Separation anxiety: 5 tips for balancing work life and personal life

work life balanceSep-a-rate.

Just separate your work and your personal life. We say this to others and others say it to us as if we can push a button to turn it on or turn it off. To a certain extent separating is a necessity in the day-to-day life of any dentist or dental professional. We cannot think about the death of a loved one or a relationship that is ending during a crown prep or midextraction. It’s dangerous to have our thoughts elsewhere, and it’s not fair to our patients to lose focus on their needs.

So, yes, we do have to separate. But, there are down times — even if it is only during a brief hand washing between patients. There is space. There is space to think about last night’s argument or yesterday’s missed softball game. There is time to think about a newborn’s needs or a loved one’s suffering. We can separate, but it’s not easy, and to think we can do it 100 percent of the time is ludicrous.

As a matter of fact, it’s stressful to separate all of the time.

What can we do?

After practicing for 18 years and working with others in practice, I offer my top five tips to help you deal with separation dilemmas.

As a dentist, it is difficult to find a substitute, especially if we are in a solo practice. In our minds, “the show must go on” or a lot of rescheduling has to occur. Here are ways to keep the show going without releasing too much cortisol:

  1. Leave space in your schedule for medical and health appointments (or your kids’ appointments if you are the one in charge of family members’ schedules). Many people wonder why dentists take a day off during the week. This is why. If the time is not spent working on the business side of our practices, it can be spent working on our health. By working 8-5 Monday-Friday, there is little time left to make it to appointments. Perhaps YOU have no appointments or health issues to worry about, but many of your team members are working moms, and they have appointments to get to or get their kids to as well. This space allows for the much needed flexibility so many of our team members need and want. Furthermore, nothing causes more stress than an unanticipated leave of absence from one of our teammates. When there is no flexibility in the schedule, team members often have to take whatever appointments are available or feel pressured to wait to go to a physician. We know what happens when we delay health care: bigger and more costly problems occur. This preventive approach to health care should be modeled in our practices to help everyone separate as needed. It’s easier to focus on our work when we know we have a day to catch up on appointments, errands or wellness routines.
  2. Plan ahead for absolute schedule conflicts. It is always easier to add more time back in the schedule than it is to retract a schedule full of patients. For a return from elective surgeries, maternity/paternity leaves, and family care needs, lighten the schedule as much as possible the first few weeks. Come back in after these absences on a part-time basis. Ease your way back in. As I said, it’s easier to add more time than to reschedule many patients. Consider working shorter hours at first, too. Our necks and backs are typically out of shape after an extended time away.
  3. Practice some type of mental stillness at least weekly, if not daily. I am a big fan of mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, but tai chi or simple meditation are other options when trying to separate work from a stressful home life. These types of practices help us learn to stay in the moment and keep focused on what is occurring each minute rather than what happened yesterday or what could happen tomorrow. When we train our brains to focus on things we can control in the present moment, it is easier to separate from the chaos going on in our personal lives.
  4. Find and maintain healthy, supportive relationships. Our work can be stressful and demanding. We need partners and friends who understand our work environments and support our passions. In one of my practices, a hygienist had what we perceived to be unsupportive spouse. She constantly managed everything and everyone in her household. She had little energy left to give at work and had little patience left to share with our team. Small conflicts seemed like unmanageable conflicts to her. Once we talked about these concerns, she actually realized she could be more successful in both areas if she delegated more tasks and engaged her family members in the duties that she always completed. She actually had a supportive spouse and children. They simply did not know exactly how to help. Because we are health care professionals, our strength of caring for others can become our Achilles’ heel if left unchecked. We have to express our issues, recognize our inabilities to manage and care for everything and everyone, and ask for help when needed. If we have unsupportive family members who do not help us when asked or when needed, that can also lead to problems at our work places. Our busy home lifestyles often require additional support from children, spouses, care providers, housekeepers, nannies and other kinds of supportive helpers.
  5. Allow some time to talk during work hours. This goes against every vigilant work ethic I learned about as I grew up. “When you are at work, you work,” my dad would say. And, looking back, I still think this is a decent piece of advice to tell your kids as they start out in the working world. But, there is also a need for teams to get to know one another. It doesn’t mean everyone stands in the break room for a half hour, but it might mean there are scheduled times to talk — like during team meetings or holiday lunches or birthday celebrations. These moments allow home and work lives to merge a bit more than when we try to completely separate the two.

Separation is difficult, and there are painful times in our lives that make it nearly impossible. Our home lives bleed into our work lives and vice versa. Being conscious of these balancing acts is one way to ensure the priorities remain in the right places and at the right times. I accept that life is never in complete balance. And, instead of fighting the imbalance with self-defeating thoughts, or spending sleepless nights trying to make one area more even with the other side, I accept that this desire to have complete work-life balance is never going to be perfect. Sometimes both places are in need, and during those times, it’s important to reach out for help and delegate as many tasks as possible. Being a professional at home and at work requires planning, a willingness to let go of the desire to personally complete each task and an ability to surround yourself with an amazing support team. With these tips in mind, I hope you find more ways to manage the challenges and stressors that will surely arise while striving to be the best at home and be the best at work.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Dental Practice Success. It was written by Dr. Lisa Knowles, a practicing dentist, dental educator, consultant and speaker in Michigan. Sign up for her weekly email, Thirsty Thursdays, at or learn more her speaking options for your association, team or study club.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.