Professor Jo Clarke, Founder and Managing Director at Petros – Resilience for life, shares advice for dentists and their teams on how to improve their mind health, resilience and wellbeing.
Dentistry is a particularly challenging role with some unique challenges, and there is a large body of research to bear this out. The daily impact of your work environment, patients and needs of the practice ever-present.
Dentists usually find themselves working in relatively small, confined environments, often with no windows, which surprisingly, can be smaller than prison cells. Working many hours in one room accompanied by a dental nurse and of course, the patients passing through.
Dental teams work within, what I’ve heard described as, “inhospitable oral environments” in a very delicate and detailed way. Patients arrive, often in pain and even if they are not, they are often anxious about the appointment. This means you’re dealing with their anxiety and distress and that’s very contagious. Even if, as a dentist, you are not remotely anxious, you are going to be absorbing a lot of your patients’ discomfort.
Time and money, these pressures can be extreme and possibly more so than in other work environments. The needs of balancing private and NHS work; the requirements of the practice; the needs of patients and emergencies to fit in. There’s a daily constant yet changing demand on your time and resources.
Another illuminating fact to come out of recent research is the personality of most dentists. Research identifies that dentists tend to be perfectionists and as such, very demanding of their own performance. Combining this need for perfection with an inhospitable environment and patient anxiety, together with overarching economic pressures could create a perfect storm. Given this, I believe special attention needs to be paid to preventative strategies that can help take care of your mental health and wellbeing every day; supporting you in a job you enjoy and receive a great deal of satisfaction from.
Stopping the rot
It’s important to view mental health self-care in the same light as the advice you give people every day about looking after their teeth. Dentistry is probably the only field of healthcare where we are taught as children to introduce daily preventative strategies: clean your teeth twice a day, floss, don’t eat sweets before bed, get regular check-ups … so, just as we have a list of top tips to help prevent our teeth decaying, here are my tips to help prevent our minds going the same way!
One of my favourite tips can be summed up with the acronym WIN. This stands for “what’s important now?”
What I mean by that is, what’s important in this moment that you need to keep your mind on? Not anticipating the difficult or anxious patient that might be coming in next, as that just increases your stress. If you can keep your focus on what you are doing in the moment, it gives your mind a rest from all those other pressures, anxieties and concerns. It doesn’t mean that all those things aren’t real, but what we’re doing is managing our mind to give it a bit of a break.
Use your senses
In practical terms, how do you do that? There are a couple of tactics you can employ. One is to come to your senses. I don’t mean that rudely! Rather, I mean connect with your senses through sound or touch. Because if you tune in to your senses, it means your mind is present as these senses only work in the present moment. Otherwise, your mind is ‘absent’ and that’s when stress builds and we make mistakes. So, coming to your senses is a helpful tip to keep your mind focused on what’s important now?
Together with tuning in to your senses, start a running commentary of what you’re doing. I advise doing this in your head and not necessarily out loud, otherwise people might think you’re slightly crazy. Although, there may be some patients who might want to know what you are doing in that moment. So, it could work for you both. Whichever way you choose to do it, it means that you are keeping your attention focused.
This is not just a practise for when you’re in work, it’s also helpful for our home life. If you find that you are at home with your family at the end of a busy day or in the pub with friends, if your mind is still at work, you are not giving it a break.
Take your mind with you
I’m not really talking about mindfulness here. This is about taking your mind with you wherever you go, not leaving it at work. And that can be a helpful way of relieving yourself of some of those pressures we first explored. Another expression which consolidates this is, “be in the room you are in”. So, if you’re physically in a room, have your mind in the room with you.
Make time to take time out
Ensure you make time to do things that are emotionally nourishing for you. We often let go of that when we’re busy and we tend to forget the things that really connect us with who we are. For me, it’s riding my horse and being out in the countryside. Make sure you find time to do things that are emotionally nourishing for you.
Once you begin to practise and treat your mental health in the same way you would a good dental routine, it will start to become second nature and part of a great approach to living a more resilient and content life.
Jo is the founder and MD of Petros – resilience for life, a not-for-profit organisation committed to helping people live more resilient, balanced and productive lives.
Jo spent 23 years working as a forensic psychologist in the criminal justice system, which is where she became interested in the concept of resilience, both for individuals and the organisations in which they live or work. Since completing a PhD in this area in 2004, she has worked with a wide variety of organisations and individuals applying research evidence to practice, to enhance psychological well-being.
Jo is a regular speaker and trainer, nationally and internationally, about individual and organisational resilience and has authored several chapters and papers on the subject. Committed to life-long learning, she remains abreast of current research and developments in the area, and with her dedicated team, strives to continually develop evidence-based interventions to promote thriving at work and at life.