The levels of stress and burnout among the dental profession has been a worrying issue long before the arrival of COVID-19.
Results from a BDA survey of over 2,000 dental professionals published in January 2019 showed high levels of stress and burnout, with over half reporting that they were experiencing high job stress.
It’s probably fair to say that the conditions brought about by COVID-19 will only have worsened this situation for many.
Mental health in healthcare workers
A Nature article on mental health in healthcare workers in the COVID-19 era said that the unprecedented circumstances of working long hours in a high-pressure environment while faced with moral dilemmas about the challenge of providing quality care due to a lack of equipment and/or staff ‘are likely to increase the risk of mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression, other anxiety disorders, substance misuse and suicide’.
While this article was about those working in the broader healthcare sector, rather than specifically about dentistry, those unprecedented circumstances will certainly sound familiar to many who’ve been working hard to keep providing services to patients during 2020.
This means that the risk of burnout, and the need to prevent it, is greater than ever. Read on for some tips about how you can avoid burnout and protect your mental well-being:
Set boundaries around your ‘me time’
Setting aside time for yourself is one of the best ways to prevent burning out. To do this you need to make regular time (at least weekly) for yourself to do something that helps you relax.
Some of us might find this easy but for others, while there might be good intentions to do this kind of activity, there can be demands on your time from family, friends, work, etc that make it difficult to prioritise your ‘me time’.
But while it can be easy for others, and yourself, to dismiss this as just indulging in your hobby, it is actually a legitimate form of self-care. So it’s important to ring-fence it: block out your diary and if it is questioned, have the confidence to explain to others why it’s so important for you to take this time.
Set boundaries not just for yourself, but for others too.
Learn how to say no
Mental health first aid campaigner Andy Elwood says this is one of the important ways to practise self-care and keep burnout at bay.
Often, especially if you’re a high-performing person, you can be tempted to always say yes to whatever is asked of you, to try and do every task yourself and keep taking on more and more responsibility, both on a personal and professional level.
It can become an almost vicious circle, where people keep coming to you because they know you’ll likely say yes, until suddenly it all becomes too much.
Overloading yourself like this is an easy route to burnout. Become comfortable with saying ‘no’ to things that you know you don’t really have time to do, or that you could squeeze in only if you give up that all-important ‘me time’.
Remember, it doesn’t need to be a flat-out no, but simply ‘I can’t this week I’m too busy, but I could do that for you next week’. It can be hard but many of us need to learn to have the confidence to say ‘no’.
Establish good sleep hygiene
Sleep is the time we repair and restore ourselves, mentally and physically. It can sound like a cliché but a good night’s sleep really does work wonders; we feel less physically exhausted, we’re less irritable, we’re more alert, we make more rational decisions, etc.
The issue can be that we often feel like sleeping well is not something within our control. However, there are some steps you can take to establish good sleep hygiene. Below are some tips for a better night’s sleep:
- Try to have a sleep schedule, i.e. go to bed and get up at the same time every day – even on weekends.
- Establish a relaxing bedtime ritual, this could be a gentle breathing practice, listening to an audiobook, a hot bath, meditation, etc.
- A regular routine of exercise can help you to sleep better; this doesn’t mean you have to be super-fit or need to run 10 miles every day. Choose something that suits your fitness level and avoid doing it too late at night.
- Make sure the bedroom is comfortable and conducive to sleep. Feeling too hot or cold will make you irritated and restless, while noises and bright lights can keep you awake. Blackout blinds or curtains can be helpful, especially in summer. If you live in a noisy area, earplugs can also be useful.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine later on in the day. Cutting back on liquids in general in the evening can also stop you from needing to get up in the night for the toilet.
- Avoid bright screens in the last couple of hours before you try to sleep. If you need to use your phone, try turning down the brightness level.
Burnout is a real issue that can have a big impact on your mental and physical health. Prevention is better than cure, and taking steps such as the ones above can help to look after yourself and stay well.