'Dentistry can be a lonely profession' – the mental effects in the aftermath of COVID-19

26 June 2020
4 min read
Published:

The stress experienced by dental professionals even before the COVID-19 crisis was said to be reaching concerning levels – why do you think this is?
Dentistry can be a lonely profession.  We are often so busy, and it can be difficult to find time to connect with our peers. As the demand for more convenient appointment times for patients increases, we find ourselves working longer, less sociable hours to meet that demand. This can lead to a less favourable work/life balance.

Also patients are generally more informed and have higher expectations which can be tough to live up to. There is a perception that we must be infallible and, of course, that can put immense strain on us day to day.

Is the mental health of dental professionals as important to address as the physical health concerns magnified by the COVID-19 crisis and, if so, why?
Of course! Mental health must have parity with physical health. If we are not feeling healthy, either physically or mentally, it has the potential to impact our work, our relationships and those around us.

Anxiety surrounding COVID-19 is perfectly normal. This situation is unnatural. We can’t fight it and we can’t outrun it. Our 'fight or flight' response is working against us. Stress makes us stupid and prevents us from making good decisions at a time when we need to have our head in the game.  Our teams and our patients are depending upon us more than ever. You can’t look after other people if you are not well yourself.

What are currently the biggest threats faced by dentists?
COVID-19 has brought into sharp relief the mental health crisis that the profession is facing worldwide. It has threated to destroy our businesses and our relationships with our patients.

Enhanced and restrictive precautions, while understandable, may cause some emotional distance between the dentist and patient and possibly even between team members. This social disconnect and atmosphere of heightened fear could translate to an increase in litigation.

It is most important that we work hard at maintaining excellent communication, via many routes, in order to strengthen these relationships and reassure our patients and our team.

Many of us have heard the expression 'active listening', but this concept can be thought of as a cycle starting with open questions which do not require a yes or no answer but elicit a bit of detail, such as Why? What? When? Where? And how?

As the person takes you through their story or concerns, you can use eye contact and empathetic body language (gentle head nodding etc) and facial expressions. You can then summarise what has been said (so they know they have been understood) and reflect back a key word or phrase that they have used (so they know they have been heard). If you notice that the person has skipped past or glossed over an aspect that you feel may be important you can gently clarify with 'tell me more about...'. This will often help them get the points straight in their mind as well as helping you find out more detail.

While listening to the person, give short phrases of encouragement and allow them to 'get it all out'.  Phrases such as 'go on' or 'I’m listening' or even a simple 'yes' can show the patient that you are interested in them and shows them that what they are saying is important to you.

Once they have emptied their 'thought-box', then the last part is the most important – reaction.

Nobody wants to lay out their fears and concerns and have them dismissed or even scoffed at.  It is vital that your reaction is appropriate and helpful phrases are 'it sounds like you’ve had a tough time' and 'it must have been difficult for you'.  If the problem the patient is telling you about is a clinical concern, then it’s useful to round off by saying something like 'let’s see how we can help you with that' or 'let’s make a plan together that can help you'.

You set up a Facebook forum, and were involved with creating a helpline charity, to help dentists with mental health issues, do you think this will be exacerbated by the current health crisis?
Both have been very busy over this period! In fact, both were already busy but we have seen a pattern to the themes of the posts and calls during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Many dentists who may not have previously felt the need to make contact are now afraid of losing their lives or their livelihood. The pressure has increased and, in many cases, dentists feel that they have little control over their own situation.

What key messages did you share with the dentists attending the Growth Summit?
Be prepared and organised, but also kind to yourself and others. I will talk about setting SMART goals when addressing any challenges that arise.

My last, and perhaps most important tip, is to keep talking. You are not the first or last person to have these feelings.  In fact, everyone is feeling anxiety or stress to some degree at present. There are forums and helplines out there, like the ones that I run, if you feel like you can’t talk to immediate colleagues or your family. You could even write in a journal or a letter to nobody.  Sometimes saying our fears out loud can reduce their impact and unloading our thoughts can help us clear our mind and move on with the tasks at hand. Don’t let anxiety build up like a poison that can overcome you, keep talking and let those bad feelings trickle away.

About Lauren Harrhy
Lauren Harrhy is part dentist and part businesswoman. She has been working in dentistry for almost 10 years and has predominately been based in Wales throughout her career.

She first developed an interest in dentistry when she considered a profession that could combine her talents and interests.

'When I was young I had a passion for art as well as a keen interest in science.  When you combine both interests with an affinity for helping people then dentistry is an obvious choice,' she said.

After qualifying at Cardiff Dental School, Ms Harrhy began her career in 2009 where she completed her foundation year at an independent dental practice in Brecon. She now runs her own dental practice in Newport.

She’s also a member of the BDA’s General Dental Practice Committee, and vice chair of the Welsh General Dental Practice Committee and Welsh Dental Council.

 

 

 

 

She’s also a member of the BDA’s General Dental Practice Committee, and vice chair of the Welsh General Dental Practice Committee and Welsh Dental Council.

 

Lauren also recently set up a Facebook group to support dentists struggling with their mental health. The group has over 5000 members.