Are you and/or your team on the road to burnout?

2020 08 14 22 20 9892 Cooper Mark New 400thumb

After weeks of delivering dentistry in the COVID-19 ecosystem, what I am encountering from many of my dental clients is they and their staff members are feeling stressed and fatigued -- anxious, fearful, tired, hot, uncomfortable, weary, worn out, and, in some cases, simply exhausted.


Fatigue is a term used to describe an overall feeling of tiredness or lack of energy. It isn't the same as simply feeling drowsy or sleepy. When you're fatigued, motivation and energy are depleted.

Fatigue is a common symptom of a number of medical conditions that range from mild to serious. It's also a natural result of some lifestyle choices, such as poor diet or a lack of exercise. However, in today's dental world, the source of fatigue is often delivering dentistry under difficult and taxing conditions.


Marc Cooper, DDS, MSD.Marc Cooper, DDS, MSD.

In psychology, stress is a feeling of emotional strain and pressure. Stress is a type of psychological pain. Small amounts of stress can be beneficial and even healthy. Positive stress plays a factor in motivation, adaptation, and reaction to the environment.

Stress becomes negative ("distress") when a person faces continuous challenges without relief or relaxation between challenges. As a result, the person becomes overworked, and stress-related tension builds.

The number of added tasks -- managing, donning, and wearing the personal protective equipment (PPE); staggered patient flow; managing social distancing; handling air filtration throughout the office; dealing with the spray from handpieces, lasers, and cavitrons; sanitizing and turning over operatories every five minutes; runs to the parking lot to check in patients; and heightened attention to staying safe -- is significantly increasing the stress load on everyone in the practice.

Prolonged stress and fatigue, when left unaddressed, lead to burnout. Burnout occurs when the demands being placed on the dentist or staff members exceed the resources available to deal with them.


Given that burnout's predecessors are fatigue and heightened stress, burnout seems inevitable. This can already be seen in the reluctance of hygienists to return to work after doing their hygiene procedures after a few weeks.

The likelihood of burnout in dentists may be higher than in others, given their tendency toward excessive orderliness, perfectionism, and constant, focused attention to detail. Their stress levels were already high. Now, if you add the stress generated by new safety requirements and worrying about patients and their own families -- mixed in with a cavernous recession, off-the-charts unemployment, and geopolitical unrest -- the flame is brightly lit for burnout.


Dentists, their advisers, and their professional organizations are often failing to recognize this fast-approaching dilemma of burnout. In my experience, most dentists and staff do not have the existential or emotional skills to manage burnout.

Burnout invariably leads to turnover, poor performance, and costly mistakes. Once burnout begins, the decline accelerates. As burnout accelerates, employee engagement plummets, emotional commitment decreases, execution suffers, sleep deprivation occurs, and emotional control starts being lost.

The definition of workplace burnout is the state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion brought on by continued, prolonged, and repeated stress. Given what it takes to deliver dentistry in the COVID-19 world, if unattended, burnout will certainly occur. And once it catches fire, it spreads rapidly.

Dentists not only need to pay close attention to their teams for burnout but also keep a close eye on themselves. You can't eliminate a problem by avoiding it. Recruit the resources you need to battle burnout if it comes to your practice. Once it's started, it's tough to put out.

Marc Cooper, DDS, MSD, is the president of MBC Consultants. Dr. Cooper has worked throughout the healthcare industry during his career, with the majority of his clients being in the dental industry. His current focus is coaching leaders, dentists, and senior executives on how to effectively navigate their organizations and lead their respective teams during this period of tremendous uncertainty.

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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