Avoiding burnout – how to foster engaged dental professionals

Mahrukh Khwaja – avoiding burnoutMahrukh Khwaja discusses the importance of fostering engagement to avoid burnout and how it can boost wellbeing and resilience levels.

In order for us to weather adversities and enhance our psychological wellbeing, studies have reported very interesting findings. The converse of the ‘rat race’ culture of chasing more clinical work as a dental professional, longer hours to gain more money and more possessions, the research on happiness reports an opposite approach; foster engagement.

Two key ways in positive psychology of enhancing engagement (feeling connected and enthused with our lives), and inviting more positive emotions, are increasing time spent in psychological ‘flow’ and leveraging our strengths. Using these tools can bolster us throughout our long dental careers, increasing our levels of engagement with our life.

In fact, the opposite of burned out dental professionals are fostering clinicians who feel good, connected, authentic and fulfilled. With the added stressors of COVID-19 in an already stressed profession, placing emphasis on increasing engagement before clinicians are unwell is imperative.

Deep play and work-life balance

As a dentist of 10 years, I appreciate what I am about to tell you goes well against the grain of our high achiever mindset. As a positive psychologist in training however, it gives me tremendous pleasure to encourage you to prioritise deep play.

Play is commonly thought to be an activity for children. But actually it provides an enormous impact on our creativity, productivity, stress levels, well-being and resilience. Think of deep play not as a competitor to work but a partner to it.

I encourage you to find your activity that allows you to delve into deep play and into what psychologists call ‘flow’. This is commonly referred to as ‘being in the zone’.

Getting into flow

Flow describes an immersive start where we completely lose track of time and feel fully absorbed. We are motivated to complete the activity based solely on our inherent enjoyment of it! Csikzentmihalyi’s flow theory explains the eight key conditions for flow (see below).

Flow activities could be painting, playing an instrument, upcycling furniture, crafting, writing poetry, teaching, hiking, mountain climbing, running or photography. Just as you prioritise your dental careers, schedule time for deep play.

Mahrukh Khwaja – avoiding burnout
Csikzentmihalyi’s flow theory; eight key conditions for flow

We live in a time where the pressures on us are enormous. We have the social pressure to raise kids as though we don’t have careers and careers as though we don’t have children. A work life balance is difficult, near impossible, when we factor in a traditional work week that was actually based on a factory routine dating back to the 1900s.

Deciding on a shorter work week, such as a three or four day week, allows us to create a rich and meaningful life. It actually gives us the time for doing things we love.

Instead of waiting for us to burnout from the perils of the ‘rat race’, and sliding into poorer mental health, deep play and living a life leveraging our character strengths gives us the opportunity to reduce the chances of that occurring.

Time is a precious commodity. How we spend it is important. Rather than wearing overworking as a badge of honour, honouring our leisure time as much as our work time will actually benefit both our health and our pockets.

And if you’re unsure of what your deep play activity may be, the next section will be particularly interesting.

Leveraging character strengths to enhance resilience, engagement & meaning

Character strengths are positive parts of our personality that impact how we think, feel and behave. An exploration of our strengths allows us to answer key questions. Who am I? What makes me tick? How can I contribute to the greater good?

In a culture obsessed with weaknesses, positive psychology takes an entirely different approach in championing what we are good at. Studies validate that a strengths-based approach is actually a better generator for change. It enhances our interpersonal relationships, helps us build better coping strategies during an adversity and reduces depressive symptoms (Sin et al 2009; Linley A 2008).

It does this through impacting our levels of positive emotions, engagement and resilience. Strengths can also benefit us as dental professionals; enhancing our levels of job satisfaction, meaning and lower stress

To emphasise just how key character strengths are in positive psychology, Seligman includes strengths as part of the wellbeing theory known as PERMA (engagement). When it comes to enhancing wellbeing, using our strengths helps us to feel engaged and bring the best of who we are to our everyday.

Strengths can also help us to invite more meaning to our lives. This in turn will certainly enhance both our wellbeing and resilience levels. Positive psychotherapy also includes strengths as part of an intervention for depressed patients, with excellent supporting clinical findings (Seligman, Rashid et al 2006).

VIA Institute of Character was founded in response to Seligman and others pivotal work on character strengths. 24 character strengths are identified with six overall virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence.

Mahrukh Khwaja
VIA framework of character strengths

How can you access the power of strengths?

  1. Fill out the free, scientific strengths assessment online; www.viacharacter.org. This will highlight your top five strengths in action
  2. Activate your strengths and use them in new and engaging ways every day
  3. Use character strengths to build stronger relationships at work

How do I activate my strengths?


  • At the dental practice: have regular appreciation conversations with team members, create a team gratitude board or use gratitude in morning team huddles. The team can share positive comments from patients or treatment that has gone well from the day before
  • Reflect on three past adversities and three good things they led to
  • Reminisce your best moments of recognition, achievement, praise and connection


  • At the dental practice: foster positive relationships through mindful interactions with colleagues. Be compassionate, empathetic and celebrate positive aspects of each others day
  • Arrange a Zoom dinner date with a friend
  • Focus on implicit motives of loved ones rather than behaviours
  • Explore and appreciate strengths of loved ones

Appreciation of beauty

  • Notice natural beauty every day by going on a nature walk. Try combining this with photography
  • Listen to a moving piece of music
  • Appreciate a beautiful piece of art or poetry

Love of learning

  • At the dental practice: identify topics, clinical cases and treatments on which you can share knowledge with colleagues
  • Start a new course
  • Arrange a teach-learn Zoom date with a friend
  • Take learning breaks during the day

Thriving within the workplace and outside

Thriving within a clinical context and outside is possible for dental professionals in spite of COVID-19. Focusing on how we can enhance our levels of engagement through increasing time spent on flow activities and leveraging character strengths within the workplace and outside, can make a meaningful impact on our psychological wellbeing.

As a result, dental professionals create internal resources that are protective against burnout and poor mental health – and internal capacities that build our reserves of resilience.

Mahrukh Khwaja is a dentist and founder of Mind Ninja, a well-being start-up providing preventative mental health and well-being coaching for dental teams. Connect with her on instagram @mindninja.ltd or via www.mindninja.org.

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