16 Oct 2019  •  Mental Health  •  18min read

Feeling overwhelmed as a young dentist? You’re not the only one…

Practising dentist Bethany Rushworth recently launched a coaching service for her fellow young professionals, including trainees, who may be feeling overwhelmed.

Within a few days, the 1-2-1 service was fully subscribed, suggesting there is a real demand among student and qualified dentists, for such a programme.

Below, Bethany talks to Jayne Gibson about why she feels there is a need for this kind of service, her own experience in dentistry and positive steps that dentists can take…

Jayne: How did your own professional experience lead you into coaching?

Beth: As an undergraduate student I felt pretty intimidated by the world of dentistry.

There seemed to be so many different options available and paths I could take and I didn’t really understand them or know the difference or what would be right for me. I felt overwhelmed and wasn’t sure how I’d be able to keep up with everything I needed to do.

With ever changing guidelines, CPD requirements and materials, I was sure I would miss something or fall behind! I loved the flexibility of dentistry, but that also scared me!

After qualifying I dedicated more and more time to helping students to get through the final years of dental school and as I’ve progressed, I have also focused on helping other young dentists with interview skills, CV writing and portfolio building.

Despite having great feedback for what I was doing, I noticed I was getting contacted more and more regarding mental health, anxiety and stress management.

I was already completing a life coaching course out of personal interest and realised that I could use this knowledge, along with my own experiences of overcoming (or should I say controlling) significant anxiety and going through the process of national recruitment, to help others on a more personal than academic level.

Writing a programme allowed me to put together this information into a free resource that can be accessed by anyone in healthcare all around the world who feel they are unsure where they want to go with their careers or are unsure how to get there.

It considers so much more than just ticking boxes and writing articles, it is about getting to the bottom of their core values and establishing what is REALLY important to them, not what society or even the dental/medical community says it should be.

These are things I have figured out along the way, but would have loved to have had my hand held through the process and somewhere to turn for a bit of structure and guidance!

Jayne: What kind of need/demand is there for this kind of service for dentists?

Beth: Dentistry is a huge community and can be very competitive. From applying to university, to national recruitment to any postgraduate position, you are forced to show how you are ‘better’ than other candidates and excel over and over again.

As a first-year dental student you go from high levels of academic achievement at school (we can assume this given the entry requirements now being a combination of As and A*s!) to being average. Personally, I found this really difficult and know I wasn’t alone.

When you are trying your best and see your marks drop from 90% at school to 41% at university, it is confusing and stressful as it seems like you aren’t doing enough despite giving your all.

In my opinion, this feeling of being average is then made worse by the nature of the recruitment process following graduation. You are in competition with each other to the point that you are ranked against the other candidates with a number!

Aside from the competition for jobs there is also competition for patients. And social media platforms such as Instagram serve as a constant reminder of what everyone else is doing, providing a constantly updated show-reel of cherry-picked cases, awards and achievements of others.

Whilst some people find their niche and are quite happy working away within that, it can be extremely overwhelming not knowing what ‘your thing’ is, what you want to do or even how to get there.

As a dentist early on in my career, I myself have been swept along with the panic of wondering if I was making the wrong choice about my career (such as returning to medical school to pursue a career in oral and maxillofacial surgery or return to general practice).

“I think there is a huge need for more resources for dentists to help with career development, mental health and stress management. “

I personally feel that the influence of society, friends and the dental community as a whole can make it very difficult to work out what is important to us personally and to establish what we really want to get out of our careers.

I think there is a huge need for more resources for dentists to help with career development, mental health and stress management.

I am fortunate to have been surrounded by positive, forward-thinking dentists who have acted as mentors to me over the years, however not everyone is in that position and may feel as though it is too late to do anything about the position they are in if they are unhappy.

Due to the volume of messages I was receiving from students and young dentists asking for advice on careers, work/life balance and CV building, I wanted to provide help with these things on a wider scale. But I found that replying to people one at a time with advice and support wasn’t feasible with my current workload.

Personal development is something I have always been passionate about and I spend a lot of my spare time reading and learning more about this topic. I completed my life coaching training out of personal interest but felt that I could give something back by developing my own programme to help other young healthcare professionals.

For anyone who wants even more than the free programme, I also offer 1-1 coaching but this is currently at capacity, so I am not taking on new clients.

I think it’s really important to clarify that coaching isn’t telling people what to do, it isn’t clinical advice or counselling, it is simply providing structures and techniques to help people figure things out for themselves, such as what they want and how they can get to that point.

Jayne: Our latest Dentistry Confidence Monitor survey shows that 84% of NHS dentists and 51% of private dentists feel their role has a negative impact on their mental health. What are your thoughts on that?

Beth: Firstly, I can believe it. Having worked in NHS general practice, the hospital as a DCT and in private general practice, I have seen first-hand the differences and similarities between each.

I also worked as a dental nurse in both mixed and NHS practices for eight years prior to becoming a dentist myself. During this time, I have seen the dilemma faced by NHS dentists on a day-to-day basis which ultimately boils down to remuneration and compensation for treatments.

All dentists are aware of the situations faced on the NHS under the current system whereby high-needs patients can actually cost the practice and the individual dentist personally to provide treatment.

Dentists know what treatments are best for the patient but with pressures of UDA targets, limited time and huge numbers of patients to see, this can be challenging if not impossible to actually fulfil.

For example, a gold crown may be the best option clinically, however unless the dentist is paying for the treatment out of their own pocket, a patient needing three of these realistically isn’t going to be offered them on a routine basis.

As a result of this I can see why there is a difference in the results between the NHS and private dentists. As a private dentist, my patients are given all of the options and it is up to them if they go ahead with them or not.

