Burnout – The Myths Surrounding the Epidemic
By: Amisha Singh, DDS
They say we are all at risk, all the time. They say that the rates for provider burnout are at an all-time high. Depending on which study you read, they say that more than 50% of dentists are affected, with young professionals being the highest risk category. They speak the truth but all these words are just that… words. They are spoken in hallways of dental schools as precautions and warnings filled with optimism and care. They are used prior to breaks in CE classes around the country, a public health announcement for our profession woven into our curriculum. But when they become a reality for you, their impact resounds. You never really know just how life changing burnout can be until you experience it. When our profession gathers the courage to speak about this subject… passionately, openly, fearlessly… that is when we really see just how prevalent dental professional burnout really is, and how big of a threat it poses to our community. This open communication is the only way to dispel the myths surrounding the growing shadow, to bring it out into the light and to heal.
Myth #1 – Burnout is clearly differentiated.
People are either pregnant or they are not. They either have cancer or they do not. Burnout is not as clearly defined nor diagnosed. Instead of being binary, burnout lands on a sliding scale, unfortunately one that is not well understood. One contribution to this ambiguity is research; provider burnout, and dental burnout, in particular, lack significant research and study needed to create clearer diagnostic criteria, risk factors and methods of prevention and treatment. But another reason burnout is not as binary as some other medical conditions is that it presents so differently in different people. The warning signs are different. The rate of acceleration is different. Some providers experience the warning signs for decades. Others become symptomatic in days. The spectrum of burnout is dynamic and feels somewhat unpredictable, especially for those who are in the middle of experiencing it.
Myth #2 – Burnout is a sign of weakness.
Some of the strongest, most incredible dentists I have ever met have experienced burnout. But there is a prevalent stigma surrounding burnout, one that feels like a form of failure. Some have argued that the word itself, “burnout” places the blame on the provider, insinuating a message that “you were not strong enough to resist, to overpower.” Dr. Zubin Damania, better known as ZDoggMD, founder of Turntable Health, has a powerful video on this subject and argues a more apt term would be “moral injury.” His point is well made. One of the reasons that the risk never diminishes to zero, no matter the age, specialty or job setting of the dentist, is that the profession has a risk of burnout which goes beyond the personal characteristics of the provider or their specific situation. In other words, the risk is multifactorial; it is ingrained in the system itself. High debt, high pressure, a lack of community support and resources for prevention and treatment, gaps in training, and systemic problems in remuneration have all been linked to the inherent risk of burnout of all medical providers. So, experiencing burnout says little about who you are and more about the state of medical care in our communities. Removing the personal stigma behind burnout (and frankly, all mental health issues) is the first and most imperative step to creating a system to heal.
Myth #3 – Burnout is inevitable.
As someone who has felt the impact of burnout firsthand, I will say it feels inevitable. It feels overpowering and uncontrollable. Healing feels out of reach and even, at times, impossible. But I for one refuse to write off the solution for our profession just yet. The solution to each individual’s recovery path is hidden within systemic changes we can make to eradicate the problem from the root. We need to change who we are and how we practice as a whole. The foundation of healing individuals will be found in healing the system, solutions which organized dentistry, and the MDDS specifically, are already fighting to create. The solution comes through broaching the subject in this magazine, having courses at RMDC and starting a new wellness group, The Mindful Dentist. But in the meantime, awareness is key. As providers, we should know the signs and symptoms of burnout and instill daily habits of prevention.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Provider Burnout
- Exhaustion: Feeling excessively challenged to get out of bed in the morning or excessively drained during or after a workday.
- Cynicism or Emotional Detachment: Also known as compassion fatigue, it is a feeling of desensitization towards work, your team or your patients.
- Lack of Efficacy: A pervasive feeling of uselessness, meaninglessness, or that you or the work you do does not matter. Having thoughts like, “what is the point?”
- Loss of Motivation or Procrastination: Losing the will to complete daily tasks.
- Physical Changes or Pain: Emotional pain or stress can manifest as physical pain when left untreated.
- Isolation and Detachment: Feeling alone and not connected with your peers.
- Excessive Aggression: Continued burnout can manifest as rage, redirected at family and friends, internally or even at patients or team members.
If you or a colleague you know are feeling any of these or worry about burnout, there are resources for you. Email MDDS at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (303) 488-9700 to learn more about prevention resources.
Amisha Singh, DDS is a Denver native and loves living in beautiful Colorado. She is an active member of the American Dental Association, Colorado Dental Association and Metro Denver Dental Society. She was recognized as one of the 2018 Top 10 Under 10 ADA Dentists nationally. She serves on the CDA House of Delegates, on the ADA Dental Wellbeing Advisory Committee and on the MDDS and CDA Membership Councils. She is the CDA New Dentist Committee Chair and the RMDC Convention Chair Elect. She is also a blogger and professional speaker who works with IgniteDDS.
The Metro Denver Dental Society is a not-for-profit component society of the American Dental Association and the Colorado Dental Association.