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Bring you and your team back from burnout

Nov. 12, 2021
Just when dentists are hoping to return to normal, staff may be burned out from the last year. There are ways to boost morale and help everyone have fun again.
When you face a crisis, it can become the focus of your existence. You and your team have been in this COVID crisis together, and you've made it work! You ran on adrenaline, but you succeeded. Things should be feeling more normal, and you should be celebrating, right? Instead, everyone is crabby, snippy, and glum. Your once fun practice is now torment. No one wants to be at work, and patients can sense that. Just when everything should be great again, you’re all burned out.

If you’re burned out, know that you’re not alone. I’ve been hearing from many practice owners who are mentally hitting a wall. They’re exhausted, their teams are snipping at each other, and the fun workplace of 2019 has become a joyless slog in 2021.

Why now?

Why is now a uniquely trying time for dental practices? Why are teams burning out when we finally have a chance to relax? Patient demand is back, and didn’t we say during the worst of the pandemic that we just wanted our chairs full again?

As cliché as this is, we’re living in unprecedented times. We’ve never dealt with anything like this before. As practice owners, we must cope with uncertainty, staff turnover, and staff staying home due to health fears or childcare struggles. Our industry has changed. It’s now hard to staff the office, and some team members are taking on new responsibilities while keeping their old ones. Meanwhile, new office cleaning and personal protective equipment requirements mean our capacity is down, even when we have a full staff. We need to figure out new math for our new situation, and this can be stressful.

After adrenaline comes the crash

During a crisis, people often run on adrenaline. There’s fear because we don’t know what’s happening, followed by euphoria as we start to make things work again. Then there’s fear because a crisis is seldom a single wave. We get into this new cycle of ups and downs, and we get used to running on adrenaline.

When you operate on adrenaline for a year or more, this catches up to you. It hurts your brain, cardiovascular system, and other parts of your body. You don’t feel well, and you’re exhausted. You’ve been running at 175% capacity when giving even 50% of your all feels impossible because your tank is empty.

Making up for lost time and missed opportunities

If you or any staff lost family members during the pandemic, this adds another layer of stress. No matter how a loved one died, the pandemic meant no funerals, no time for the rituals of grief that keep people sane. Ungrieved losses add up, create a constant low level of stress, and increase the risk of burn out. Even outside of a pandemic, tragedy can take a terrible toll.

Loss of control and stability

Finally, due to the uncertainty and volatility of the pandemic, many have lost their sense of stability. We wonder what next week will be like and if there will be a new variant. If someone leaves the practice, we wonder if we can find a new team member. We wonder if our patients will show up for their appointments. We can’t trust that things will be the same from day to day, and our brains must work overtime to process the uncertainty and plan for sudden changes.

Now what?

So, you’re burned out. You’ve survived something terrible, and you can’t keep going. You can’t fix yourself and the people around you with one quick trick. How can you and your team come back from burnout and make the practice a good place to work again? Give yourself and your team opportunities to calm down and recover from the feeling that disaster is looming, and take time to reconnect with each other.

Keep the communication flowing

Communication suffers during a crisis, and once the crisis is past, sometimes we don’t return to good communication. People hold grudges about what was said or not said when everyone was running on adrenaline. As the practice owner, it’s up to you to break this cycle. Revamp your communication regime. Make sure everyone knows what’s going on, even in rapidly changing situations. Ask questions and listen to people’s answers. Explain to your departmental heads what kind of communication you want. Once your team is communicating clearly, you can bring them back from burnout.

Return to fun is a return on investment

In a crisis, stress and fear can cause fractures in the team. Even people who used to get along can begin to argue, and the practice becomes a miserable place to work. To put the team back into a community mindset, you’ll need to plan some fun bonding activities such as in-office team training, new technology, fun pictures on social media, or a staff off-site fun day.

Do these things take time? Yes. Is time money? Yes. Are they worth the time and money? Always. Your return on investment from these activities comes from helping your team become a team again. This will make your practice more pleasant, efficient, and attractive to patients. When your team members like each other and feel like they can count on each other, you can heal from the current burnout and protect against future ones.

Get systems in place

One of the major causes of burnout is lack of control, which I discuss in my book, The Stress-Free Dentist. We want to make bad situations better because we can’t endure misery. To be happy and stable, people need to know that they can do to affect outcomes with their actions. COVID threw a lot of us for a loop because it was new, we weren’t sure what to do, and our existing systems failed us. 

Now is the time to get new systems in place. You survived an unexpected crisis, and you learned something. So, get a disaster plan in place. Create systems so that during the next crisis, everyone in the office has an area in which they can exert control and make positive changes. This will look different in every office, but good systems mean control, even during a crisis. Be sure you’re checking in with your staff and letting them know they’re appreciated, and that their voices are being heard.

This isn’t forever

The most important thing to remember is that the way you and your team are feeling now is not permanent. The last 20 months have been incredibly hard, and we're all still working through the stress and emotions. You liked each other once, and you will like each other and your work again. You just need to be intentional and take some solid steps toward easing stress, rebuilding support networks, and regaining control and purpose.

It’s not just COVID

Most of the burnout we’re seeing right now is linked to COVID because of the unique stresses of 2020 and 2021. But the lessons you’re learning about dealing with burnout will help you avoid or recover from future burnouts. There are always going to be health scares, economic downturns, deaths, and world events that spike our adrenaline, wear us down, and make our jobs harder. The same strategies that help now will help in the future. For now, focus on healing, communication, and stability, and strive to make 2022 a great year.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the November 2021 print edition of Dental Economics.

Eric Block, DMD, CAGS, FICOI, is a full-time practicing dentist, founder of dealsfordentists.com, host of the Deals for Dentists Podcast, author of thestressfreedentist.com, and host of the Get Stress-Free Dentistry Summit.

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