A dental coach’s insight into the factors that contribute to burnout
The term “burnout” has been around a long time. It refers to a multitude of symptoms that negatively impact workers and manifest as disassociation, emotional detachment, mental and physical exhaustion, loss of self-esteem, and even anxiety and depression. The syndrome has been extensively studied and researched. Estimates of those who have experienced burnout range from 5% to over 50% of the workforce.
Dentistry is a particularly stressful profession, and the prevalence of burnout is high. Research has identified demographic factors such as age and gender as factors relating to the onset of burnout. I, however, have noticed what I believe to be other significant factors for burnout through my work with healthcare professionals. My observations lack scientific methodology, yet these observations continue to be consistent with my clients who experience burnout and its consequences.
The following is a list of contributing factors that I have observed as a trained coach:
1. Living Life Through the Expectations of Others:
Robert Kegan, a world-renown psychologist, defined the stages of adult cognitive development. The initial stage he alludes to is known as the ‘socialized mind” where we are living a life designed to please others. This is a very early stage of adult development; however, he estimates that a significant number of adults remain at this stage throughout their adulthood. Those of us that remain at this level of development are living to please others. We think, communicate, and act in a manner consistent with the wishes and desires of others (ie; parents, teachers, authority figures). This level of cognitive development is a form of security and comfort… to a point.
There often comes a time when we begin to burnout. Some would refer to this as a mid-life crisis. It is preceded by an epiphany of significant magnitude that provides clarity that we have never found our own voice or lived the life that we desire. I have found that those of us that define success only in terms of financial reward often are trying to please others.
There is also a similar, yet opposite, scenario in which we try to prove our worthiness. This scenario usually relates to a previous, sometimes very early, experience where someone we held in high esteem (ie: parent or teacher, etc.) expressed doubt regarding our abilities or worthiness. I see this in doctors who are highly driven over-achievers. The final scenario is often the same as those that try to please others. Burnout and emotional detachment are often the result.
2. Lack of Personal Development:
There is an emerging definition of burnout that goes beyond the previous definition. It has been widely accepted that burnout, stress, and long working hours have a high positive correlation. The new definition states that burnout is the result of stress, long working hours, and the lack of opportunity for personal development or personal growth.
My own personal experience coaching healthcare professionals validates this concept. Those doctors that make time for personal development or growth appear to have developed an immunity to burnout. Developing new skills, reading, meditation and a host of other forms of development are the key.
It is worth noting that our staff experiences burnout for the very same reason. Providing staff with opportunities for personal or professional growth will help reduce turnover and increase staff engagement and commitment.
3. Doing too Much by not Prioritizing and Delegating:
Doctors who are burned out and complain about poor work/life balance are putting in long hours needlessly. I find that they are hesitant to delegate tasks or they are not developing their staff to a point that the staff can handle a multitude of non-vital tasks. Most often, Doctors are overburdened with these non-essential tasks that can and should be handled by staff.
I believe that a doctor’s time should be put to its highest and best use. This requires the skills of prioritization and delegation, both of which are acquired skills and easily taught. The benefit of prioritizing and delegating is that we now have time for the personal development that prevents burnout and we have more time and energy for our families.
4. Lack of Leadership and Culture Development:
I wrote an article about how anarchy can emerge in a dental practice and unless we provide our staff with a sense of purpose and mission, they will be left on their own to define these vital guidelines. If left to their own, they will each act according to their own interpretation and essentially view the practice’s purpose and mission through their own internal operating system. Without well defined, mutually accepted practice values, there are no overarching principles that dictate how we interact amongst our team and with our patients. The negative consequences of this lack of clarity and guidance is significant.
Dealing with these consequences daily is a major contributor to burnout in my opinion.
These are all leadership functions. Leaders build strong cultures and strong cultures are a major factor in our practice’s success.
In closing, burnout is serious and can have long-lasting negative consequences for our health and well- being. Pay close attention to signs of burnout and act quickly should you notice any tell-tale signs.
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Dr. Joel Small and Dr. Edwin McDonald, the founders of Line of Sight Coaching, are dental practitioners, authors, speakers and Business Leadership Coaches who work with healthcare professionals to help them build more successful practices so they can live the balanced life they seek.