Stress in the Dental Practice
It is well known that dentistry is a stressful profession, but just what causes the stress, and to what extent does it affect the rest of the team? To this end, in late 2011 I invited dental professionals to take part in a study to determine some of the major causes of stress within the dental team; the survey also asked what effects stress had on the lives of the respondents, and what measures, if any, they took to help manage or reduce their stress. The results of the survey were illuminating…
Of the 347 respondents, 178 were principal or associate dentists and the remaining 169 were DCPs and other members of the dental team.
Of the dentists who took part, over a third (36%) stated that they were stressed about their work during most working days, nearly a fifth (19%) felt stressed every day, over a quarter (28%) felt stressed between one and three times a week, 14% less than once a week and 2% reported never feeling stressed. The majority (58%) felt that there was no particular time of day which was more stressful.
Nearly half of dentists (48%) listed running late as being their main cause of stress, followed by patient complaints (32%), compliance (30%), money (29%) and work-life balance (26%). Other significant causes of stress included conflicts between team members (21%), dealing with phobic or anxious patients (20%) and gappy appointment books (20%). As a comparison, results for the team as a whole demonstrated that running late was still the major cause of stress (52%), with conflicts between team members showing next at 32%, followed by work-life balance at 28%.
The stress suffered by dentists appears to cause a significant incidence of physical symptoms, with nearly a half (45%) suffering from insomnia; other significant symptoms include tiredness (43%), anxiety (40%), bruxism (31%), headaches (30%) and depression (27%) amongst others. Only 15% stated they had experienced no physical symptoms from their stress.
By far the most negative impact stress has had on the lives of the dentists taking part in the survey was on their motivation, with 63% of respondents being affected, and on personal or family relationships (60%), while 40% stated that relationships with work colleagues have also suffered. Nearly a third (32%) felt that their levels of concentration were reduced and, significantly, 17% felt that stress had affected their clinical standards. Only 10% of respondents felt that stress had had no negative impact on their lives.
Popular stress management tools for dentists include sport, with nearly half (49%) using this as one of their main method of stress reduction, while over a third (36%) found alcohol to be useful and 29% used reading. Techniques such as deep breathing, self-hypnosis, meditation and yoga are also popular, again being used by nearly half (45%) of respondents. Other methods used included watching television (29%) and taking medication (10%), while talking to friends and family, social networking, music, gardening and changing jobs were given as some alternatives.
The survey demonstrates that, despite the useful techniques employed to manage it, stress is still having a significant negative impact on the health and motivation of individuals within the dental team. The key to making a difference here has to be by addressing the root cause, and the main causes of stress for the majority of the team are shown to be produced by internal factors within the practice such as running late and conflicts between team members. These are things which are within our power to change, through improved training and communication. If your current working practices are causing stress within your team, then it is time to look at how things can be improved, and to discuss options and possible solutions. When you consider just how much that stress could be affecting your team’s motivation, clinical standards and physical health, and translate that into the effects on your practice’s efficiency and profitability, can you really afford not to take action?
As the survey was conducted anonymously, a number of respondents felt able to give further information about the problems that work stress has caused them. Many of these were particularly poignant and, at times moving; the associate, struggling to cope with unmotivated staff, who feels excluded by the partners; the therapist who is verbally attacked on a regular basis by another team member; the principal dentist who had attempted suicide, struggling with a work/life balance that gives insufficient time for the friendships outside of work that would help redress the balance.
What if this is happening within your own practice? What if this is your associate, your therapist, your principal? At the very least, this survey shows that stress is a very real problem for the majority of the dental team – and that does mean for your practice too. The practices who survive and flourish through these times of increased bureaucracy and financial instability will be the ones who take action to do something about this; to make sure their staff are trained properly, that their appointment system is efficient and effective so the dentists do not run permanently late, that their associates are supported, that conflicts between team members are resolved quickly through good communication and that bullying is not tolerated under any circumstances. Above all, that the principal dentists have all the help they need to enable them to do their work to the best of their ability in a caring, supportive environment.
Communication between members of the dental team has never been more important; a problem shared is not just a problem that more people have, it is an exponential increase in the creativity required to find the solution. Make sure that this is the year you decide to make a difference to the mental health of your team by making a positive effort to reduce the causes of stress, and thereby help to create a practice where both your colleagues and your patients feel respected, valued and cared for.
Copyright Joanna Taylor 2012
This article was originally published in Dentistry Magazine in February 2012. Click here to see the original article.
Joanna has undertaken additional research into this subject, and the title for her Psychotherapy Dissertation was "Happiness vs Burnout in the Dental Profession". A further article was published in Dental Update Magazine in April 2016 - click here to read.