On the NHS, the dentist has to consider the financial implications of what is being offered to the patient and it isn’t as flexible. To use a more expensive material, an NHS dentist cannot simply add that cost onto the treatment price.

The majority of dentists will unfailingly act in the patients’ best interest and knowing that they won’t be fairly remunerated or that they are paying towards treatment for patients will be an added stress, especially on top of working within a target-driven system.

Jayne: Why do you think dentists are feeling overwhelmed?

Beth: Aside from the financial differences between the NHS and private systems, regardless of the environment we are in, dentistry can be extremely stressful and therefore have a negative impact on mental health.

There are a few key things which I feel have a huge impact on our mental health as dentists.

Firstly, it is so challenging to leave things at work. I personally feel there are so many opportunities to develop and improve both clinically and personally, it can seem impossible to switch off.

For a while it seemed as though the more I learnt, for example on courses, the more I felt I didn’t know! Therefore, actually separating our work time and our home lives can be tricky and having that time to do other things and enjoy time with friends and family can be hard.

For many dentists, the threat of litigation is always in the back of their minds.

Even as a competent, ethical dentist doing everything by the book, there’s plenty of reasons ranging from miscommunication to maliciousness that mean you might have a case against you.

Even if you know you haven’t done anything wrong, the stress of the process can be substantial and the consequences can be huge. When so much is expected of us professionally and clinically the pressure can really start to get to us.

Generally speaking, dentists are always the bad guys. Although there seems to be a bit of a change in patients’ perceptions of clinicians now that we can be more relatable and accessible through the use of social media, it doesn’t take a lot for us to get bad press.

This adds to the overall pressure as we can spend a lot of our time fighting this image that a lot of patients have about us as a profession. 

Jayne: Is there anything dentists can do to protect themselves from becoming overwhelmed?

Beth: I have always been a fan of the phrase ‘worrying means we suffer twice’. I don’t remember where I first heard it, however I definitely agree.

I have always been a worrier and have spent years trying to figure out the best ways to overcome this.

I have a lot on my plate and have certainly come close to burning out myself in the past. As a result of this, I now have a few techniques for managing my time, workload and avoiding becoming too overwhelmed.

The first thing I had to do was learn how to say no and when to say yes.

When you are just starting out in your career and trying to carve a path for yourself you will likely have to do some rubbish tasks or jobs and almost always for free! Initially, this is pretty unavoidable and will help you to make contacts, build experience and grow your reputation.

Over time however, it won’t be necessary, possible or appropriate to say yes to everything. Now, I think carefully before taking something on as to whether I have the time and ability to do a great job of whatever is required.

Secondly, I prioritise and set realistic time frames.

I always have a to-do list on the go. When I have something that needs doing, I add it to my to-do list and reprioritise my tasks.

I write down deadlines and decide what order to approach things, I also check if anything can be delegated. If there is no deadline for a piece of work for example, I figure out when it can be realistically done and ensure I am giving myself plenty of time.

I try to avoid overcommitting to make sure I have time to do everything to a standard I want and can be proud of.

“As soon as we start comparing ourselves to others it is a slippery slope as there will always be someone more talented, more experienced, or who we might perceive to be more successful. “

Another thing which I find really helps is to set realistic expectations of myself and try not to compare myself to others. I am happy in my own lane and focus on doing the best I can and developing myself both clinically and personally.

As soon as we start comparing ourselves to others it is a slippery slope as there will always be someone more talented, more experienced, or who we might perceive to be more successful.

Something else I find really helps is to avoid putting off things I don’t want to do. As these tasks (for example CPD, accounts, admin etc) build up, I feel more and more overwhelmed, so by keeping on top of them it really helps me feel in control and organised.

Finally, allocate time for yourself which is non-negotiable. It is easy to get busier and busier without leaving time for yourself to relax and enjoy yourself. Life is for living after all and if you are fortunate enough to have time and your health it’s so important to enjoy this!

Jayne: Do you think organisations could be doing more to support dentists who are struggling with their mental health, and in what way?

Beth: I would love to see more of an emphasis on self-care and mental health integrated in to the undergraduate curriculum.

” The stress doesn’t only begin after leaving dental school, so in my opinion greater steps should be taken at an earlier stage to help prepare young dentists going through university. “

We had frequent talks regarding managing finances, record keeping and protecting ourselves against litigation, however there was a distinct lack of advice and guidance regarding stress management and generally looking after our mental wellbeing.

The stress doesn’t only begin after leaving dental school, so in my opinion greater steps should be taken at an earlier stage to help prepare young dentists going through university.

I also think the structure of the undergraduate curriculum is not conducive to mental health. Of course, this will vary between universities, however I feel that students are over examined and there’s a significant amount of unnecessary stresses put on them throughout their training. 

For many years a popular topic of conversation has been surrounding the issue of mental health and stress levels within the dental profession, however it doesn’t seem like sufficient steps have been taken to address this.

There are some individuals working extremely hard to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues, but this needs to be done on a much bigger scale with input from larger organisations with more influence.

Healthcare professionals are expected to be invincible and we need to accept that sometimes our doctor or dentist or nurse needs to be a patient themselves. Whether that is for counselling, medication or other support and treatment.

Healthcare professionals are not immune to these problems and we need to be talking openly about them in publications, at conferences, in study groups and on social media.

To find out more about Bethany’s coaching programme, or receive a copy of it, you can message her on Instagram @dr.bethanyrushworth or visit:  www.bethanyrushworth.com.

Get all blogs delivered to your inbox

By subscribing to our blog, you agree to receiving our monthly blog update and newsletter. You can unsubscribe at any time. The security of your personal data is very important to us and we will never sell your data to other companies. You can read more about how we protect your information and your rights by reading our privacy notice.