Avoiding burnout as a new dentist

            After about three decades into the profession, Dr. Bill Claytor noticed he was becoming more cynical at work and often felt exhausted by the end of the day.

“I realized I lost some of that drive I associated with early in my dental career,” he said. “I always enjoyed dentistry, but I saw the early signs of burnout.”

Dr. Claytor

For him, it was time to make a change. He sold his practice and reduced his workload by working part-time at a practice with four other dentists.

As a member of the North Carolina Caring Dental Professionals, Dr. Claytor said he gets to meet other dentists who have or are experiencing burnout.

“And they’re often not people my age,” he said. “They’re dentists in their 30s.”

According to the ADA Center for Professional Success, 51 percent of dentists work between 35 to 50 hours a week; and 75 percent of dentists deal with moderate to severe stress while at work. And today’s new dentists face some different challenges than those from generations before them. For example, the average dental student graduates with $287,000 in debt today — limiting their options after graduation.

“Whether you are an established dentist, dental student or new dentist, survey data shows that you continually push yourself physically and mentally,” according to CPS. “During your training — and even while you are in practice — you are exposed to mental and physical stress, irregular sleep schedules and fatigue. As a result, we are seeing students and dental professionals dealing with burnout, substance use disorders and other conditions that may impair their abilities to practice competent dentistry.”

For Dr. Claytor, while there are a variety of reasons a new dentist can burn out, there are some things he recommends for up-and-coming practitioners.

  • Continue to learn and explore: Dr. Claytor said new dentists should take advantage of continuing education courses; exploring other aspects of the profession, such as education and public health; and always ask questions “to people who know more than you.” Some may discover another part of the profession that they enjoy.
  • Invest for the long term: Despite the cost, those looking to own their practice should invest in hiring a practice manager who can help them in the “next four decades,” Dr. Claytor said. “This is something I wish I had done.” It’s about having someone you can trust with the day-to-day business, allowing you to focus on practicing dentistry, he said.
  • Re-create yourself: “When I was right out of dental school, a colleague said something to me that I’ll always remember: ‘The time you spent away from the office is more important than the time you spend in the practice.’” Whether it’s hobbies, community service, vacationing with the family or pets, there’s life out of the dental office. “One of my favorite words is ‘recreation’…I like to think it allows you to re-create yourself.”
  • Have an accountability partner: “Isolation is a terrible disease,” Dr. Claytor said. “In dentistry, it’s easy to get in our own little world.” It’s important, he said, to have a colleague or mentor whom they can talk to about successes and struggles as a practicing dentist. Contact the New Dentist Committee or your state and local dental societies to connect with other dentists with similar experiences.

            If you answer “yes” to any one of the situations below, you may want to reach out to the ADA’s Dentist Health and Wellness Program.

  • Are you experiencing problems coping with patients or with the typical stress of a busy practice?
  • Do you become easily depressed or annoyed?
  • Do you drink more than a moderate amount of alcohol?
  • Do you self-prescribe or misuse mood-altering drugs?
  • Are you slowing down, overly tired, or constantly placing work ahead of personal needs, family or recreation?

If you believe that you or a peer needs the help of the ADA and state dentist well-being programs, call ADA Health and Wellness program manager, Alison Bramhall, at 1-312-440-2622 or email bramhalla@ada.org.

3 comments

  • I retired from dentistry 5 years ago after nearly 40 years in practice. Out of those 40 years, the last 10 were the most satisfying for a couple of reasons: working with a restorative dental hygienist (trained to restore after I prepped), and buying another practice. I was able to incorporate the new practice (along with the owner) into my own office. After some growing pains (turf wars) we had a marvellous professional relationship for nearly 10 years even though our contract called for him to leave after one year.
    I must say that the transition period was difficult for both of us, and most probably not for everyone, but I was able to enjoy immensely the professional camaraderie missing from my solo practice.

  • This is my favorite article yet. We all need to be real with ourselves and our situations. Authenticity is valuable.

  • What a terrific article. We face so many stressful situations (menatally, physically and emotionally) it’s even more important to develop strategies for managing these issues. Hopefully, before this turns into back/neck pain, illness, isolation, depression, substance abuse and burnout. Bringing this to the attention of young dentists or dental students is crucial, and hopefully they can avoid some of the fallout from all this stress. Excellent suggestions and resources for managing.

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