How to avoid burnout in dentistry

How to avoid burnout in dentistryJana Denzel examines how chronic stress can overload even the most resilient of us – and looks at ways for dental professionals to cope.

Stress is a natural psychological and physical response to the everyday demands of life.

It prepares us to respond to a specific situation – and indeed, small amounts of stress can be useful, as it can motivate us to perform better, find solutions to problems and reach our goals.

When we perceive a threat, our brain’s amygdala produces hormones and neurochemicals that activate the body’s ‘flight or fight’ response. This equips us to deal with the threat by increasing our heart rate, raising our blood pressure and increasing our energy levels.

But excessive or chronic stress doesn’t allow the body to recover after this response, which can impair your mental, emotional, and physical health and lead to burnout.

Burnout in dentistry occurs when work-related stress from day-to-day life becomes overwhelming, causing you to feel exhausted and drained. Several studies have shown that dentists often experience exhaustion, fatigue, reduced efficiency and productivity, depression, and cynicism. These are the most common signs of burnout in dentistry that occur due to prolonged stressors on the job.

What causes burnout in dentistry?

The dental profession comes with many risks: this is a profession that generates a significant amount of stress.

Everyday stresses come from interactions with patients, co-workers, dental insurance challenges and in particular this year, working around COVID-19.

COVID-19 has resulted in ongoing stressful work conditions, creating the need for extra PPE and fallow time, and leaving some patients frustrated and in pain. Taken together, these can cause a chaotic working environment that will aggravate burnout.

A lot of practices have been closed during lockdown and may have opened up with extended hours to make up for lost earnings.

However, if this comes along with reduced time to relax and socialise, lack of sleep, exhaustion, fatigue, it may cause you bigger mental and health issues in the long run.

Signs of burnout

So what are the common signs that you might be experiencing burnout at work? Have a read of the list below and see if any of these apply to you:

  • Lack of energy
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Feelings of negativity
  • Loss of motivation
  • Reduced productivity
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Chronic tiredness
  • Desire to take a mental and physical break from co-workers
  • Loss of interest in work you once enjoyed.

Avoiding burnout

2020 was a hard year for so many of us. If you feel the emotional, mental, and physical demands of your job are draining you, it’s time to take advantage of the resources that are available to help you muddle through burnout.

Resilience represents our ability to adapt well to stress and quickly bounce back after life challenges.

Improving your resilience can help you manage work demands better, have successful relationships (both personal and with co-workers), and achieve your goals.

Learning strategies for building resilience can help you prevent burnout, improve your wellbeing, and help you do well in life.

Let’s kick off this year with making specific changes in your daily lifestyle that can help build resilience and reduce symptoms of emotional burnout. Here are my five ways that you can avoid burnout.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation is a powerful way to rewire your brain and achieve greater cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility – or elastic thinking – means taking a different viewpoint on how else you can approach the problem. The flexible brain can adapt to new situations, think creatively, reimagine new ways to solve problems, and adapt to new conditions.

Research shows that mindfulness can reduce amygdala activity, which is a starting point for our stress response. Mindfulness can boost your resilience, improve your mood, and increase optimism.

Talk to a professional

Mental health counselling can help you learn stress management strategies, raise resilience, and reinforce your coping mechanisms. If you’re an NHS dentist, they have a great personal support and wellbeing service available for all their employees.

Treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you overcome negative thinking patterns that trigger stress and anxiety.

You can learn how to replace negative thoughts with a positive mindset, teach you strategies to cope with stress better, and strengthen your ability to adapt better to work and life demands.

Stay active

Even though you might feel physically drained, try to exercise for at least half an hour each day. Physical activity can boost your mood, alleviate tension, and ease symptoms of emotional exhaustion.

Nurture a positive atmosphere at work

The work environment where co-workers respect each other and feel a part of the team contributes to lower burnout levels. Encourage openness and constructive communication patterns while discouraging gossip, intolerance, and negative talk.

Avoid multitasking

Back-to-back multitasking day after day can be a source of significant stress: no wonder you feel drained and helpless at the end of the day.

Multitasking and poor organisation can burn you out. Try to organise your daily tasks, set the priorities each morning, and make a list of the most important things so you can start ‘single-tasking’ to prevent burnout in dentistry.

As we bring in the new year, after what has been a difficult 2020 for everyone, let us try to reset, recharge and prepare ourselves for a more prosperous and productive 2021. 

Helpful numbers


Emotional first aid for dentists in distress: independent, confidential and free.

0333 987 5158

NHS England Practitioner Health Programme

Advice line for dentists and doctors with mental health, addiction, or physical health problems.

Text PHP to 8528


Nationwide helpline offering non-judgmental support to anyone in need.

116 123

Dentist’s Health Support Network

Initiative providing dental professionals with free support and advice on mental health, alcohol and drug issues

0207 224 4671

This article first appeared in Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue here. 

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