Burnout has been a hot topic in the health-care industry over the last several years. We used to primarily associate it with emergency room nurses and surgeons who worked consecutive shifts over multiple days. They would describe extreme working conditions where endless hours were spent bouncing from patient to patient with little to no time to rest, eat, or use the restroom. Providers were expected to be continually alert and engaged with the individuals under their care, as their patients’ health—and sometimes their lives—depended on it. Time off was hard to come by, whether for a planned vacation or even to recover at home from an illness.
The more buzz that the subject of burnout received in the medical field, the more we started to realize the many parallels for professionals working in the dental field. The widespread dental hygiene shortage that has developed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the issue.
While most of us are familiar with the term burnout, many do not fully understand how to recognize it in their own career or know what steps to take to overcome it. To put it plainly: Professional burnout occurs when a person reaches the point of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion after trying to keep up with the daily demands of their job over a long period of time.
If left unresolved, burnout can completely devastate a person's outlook on life as well as their overall well-being.
Burnout is much more than simply being tired or unhappy at work; the toll that it takes on a person can negatively impact his or her overall well-being, ultimately resulting in physical and mental harm.
A survey of dental hygienists’ job satisfaction in California conducted by Bercasio and others in 2020 found that just over 30% of respondents reported experiencing burnout with their career.1 That’s nearly one in three!
It’s not enough to mention or joke about feeling burned out with colleagues or loved ones; changes must be made so that the person’s health, relationships, and overall fulfillment with life can be restored. For anyone who is personally struggling with this issue, here are five steps that can help you find life beyond burnout.
1. Identify your stressors
It may be easy to acknowledge feeling the symptoms of burnout, but singling out the true source of one’s burnout can be a bit more challenging. The stressors that cause burnout among dental hygienists tend to come in both physical and emotional forms, such as the intense pressure to provide thorough care while causing minimal discomfort to the patient, time constraints, low control over job functions, insufficient support from the office team, lack of adequate breaks, and anxiety associated with meeting employer expectations.2
Other common sources of stress may include a fast-paced clinical schedule with short patient appointment times, ergonomic fatigue, and an office culture plagued by hostility, fear, gossip, competition, and mistrust. It is critical to identify these issues so that the appropriate action can be taken to reduce stress.
Developing a journaling routine can help bring a heightened awareness to specific recurring stressors, and using a stress-tracking app or device can provide an individual with a more detailed understanding of the frequency and intensity of physiological stress responses.
2. Prioritize a healthy lifestyle
We educate our patients daily about the many benefits of developing and maintaining healthy habits for their oral and overall health. We know that routine self-care results in positive changes within the enamel structure, oral microbiome, and periodontium—which ripples profoundly into systemic health. Despite reviewing this day in and day out while providing patient oral hygiene instruction and nutritional counseling, many clinicians fail to apply these essential principles to their own lives.
For example, exercise is an activity that many associate with weight loss and physical fitness, but its benefits for improving mental health are often overlooked and underestimated. Research indicates that while stress negatively affects the brain—resulting in nervous dysfunction that translates to every system in the body—exercise causes a release of endorphins in the brain, which counteracts the physical damage caused by stress and acts as a natural pain reliever and mood enhancer.3
Additionally, eating a nutritious diet high in whole foods and low in processed options has been shown to better support the physical and mental performance of a person who is chronically exposed to a stressful environment.4 Mindfulness and meditation are other beneficial habits that can help balance the mental burden an individual carries while dealing with burnout
3. Create a structured sleep schedule
In our field, we often talk about dental hygiene, but how much do we know about sleep hygiene? The quantity and quality of sleep a person gets largely impacts their response to life’s challenges, especially during a time of professional burnout. If the body is consistently fatigued from a lack of sleep, the brain and each organ system operate at suboptimal levels, much like a cell phone running on low battery life.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends some simple habits to encourage healthier sleep hygiene, which include going to bed at a consistent time each night, waking up at the same time each morning, creating an inviting atmosphere for sleep, removing electronic devices from the bedroom, avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and excessive eating before bedtime, and getting regular exercise.5
Another area worth personally investigating is one’s airway health as it relates to sleep quality and mental health. Recent research indicates that individuals with untreated obstructive sleep apnea have an increased incidence of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress.6 We routinely screen our patients for sleep-disordered breathing, and it’s just as important for us to identify and treat our own concerns if they exist.
