The Causes of Burnout In Dentistry

This will not be a surprise: we as a society are exhausted. Nearly 40 percent of us wake up most days of the week still feeling sleepy. In fact to be honest we feel like we haven’t sleep, that we only just put our head on the pillow and the alarm went off. I takes us 3-4 hours to wake up, to come round, get rid of that groggy feeling and that’s with coffee and sugar to pump us up and artificially kick start us into the day. Can you imagine how wrecked and trashed we’d be with out caffeine and carbs!

My Experience With Burnout

Look I can relate. For years I struggled with being tired – let’s be honest exhausted but I had a routine, a way of jumping my flat battery – 2 cups of strong black expresso, a brisk walk or run with the dogs, hot shower, toast with jam, more coffee, a Berocca (vitamin B fizzy drink), drive to work at warp speed with maximum road rage, another coffee before my first patient and why not a few biscuits while I’m at it. You see I had the perfect prescription to make it through the day before collapsing in bed to fall asleep and do it all again.

So please don’t think I’m up here on my pedestal getting all preachy and self-righteous because I’ve been in the trenches I’ve lain face down in the mud and hauled my burntout mind and exhausted body through some of the darkest days of my life where dentistry was my hell and all I wanted was to give it all up and go raise some goats.

Why Is Burnout So Serious for Dentists

Burnout is serious, its steals your soul, it robs you of your joy and it robs the people around you of the person they love.

You become a shell and zombie going through the motions and most the time you don’t even realise it because you didn’t just wake up feeling this way its been building for months even years so now its just become your way of life – your soul destroying existence.

Now that may seem heavy and over dramatic but I’m here looking back towards the dark side. I know what it was like, where I came so close to tipping over the edge. I know what it’s like to be burnt out and to come back from it, to not only feel well but to be the best I have ever been since I was a young girl. So I feel that I have the right to be brutally honest and tell it how it is.

Am I Burnt Out or Just Tired

Our energy level will fall and rise depending on what is happening in our lives, our workload, health etc. But when you start asking yourself and wondering am I just tired or is there something more serious going on on the days you feel off then its time to really start getting honest and listening to your body.

Your body will always tell you the truth – but we need to be willing to pay attention to it and listen.

We are not just a head with a brain we are and have a body a body that will tell you when something is not right but have you been paying attention!

I wished I’d paid more attention when my body used to tell me I’m too tired to run, I want to go to bed early, I have a hangover please don’t drink alcohol again, that coffee gives me heart palpitations and makes me feel anxious – I’m sure you get the picture.

So yes there is a difference between simply being tired and being burnt out. So how do you do know which is which?

Well firstly I’d suggest if you do feel tired then honour that, ease back, put things on hold, go to bed early and look after yourself because if you keep pushing through that tiredness will become burn out before you know it and then its going to be harder to turn things around.

So let’s look at What is burnout?

Burning the candle at both ends can eventually lead to a chronic health issue, known as burnout.

Burnout is defined as the physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.

Tiredness, exhaustion and fatigue are signs of burnout, but burnout is compounded by other physical and mental symptoms as well. When you’re tired, you can still function, even if you’re not running on all cylinders.

But in burnout, you are no longer able to function effectively on a personal or professional level. It’s like the lights went off and you are dead inside as with burnout, there is an odd nothingness that seems to overcome the brain and body. You feel flat and empty and all you get up and go simply left.

There are 3 main signs of burnout – be on the look out for these or be honest if you have them already as if you do your burning or burntout and you need to take some action to heal.

1. Physical and emotional exhaustion

Beyond feeling physically tired, you may feel drained, depleted, and dread what each day will bring. You might also experience insomnia (despite being exhausted!), forgetfulness, physical pains, illness due to a weakened immune system, and you may feel anxious, depressed, or angry. 

2. Cynicism and detachment

You may feel pessimistic, negative, and disconnected from others. When you are burned out, you go into a state of helpless complacency—a kind of not caring anymore. For someone who is passionate about their work, family, or community, it can be scary to feel this emptiness where there once was concern, passion and enthusiasm.

3. Ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment

You may feel irritable, easily distracted, not as productive as you once were, and maybe even wonder what the point is in working at all.

What causes burnout?

The cause of all this mental and physical distress is, not all that surprisingly, chronic stress that builds up over time. Our always-on, always-connected technology and social media culture also adds to our susceptibility.

Burnout occurs when stressors—work-related, emotional, or social—continue over a long period of time, and your body and mind can’t keep up.

When you’re under constant stress, your body produces more cortisol, which is the stress hormone and this adds to your feeling of being stressed and wired.

Sadly women are more likely to suffer from burnout as in addition to work-related stress, women may experience stress from social situations, societal prejudice, family pressures, and other forms of emotional distress.

Plus, women may be even more vulnerable to burnout because of how our brains are wired. Not only are we more deeply affected by the stress of others (thanks, empathy!), but women’s brains have the tendency to ruminate on stress and anxiety more than men’s brains. This leads to greater amounts of wear and tear on the brain and the body from stress hormones. As women, we also tend to try to be constantly available for others without wanting to appear weak or overwhelmed, which means we tend to internalise stress rather than find healthy outlets for it.

It’s important to understand the warning signs of chronic stress and burnout to be able to take stock and make changes to your lifestyle, work-life balance and mental state. Burnout is a serious problem and one that affects many dentists due to the nature of our work and our workloads when it comes to the demands of seeing patients and managing a business.

I want you to learn to be honest with yourself and how you are feeling, to seek help and support when needed and to make the changes to your dentistry and dental practice that will support you to have a happy, long career and a life you love.

I will talk more about how to prevent and overcome burnout in future blogs.