Dentists still stressed and depressed: Is there good news?

2017 12 01 18 31 4930 Butler Jen 2017b 400

Of the more than 2,500 dentists surveyed in 2003, 80% said their work was stressful, according to the ADA Center for Professional Success' 2003 Dentist Well-Being Survey Report. In the 2015 version of the survey, 78% of the more than 2,100 dentists replied that their work was stressful. The percentage of dentists reporting severe stress also remained about the same in the two reports, at about 12%.

Jen Butler, MEd.Jen Butler, MEd.

But while stress levels have remained constant, the indicators, signs, and demographics of stress have changed. One of the most interesting changes is in the differences between dentists who are sole proprietors and those who are employees. Overall, sole proprietors have a slightly higher stress level than employee dentists.

Moreover, feelings of control and job satisfaction have consistently fallen for dentists who are currently sole proprietors, while those measurements have risen for those for employee dentists between 2003 and 2015. In 2003, more than 60% of sole proprietors felt in control of their work, but barely a quarter of employees felt in control. By 2015, those figures changed: Only 44% of sole proprietors felt in control, but nearly a third (30%) of employee-dentists felt in control.

With less control came less job satisfaction. Job satisfaction for sole proprietors was 57% in 2003 but dropped to 49% in 2015, while job satisfaction for employee dentists rose from almost 36% to 40%.

Indicators of stress

Other indicators of stress also have changed. Female dentists were more likely than male dentists to doubt their competence. That tendency increased from nearly 31% in 2003 to 35% in 2015. In 2015, female dentists were also more likely than male dentists to report harassment at work. They also feel more stress overall (81%) than male dentists (77%).

“The work environment is not improving for female dentists.”

Depression is on the rise, affecting more than 22% of dentists in 2003 and 26% of dentists in 2015. Difficulty in falling asleep also increased, from 22% in 2003 to greater than 25% in 2015.

When dentists engage in unhealthy responses to stress, they are not likely to seek help. In 2003, almost 44% agreed or strongly agreed that they would not seek help because they should be able to solve their own problems. In 2015, that response soared to 54% of dentists. While the levels of stress have remained the same, the willingness to deal with it has actually decreased.

Even more worrying, though the tendency toward alcoholism hasn't changed over the years (staying at about 10%), fewer dentists are concerned about it. Only 18% of dentists in 2015 feel they should cut back on their drinking, compared with nearly 20% in 2003. Another growing problem is that younger dentists in 2015 are more likely than older dentists to score at high risk for alcohol abuse, a reversal from 2003.

Signs of improvement

As a group, dentists are way ahead of the general population in exercise, with more than 90% engaging in at least an hour a week (compared with only 30% of the general population); that figure has remained steady. That's a fairly healthy response to stress. Another positive indicator is that thoughts of suicide have actually declined among dentists from 6% to 4%.

Diagnosed medical conditions have remained constant, with elevated cholesterol and headaches topping the list in both years. Diagnosed depression has fallen from 11.3% to 10%, but, given the reluctance of dentists to seek a diagnosis, that may not be a sign of improvement.

Compared with 2003, dentists in 2015 report a huge increase in the amount of respect they feel from the people they work with. Almost two-thirds felt respected in 2003 and 97% in 2015. Again, that result has to be taken with a grain of salt.


These figures and others in the 2003 and 2015 reports led to the following conclusions:

  • The work environment is gradually improving for dentists who are employed versus those who are sole proprietors.
  • The work environment is not improving for female dentists.
  • Younger dentists are demonstrating the same tendency toward alcohol abuse and other unhealthy responses to stress that older dentists have demonstrated.
  • Dentists are less likely than ever before to seek help with their stress -- but whether this correlates with type of employment, gender, age, or tendency to self-medicate is unclear.


In my work with dentists, I have found that those who look for help in dealing with stress are more successful and fulfilled on many different levels: financially, as leaders of their team and also as doctors treating patients. Stress interferes with a person's ability to find solutions and to relate positively to others. As stress lowers, a dentist is able to gain better control over the work environment, team and patient interactions, and finances -- which further reduces stress. A sense of control is vital to a sense of job satisfaction and well-being for all of us.

Jen Butler, MEd, is the CEO and founder of JB Partners and has been working in the area of stress management and resiliency training for more than 25 years. Learn about her services at, or contact her at [email protected].

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular idea, vendor, or organization.

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