Studies consistently point to poor mental health being widespread within dentistry.
Pre-pandemic research by Toon and colleagues showed that 10% of UK dentists had experienced suicidal thoughts, compared to the general population figure of 5%.
Post-pandemic, the recent census of dentistry professionals showed that 68% felt that chronic workplace stress impacted their relationships, 30% felt routinely depressed and 49% felt anxious.
While a paper published by Meena Ranka in January 2021, found that 92% of dentists were experiencing some form of psychological symptoms and 45% were severely stressed.
It’s clear that this is an issue prevalent across the profession. To discuss this most pressing of topics, we posed the questions that need to be asked to Mahrukh Kwaja, a dentist, positive psychologist and founder of Mind Ninja and Rick (Ritesh) Aggarwal, practice owner and founder of Psynergy Mental Health, at this year’s Dentistry Show.
We’ve summarised some of the most important points here but for more detail, tips and strategies for practices and individuals, keep reading this blog.
Both Mahrukh and Rick agreed that monitoring and recording data about your team’s mental health would be a positive. Although of course, this needs to be done in a safe and sensitive way bearing in mind what people may be comfortable sharing.
Mahrukh provided a range of strategies people can put in place to look after their own mental health. These include having a sense of purpose, increasing your work engagement, aligning your goals with your authentic values and finding ways to ‘get in the zone’ where you don’t notice time passing.
Rick shared his top tips for creating a positive mental health environment within the practice. For example, creating a safe and confidential space for team members to talk about their mental health to avoid presenteeism, and the importance of checking in with yourself regularly.
Practice owners and managers are often the ones in charge of looking after others’ mental health but the team can also support their leaders’ wellbeing. Mahrukh recommended Mental Health First Aid training and offering support, particularly listening. Both agreed that understanding the signs and symptoms of common mental illnesses is a good idea, while Rick shared how learning to show his vulnerable side at work helped not just him but the whole practice.
Want to find out more? Below are Rick and Mahrukh’s answers in full…
Should practices be monitoring and recording data about their team’s mental health and wellbeing?
Rick: 100%. As dental professionals we do check-ups and exams to capture quantitative and qualitative data to understand the needs of our patient. Based on that data, we formulate a plan and then act upon that to get the patient dentally fit with long-term sustained change.
Why would you not treat mental health in exactly the same way? Why would you not take that preventative approach to measuring and capturing key metrics of mental health?
It’s laid down by the HSE standards; their policy is that it is a moral and legal duty to be aware of employees and measure employee stress.
You can do that by having metrics on what’s happening in their roles and demands, workplace environments, what kind of support and relationships you’re providing and what their personal wellbeing is looking like.
You’ve also got to create this safe space where people can talk, which is why anonymised data-capture platforms are really important.
Mahrukh: As a positive psychologist, I have had a lot of experience using scales, such as validated quizzes or questionnaires where you explore things like perceived stress, resilience, optimism, happiness and mental health.
I can definitely see the value of that and getting that kind of quantitative data in the world of research.
But I would just caveat that with the fact that there are some dental professionals that might feel uncomfortable with sharing their information on mental wellbeing. They might not like those questionnaires and you’ve got to sensitively acknowledge that.
You can’t always capture everything from quantitative data or even qualitative data. But certainly, there is great value in regular conversations with your staff to check in.
What strategies can you put in place to take control of your mental health and stay positive?
Mahrukh: Having a sense of meaning and purpose as a dental professional is really important for psychological health. So, really honing into moments in your day that bring you meaning can be helpful. It might even be looking at adversities and challenges that you’re experiencing but finding silver linings.
Increasing work engagement is also worthwhile and you can do this by bringing your strengths to work. Research shows that focusing on what we’re good at and what brings us most joy is really good for our psychological health, so bring that to work.
For example, if you really love learning, find ways that you can perhaps teach other people within the dental team or share learnings from dental cases with them.
Bringing your authentic self to work is a great way to prevent burnout. Whatever is important to you, whether it’s compassion, kindness, leadership or teamwork – bring that to work to enhance positive emotions.
It’s also crucial to align your goals to fit in with your values and who you really are. Think about what means a lot to you and what you can do in the next six months that will being you joy, meaning and connection.
Find ways you can enhance your psychological flow states, or in other words, your ability to get into the zone. I know dental professionals can get really lost in the process of doing something like composite bonding. They lose track of time and it’s a really pleasurable experience for them.
If you can’t find those moments within dentistry, look for them in your personal life and hobbies.
What strategies can practices put in place to build a positive environment?
Mahrukh: We know from wellbeing research among medics and healthcare that what is working now is psychological interventions, particularly from positive psychology, resilience and mindfulness based.
So, I would encourage practices to amplify positive emotions as much as possible. Positive emotions are not just about feeling good, it’s also about broadening our thinking and our cognitive ability.
When we’re stressed our thinking narrows and positive emotions actually broaden this and help us to build psychological resources such as resilience.
A simple strategy that a team can do is to embed gratitude conversations. For example, in a team meeting you can ask everyone to share things that are going well that day i.e. patient compliments, treatments that are going particularly well. Or you could have a gratitude board and have these comments written down.
This is crucial and beneficial for the whole team because hearing other people’s gratitude points creates a beautiful upward spiral of positive emotions.
Another great way of increasing positive emotions is to infuse mindfulness in your everyday life. Mindfulness doesn’t just mean meditation, there are simple strategies you can integrate into your work day such as, taking a moment to concentrate on your breath and anchor to being present e.g. when you’re putting your PPE on.
If we increase the exhale, we increase the parasympathetic nervous system and we invite these beautiful positive emotions, serenity and a sense of calm. Which is a great buffer to stress.
I also like to encourage check-ins with yourself. It’s quite easy as a dental practitioner to have a very busy day, seeing one patient after the next, wanting to be on time and not realising what’s going on with your body and mind. Asking yourself what’s going on in your body, if you need a stretch or a break etc. is crucial so that you can take positive action.
Increasing high-quality connections is also key. Research by Jane Dutton shows even a short few seconds of a meaningful connection with someone else makes such a difference to us feeling good.
Prioritising those moments will help boost your resilience and wellbeing.
How can the team help to look after the practice manager’s/owner’s mental wellbeing?
Mahrukh: I recommend all team members have Mental Health First Aid training. It’s really important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of mental illness, such as a change in behaviour, a difference in eating or sleeping etc.
Offering initial support in the form of listening is really crucial; approach them in an open, compassionate way to give them a safe space to talk about what they’re going through.
Then, just see how you can support them. It may be that you can take something off their plate at work or they might be looking for specific help that you can signpost them to.
This is an opportunity where you can develop trust by sharing, with kindness and compassion, what is available for dental professionals because there are actually lots of services specifically available to us that many of us don’t necessarily know about.
Rick: Mental Health First Aid training is a great product and there are also lots of free resources out there via the NHS, or just on Google, where you can learn about common mental health disorders and what the signs and symptoms are.
I would encourage everybody to learn about those things for their own wellbeing, which is crucial for then being able to support others.
I ran a practice where I felt as though I had to be a leader who had all the answers and provide for the whole team, neglecting my own needs. That was detrimental to my mental health.
I’ve now changed my leadership to being more human, to show my vulnerable side and gain that connection with my team, who in turn have opened up more.