Walking through the back door of the clinic, five minutes past the first scheduled appointment, a hint of eugenol reminds me that I’m about to go through another exhausting day of work. I meet the gaze of an office manager at the end of the hallway with a “Now what?” look on my face. I think to myself: I hate people, I hate my job, I hate my life.
The impossible self-imposed expectations of perfect preps, textbook reductions, and ideal impressions make it very difficult for us dentists to stay grounded. Most of us refer to this as burnout. We often don’t have the energy or desire to pick up a dental journal or take a day-long (or even an hour-long) CE course. There doesn’t seem to be anything out there important enough for us to sit through.
This terrible attitude can steal years from us, and it probably takes with it many patients. We become more arrogant and short with both patients and staff. We just show up for work without a particular amount of care. We want to do the work that’s good enough or clinically acceptable and not something that would exceed expectations. We spend all day thinking about how much we don’t want to be there. We go into treatment room after room and cannot wait to leave. If we leave an open contact, we explain to the patient that it was the shortcoming of the material and that eventually the tooth would need to be crowned.
We get to a point where we wouldn’t dare admit to another colleague how unhappy and frustrated we have gotten. As far as opening up to people who don’t work in dentistry, there is no chance they will understand the stress of running a practice, dealing with difficult patients and bickering staff.
In short, we stop caring. We lose our why. So, we wait for something to change out of thin air. We wait for a better life to be handed to us on a silver platter. We’re unwilling to do anything to sort it out ourselves. We think that life owes it to us to be happy and successful. Because isn’t that why we became a dentist?
If we can look back and remember how hard we had worked to attain our dental school degree, all the things we had to give up to earn those high test scores and grades, how we bargained with our higher power to get into dental school, pass boards, and find our board patents… if we can remember all of that, we will find it within ourselves to feel gratitude.
The more you meditate on what we have gone through to become dentists, the more that gratitude will grow. And if we manage to hold on to that gratitude, we can slowly work ourselves out of that burnout. We can disengage from the poor attitude, the exhaustion, and the lack of purpose. As we find that gratitude, we can also find mindfulness in the moment. Both gratitude and mindfulness are the medicine for burnout.
We must realize that the goal of life, the goal of dentistry, isn’t tomorrow. It’s today. That goal is to make today worthwhile. And here comes the caveat. It isn’t as easy to do as it is to write about or read about. It takes a lot of work to bring forward a positive attitude.
But in finding that attitude, anyone and everyone around us succeeds. We cannot waste our lives waiting for things to change or improve out of the blue. This day, where everything for us is going to turn around, isn’t going to come if we don’t go searching for it.
How to Change
Now we need a formula for how to bring about this change. First and foremost, we must recognize that we want to change. Then, there are four key steps.
- Step One: It’s a person, not a patient. The easiest way to reconnect with happy dentistry is to respect the fact that teeth aren’t just connected to a human body, but also to a person. Yes, it’s a person who bleeds and releases saliva, making procedures more challenging. But it’s also a person who is a mother, a daughter, a divorcee, or a chronically ill accountant. These people, just like us, experience sadness and joy, anxiety and euphoria. If we step outside of our dentist shoes, we can very easily connect with our patients. So often, we don’t remember the patient’s face, but remember thoroughly the X-ray of the tooth we worked on a month ago. This means that we have a relationship with the tooth and not the patient. If this were to change, all of a sudden we wouldn’t be coming to work with teeth, but rather with friends.
- Step Two: Remember the good. In the deep stages of burnout, it seems almost impossible to believe that anything can change. And it if it weren’t for remembering that we had once been happy in our job, running a practice, and taking care of patients, we probably would have considered this life of burnout to be the new normal. But by realizing that life and work had once been enjoyable, we can commit to making it worthwhile again.
- Step Three: Commit. We start with a commitment to find our somehow replaced passion for dentistry and life in general. Without this, no change will come. We have to admit that we are miserable and that we want to change even if it’s hard to do. This also circles around to gratitude and mindfulness.
- Step Four: Build your mission and culture. It’s our responsibility to create a team that not only supports us clinically and financially but also connects with us and our patients. Once we have completed steps one, two, and three and have found our newly reinvigorated motivation and positive attitude, we move to infect our team with it. And here is how we go about it. We need to align the purpose and mission of our team with the mission and purpose of the office. Employee motivation is driven by connection to the practice purpose. But what do those words actually mean, and how do we go about doing that? Set time aside to discuss and develop a mission statement. Let all the employees be a part of this development. The team’s inclusion will help align their own purpose with the mission on the office.
Dr. Augustyn is a practicing general dentist. She earned a DDS from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also has completed the course sequence with the Dawson Academy’s continuum in oral equilibration and cosmetic dentistry. She completes a minimum of 30 hours of continuing education each year as well, including orthodontics, implantology, periodontics, prosthodontics, and cosmetics. Additionally, she is an active participant in the Chicago Windy City Seminars branch of the Seattle Study Club. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.