Burn Out Profiles

“Burn out” is the new buzz word in the professional development field. Although the relationship between stress and work has been a hot topic in dentistry, it seems that we are experiencing its effects at more accelerating rate. Or, maybe I’ve just realized that the stress is on our lives, physically, and emotionally, is a burden weighing on work force as a whole. (am I understanding what you’re trying to say here?)

In 2022, the US Surgeon General’s Advisory on Building a Thriving Health Workforce put out a document called “Addressing Health Worker’s Burnout,” share that the U.S. health workforce has reached “crisis” levels of burnout, even before COVID. Naturally, there wasn’t much on dentistry in this address, but it applies to us just the same.

There is an exhausting amount of articles circulating with the signs and symptoms of burnout, along with the consequences of not addressing things like anxiety, depressions, substance, abuse, etc. I wanted to share a different perspective on identifying burnout, one that I hadn’t seen before, and that can directly aimed at dentists.

In Behavioral Dentistry 2nd Edition, Motofsky and Fortune list different forms of burnout profiles derived from dentist interviews. These profiles differ from the more common definition of burnout which is often described as a compilation of symptoms.

The Treadmill Walker
This is the dentist caught on repeat, “resigned to his fate.” It’s like being on the hamster wheel of a nine to five life. So many of us get caught in this cyclical routine, and stick to it even when we’re unhappy. Working nine to five year-round, with maybe two weeks of vacation, is the only normal we’ve ever known. Some thoughts associated with this lifestyle might be, “I can’t take that vacation,” or “there’s nothing else I can do.” If you resonate with this, know that not all decisions are finite, and there IS another way. 

The Crushed Idealist— this dentist’s “image of dental practice has been crushed by the reality of clinical practice.” 

The Frantic Runner— This dentist is busy, all the time, and even with a full plate, adds more on.

This is the defeat of, “why didn’t they tell us this in school?” Or the inability to adapt to learning the ideal treatment plans, strict rules, and the standard of perfection in dental school, and working in a place where insurance won’t cover that treatment, patients don’t want to see you, and perfection doesn’t exist. Although it’s hard, this profile has to work to let go of the dream they had, accept reality for what it is, and frantic runner— this dentist is busy, all the time, and even with a full plate, adds more. simply strive to do your best within that space. (not sure I like this— as we create our own reality…)

It’s working full time, opening up a new practice, taking CE courses every weekend, mentoring, and writing a book on the side. Ambition is great, but not when it leads to emotional and physical exhaustion, or when it takes away from other aspects of life. This profile should know that there is no race or competition to achieving success. 

disgusted dentist— during practice, this dentist “realizes he dislikes all aspects of dentistry.” 

This epiphany may happen in the first year of clinic, or upon entering the work force. But after spending so much time and money to pursue this profession, he sticks to it and counts down the days to retirement. For this profile, staying in clinical practice is a disservice to yourself and the people that you treat. Look for other avenues to use your degree, there are a lot out there! If you’ve tried to find a passion for it and cant, then find a new career, it is okay to change your mind.

depressed dentist— this profile is pretty self explanatory to me. This dentist is unhappy at work, at home, and “finds little satisfaction in any aspect of his lifestyle.” It’s hard to say if this depressed state is rooted to work at all. This profile would benefit from taking a pause from the life that isn’t bringing them joy, step back, and evaluate each part of it, preferably with a professional. 

These profiles, although very specific, aren’t finite or mutually exclusive. I was a frantic runner in dental school, and then a crushed idealist when I entered the workforce. Some of us may have a little bit of each, or have transient experiences of these throughout our career.

These profiles prompt the question: What does the happy dentist look like? I created my own definition to contrast the burnout profiles, and describe a state where we can all strive to be.