Strategies to identify stressors, eliminate anxiety, and achieve greater happiness
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 the pressures of 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 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 repeatedly. To be successful, we have to be focused on our patients and give them our all. No one wants to be worked on by a sad dentist having a bad day; therefore, when we aren’t at our best, we must act like everything is great. Doing this for 40 years can create the perfect storm for burnout. Trust me; I know all about burnout. I was on the verge of leaving dentistry. However, after making some significant changes, I overcame the stress and returned 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
To figure out your best steps back to excellent health and happiness, you first have to recognize the problems. We spend so much time focusing on our patients, staff, and businesses, but many of us need to look in the mirror and take better care of ourselves. Unfortunately, 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. 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 willing to support you. The most important thing is to get 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 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 must pay off those loans. You may also be eager to acquire experience in a broad range of procedures for all types of patients. However, be careful that your drive doesn’t overwhelm you, and remember that you don’t have to treat every patient. Referring to patients or saying no to ones you don’t feel comfortable working on can be the best decision for you and them. For example, if a patient doesn’t agree with your treatment plan or wants to dictate treatment, they aren’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 they need treatment outside 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 cause emotional and financial pain that is 100% avoidable if you refer them out. In these cases, tell patients that you only want the absolute best for them and that another doctor would be a better fit for their treatment. Inform them that the clinician you refer to is highly skilled and will take excellent care of them.
My advice is to figure out which procedures make you happy. For example, I learned I don’t enjoy performing complex 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 many sleepless nights. 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. Let them do it if someone else can perform the procedure better than you or will enjoy performing it more than you. Your patients will be happier with the work and 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 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 each procedure, including what instruments and materials I need and in what order. They also know how to speak to patients properly. How? Because we practiced on a typodont. I show them how to do procedures themselves to understand their support roles better 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 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 full of dentists 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 exceptional clinicians demonstrate procedures with impeccable outcomes, but many of these experiences left me feeling insecure. I needed to hear how people were learning, failing, and returning to fight another day. I can’t overemphasize how indispensable these groups have been in helping me overcome self-doubt and providing me with an entire support network.
8. Relieve Physical Pain
Being in physical pain is mentally exhausting and can be a significant contributor to work-related emotional stress. What’s the solution? Please take action to eliminate pain, preferably before it starts.
Figure out your ergonomics. There are consultants you can call to 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 better understand 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 the office because dentistry is a contact sport, and you need both protective equipment and good judgment. That means I don’t go skiing or mountain biking with my friends because 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.
9. Take Action
Are you in danger of experiencing burnout? First, you must spot the signs and identify your stressors before it’s too late. Then, taking appropriate steps toward less stress and greater happiness can reignite your passion for your job and life!
About the Author
Dr. Eric Block DMD, CAGS, FICOI, FICD, FAADS
Dr. Eric Block is a full-time practicing dentist in Acton, Massachusetts, husband, and father of two kids. He is known as The Stress-Free Dentist and hosts the Stress-Free Dentist Podcast.