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Features / October 3, 2019

Dealing with burnout and stress

by Siobhan Hiscott

Burnout is increasingly common among dentists. A recent Dental Protection survey of its members found that only around half (54%) of respondents feel supported by their supervisor/practice principal on issues relating to wellbeing. Here, Dr David Monaghan, dentolegal consultant at Dental Protection, shares more about the occupational hazard

What is ‘burnout’?

The well-recognised Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) categorises ‘burnout’ into three domains:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Depersonalisation (a cynical attitude with distancing behaviours)
  • A low sense of personal accomplishment.

The Dental Protection survey results showed that 84% of our respondents do not have someone at work solely responsible for staff wellbeing. Dentists who find themselves in the ‘superdentist’ trap expect the unachievable of themselves.

This is evident in our findings, where 83% of our respondents said that they would always come into work, even when they’re not feeling well. More than half of our respondents said it’s difficult to take a short break (of at least 10 minutes!).

The ‘superdentist’ indoctrination also dominates when we look at the issue of guilt. There is a danger that trying to live up to the ‘superdentist’ expectation, comes at the cost of burnout.

The full survey results and our policy report on burnout will be published later this year.

How can ‘burnout’ be avoided?

Avoiding, or reversing, burnout requires careful attention to developing good individual coping strategies in the workplace. Organisational policies and procedures must ensure these coping strategies are respected and enforced.

For clinicians, evidence suggests this requires renewed focus on physical and emotional wellbeing and ensuring a sense of calling is not eroded. This focus on self is an uncomfortable shift for many dentists.

The concept of self-compassion is new and unsettling for a profession who pride themselves on caring for others and are driven by a moral obligation to serve.

How can dentists adopt and promote ‘self-compassion’?

Physical wellbeing: Developing rituals and routines that promote regular healthy eating, hydration and sleep underpins all other more sophisticated strategies (Maslow, 1943).

Emotional wellbeing: Dentists may face compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress disorder if they have worked with patients who are suffering. Moral distress is a further occupational hazard that may need addressing. The frustrations of working in a limited resource setting can generate huge discomfort in clinicians. Mindfulness and reflective journaling are evidence-based techniques that promote self-awareness and resilience.

Sense of calling: Remembering why you chose dentistry and celebrating achievements that align with these values can be a powerful way to bounce back in an environment that constantly challenges and surprises. Organisations and teams can support this by collecting evidence and stories of good practice and rewarding, thanking and celebrating.

What support is available for dentists?

Dental Protection members can attend the free ‘Building resilience and avoiding burnout’ workshop available throughout the year at various locations. Non-members can attend the workshop at a fee. Our ‘Clinical communication programme’ addresses workload and other professional issues that may predispose members to burnout.

Contact Dental Protection at to find out more.


Maslach C, Jackson, SE (1981) The Measurement of Experienced Burnout. J Occ Behaviour 2(2): 99-113
Maslow AH (1943) A Theory of Human Motivation. Psych Review 50(4): 370 -96

Dr David Monaghan will be speaking about dealing with burnout and stress at the Dental Protection conference 2019 on Saturday 5 October, at the Convention Centre Dublin. For more information, visit