to make sure their staff is committed, prepared, and willing to take on this immense responsibility.
About the Author
Derek spearheads key initiatives at Deputy, a global workforce management platform for employee scheduling, timesheets and communication. With a focus on Healthcare, Derek helps business owners and workforce leaders simplify employment law compliance, keep labor cost in line and build award-winning workplaces. Derek has over 16 years’ experience in delivering data-driven sales and marketing strategies to SaaS companies like MarketSource and Griswold Home Care.