Supporting your dental team through a pandemic

21 January 2021
5 min read

Shaz Memon explains how to keep on top of a crisis.

Self-doubt is a destructive mechanism that undermines the best of us and can interfere with the inner workings of a team very quickly. Like a deck of cards, it only takes one person to feel wrong-footed for practice systems to collapse.

One suspects many of us have had a crisis of confidence in the past months. Coronavirus has brought with it waves of unpredictability, numerous lockdowns and restrictions, and peaks of anxiety for dental teams and their patients. Few will have escaped its impact and, whilst deep sympathy goes out to those whose have lost loved ones to Covid-19, suffered weeks of ill health or waved goodbye to jobs amidst this pandemic, there is work to be done in ensuring those in dentistry remain confident in delivering the best in dental care.

With this latest lockdown, our quiet hope for a better year may have been muted further with troubled minds aplenty, leaving teams at risk of destabilised confidence.

As is often the case in such scenarios, clear communication is key, and managers would be wise to encourage open and honest dialogue as we endure a third national lockdown.

But what else do teams require to feel confident and supported in these troubled times? Leadership need to go beyond best practice if we are to come out the other side as a solid and secure unit. The messages conveyed by leaders should be reflected in the real world. It’s no good paying lip service to mental health support if this is not followed through. Those in authority need to demonstrate commitment at a very basic level, and that includes regulators and representative bodies upon whom the responsibility of conveying important information (and support) lies.

By personalising messages to the team, and by making adjustments to management strategy to include for two-way and group dialogue, managers can bed in a new norm that offers a safety valve for stressed-out staff who may be struggling with their confidence amid this public health crisis.

Practice owners need to create a culture of empathy if they are to build a resilient team. Arguably, the true value of the ‘team’ concept lies in each and every one of us. But, sadly, very often in these times, people can turn against each other – and it can make harsh critics of us all. We must remain ever mindful of the need to respect and value our own limits as well as those of others.

Each and every one of us comes to this pandemic from a unique standpoint, with different values, conflicting opinions, a multitude of family commitments and responsibilities, and varying health status.

This diversity is inevitably magnified by the uncertainty Covid-19 brings, which can add a dangerous ingredient to the mix, piling on additional layers of fear, anger and frustration.

As we balance hope for a better future with the on-going treadmill of the difficulties, there is a real need for connection within a team as well as with patients. Our vulnerability runs the risk of ruining relationships built and developed in more predictable times if we fail to observe one another’s challenges.

Ever mindful of how the environment has changed for patients, we can perhaps be forgiven for losing sight of how these emotionally charged times can impact on that all-important ‘team spirit’.

We can all feel undervalued, left out, isolated or over-worked. But we are collectively responsible for ensuring a mentally healthy workplace. In fact, if 2020 taught us anything it is the value everyone in a practice brings to the table.

And, whilst many a practice ethos was put to the test in 2020, it would be heartening to know that teams have survived or even thrived throughout these times.

There may well be a crisis in the economy and in the nation’s oral health status, but let’s work together to ensure we quash the critical voices – and make them welcome victims of this pandemic.

How to keep on top of a crisis:

  1. Be open and honest. Transparency about the business and what you are experiencing as a manager creates a mutual understanding within a team. Enabling staff insight to the challenges offers an opportunity for everyone to have a broad overview of the situation, gels a team and put a stop to the ‘what about me?’ scenario. Similarly, keep patients in the loop about any change in practices, opening times and appointment availability – via email, telephones calls and in your dental marketing. Re-emphasise across all channels that you are open as usual. There was a little confusion briefly when the third lockdown was announced with information about dental services buried in the details. Leaders do not always remember to make it clear to the public that dentists remain open as usual and not just for emergencies. Indeed, it was great to see a Facebook feed full of practice posts reassuring patients.
  2. Be empathetic and encourage mutual respect. Remain mindful of people’s sensitivities and heightened emotions during this period. Be decisive and act quickly. Your team will thank you for your firm decision making. If you receive a patient complaint, address their concerns swiftly to avoid escalation. In a Dental Protection survey of nearly 500 UK dentists, conducted last October, two in five dentists (40 per cent) said fear of investigations arising from difficult decisions made during Covid-19 or disruption to care was having most impact on their mental wellbeing.
  3. Connect as a human (not just as a boss). At times, all we want from a leader is that connection. You can still command respect whilst managing staff. Delegate some of your leadership responsibilities to ensure others feel valued and to preserve your energies, too. We are all at risk of burnout, especially during hostile and challenging times. Share the load and encourage input from team members. A recent survey conducted by the DDU conducted during the pandemic found that, while patients were understanding of any changes to their dental care, this did not necessarily alleviate concerns within dentistry. It also revealed that 60 per cent of respondents were concerned about facing a complaint, claim or GDC investigation relating to the pandemic, which is why it is important to work together to mitigate those risks.
  4. Stay abreast of new thinking. COVID-19 has forever changed the way dentistry is delivered – but it has also changed the way people interact. Read up on the psychology of stress management for the benefit of you and your staff. Consider new ways to reach patients, too. An increasing number of dentists have embraced remote digital consultations within their practices with great success during the pandemic, whilst a large number of patients are choosing to invest any money they’ve saved in aesthetic dental procedures. Some dentists report that they are now seeing patients who 12 months ago were simply considering cosmetic treatments. Seemingly, they are taking the plunge as they now have time (working from home) and the money saved (reduced spend on travel, eating out and holidays) to invest in a new smile. This means there may be large numbers of potential patients on Facebook or Instagram, for example, just waiting to hear your message.
  5. Take back control from the ‘enemy’. The pandemic continues to create scenarios where we need to be reactive and make decisions quickly. But it offers opportunities, too. Forced to slow things down, this may be the moment teams change the way they deliver dentistry, implement new dental marketing strategies, streamline practice management systems, offer remote consultations and so on.
  6. Over emphasise your planning. Dentistry is of course a methodical career that requires much planning ahead, but it also demands of you that you meet targets. Hold team meetings to discuss your objectives and share your vision. Once you have verbal commitment, clarify to the team in writing. Find new ways to communicate with your patients, as well. Social media offers a wealth of opportunities to convey key messages – and the more creative your dental marketing efforts the better. Instagram especially is the perfect place to showcase your practice and there are some easy-to-use methods I recommend in my Instagram for Dentists book.
  7. Make yourself available. It can be easy to shut off when managing during a crisis and overlook the human side of management. There may be team members who are quietly struggling, so reach out individually and regularly check in with them. The same goes for dentist colleagues, too. We all have our threshold and a conversation about shared experiences may be a necessary ‘fix’ for some. Social media is a great facilitator for such connections.
  8. Acknowledge that this is a challenging environment. Recognise your own emotional turmoil in light of this fact, too. Try to switch off when the opportunity arises. Remember work-life balance is always important – especially during challenging times.

References available on request.