4. Advocate for yourself
In nearly all circumstances, true resolution of burnout requires the sufferer to take a stand for their well-being and communicate their challenges with their employer. There are many avenues that can be taken in a person’s efforts to create a more harmonious work environment for themselves.
Setting clear boundaries, or protective limits, is one way. This might include partnering with the team to enforce stricter parameters for the hygiene schedule, being more selective with connections on social media, avoiding office gossip, or simply answering with a kind, but stern “no” to requests that stretch beyond what is physically and emotionally feasible. Reevaluating the number of working days, using needed sick and vacation days, and bringing attention to workplace bullying are other measures to consider.
In a supportive work environment, the team will rally around the individual struggling with burnout and work to provide immediate relief. An employer’s response to requests for help will ultimately determine whether a healthier balance can be achieved at the office, or if a change in workplace is what is necessary.
5. Seek professional help
Managing burnout on our own can be a seriously overwhelming undertaking. There are some people who are able to individually navigate their challenges and find ways to overcome their issues, but many struggling with burnout reach a point of feeling completely lost, alone, and exhausted—much like a person stranded in the middle of a hot, dry desert.
In these cases, reaching out for help from a trained professional can serve as a major pivotal point in finding direction and creating the necessary life changes that bring back career fulfillment. A licensed therapist, counselor, or career coach can be a helpful resource when it feels like the weight of life’s stresses is too great to bear.
They can help to identify key environmental stress contributors, uncover personality traits that create a vulnerability to becoming overworked, and develop a plan to end the cycle of burnout. Sometimes, just a few sessions with a professional can provide the clarity needed to move forward, while others find great contentment in continuing with receiving coaching long term.
Professional burnout is not unique to the field of dental hygiene, but hygienists face some very unique challenges in the workplace that can be difficult to navigate. If left unresolved, burnout can completely devastate a person’s outlook on life as well as their overall state of well-being.
Our humanity is what separates us from being industrial machines; we have physical, mental, and emotional needs that must be met in order for us to provide patient care to the best of our abilities. Recognizing symptoms of burnout is only the start to overcoming the complex issues that can lead to workplace exhaustion. Taking the necessary steps to intentionally and strategically create change is what will finally bring about peace. Are you ready?
Sidebar: Actionable ways to overcome burnout
- Stress tracking
- Build a support network
- Physical activity
- Mindful breathing
- Intuitive eating
- Develop a hobby
- Establish boundaries
- Connect with a professional
- Spend time outdoors
- Create work-life balance
- Massage therapy
- Sleep hygiene
- Plan a vacation
- Time with loved ones
- Pet therapy
- Decrease screen time
- Find a creative outlet
- Daily affirmations
- Speak up for yourself
Editor's note: This article appeared in the August 2022 print edition of RDH magazine. Dental hygienists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.
- Bercasio LV, Rowe DJ, Yansane A. Factors associated with burnout among dental hygienists in California. J Dent Hyg. 2020;94(6):40-48. https://jdh.adha.org/content/94/6/40
- Malcolm N, Boyd L, Giblin-Scanlon L, Vineyard J. Occupational stressors of dental hygienists in the United States. Work. 2020;65(3):517-524. doi:10.3233/WOR-203106
- Rafiq K, Adnan B, Khalid A, et al. Physical work out: An alternative therapy for stress & depression. FUUAST J Biol. 2019;9(2):251-256.
- Syed IUB. Diet, physical activity, and emotional health: What works, what doesn’t, and why we need integrated solutions for total worker health. BMC Pub Health. 2020;20(1):152. doi:10.1186/s12889-020-8288-6
- Tips for better sleep. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed April 24, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/sleep_hygiene.html#:~:text=Tips%20for%20Better%20Sleep&text=Be%20consistent.,smart%20phones%2C%20from%20the%20bedroom
- Kaufmann CN, Susukida R, Depp CA. Speep apnea, psychopathology, and mental health care. Sleep Health. 2017;3(4):244-249. Accessed April 24, 2022. doi:10.1016/j.sleh.2017.04.003