At the beginning of 2023, 86% of the respondents to a DDU survey said that workplace pressures had increased over the last two to three years.
The survey also found that almost 40% were likely to retire or leave the profession at some point in the next five years, with just over half saying they'd already reduced the number of hours they worked in order to cope with the pressure.
"Our members are a resilient bunch," says John Makin, head of the DDU. "They're used to dealing with the extreme demands of their roles, but you can only stretch a piece of elastic so far. Pressures are intensifying, caused by a number of issues outside of dental professionals' control. These include an increase in treatment needs caused by the pandemic, rising patient expectations and treatment and referral delays."
The research highlights a number of other findings that make for sobering reading about the conditions dental professionals face.
- Three in 10 respondents (31%) said they used mindfulness and breathing exercises as a coping strategy, while six in 10 (65%) said they took a break by exercising in the fresh air.
- Six in 10 dental professionals (60%) said relationships with patients and colleagues had become more strained over the past two or three years.
- Nine in 10 (91%) said they felt worn out at the end of a working day and eight in 10 (84%) said they felt burned out.
- A fifth (20%) had experienced a patient complaint or safety incident and a similar proportion had been abused or threatened (19%).
- Despite this, nearly all respondents (93%) said patients and colleagues treated them with respect.
The DDU has called on the government to put the necessary resources and support in place to reduce delays and meet treatment demand. "We hope this will help to reduce the stress being experienced by dental professionals," says John Makin, "as well as help them to treat patients safely and to a good standard."
We've also put together a list of wellbeing resources that are available for DDU members, signposting them to where they can get help.
How colleagues are coping
Against this background, some dental professionals are increasingly using coping mechanisms to handle the demands of everyday practice. Andrew Chandrapal is a practice principal and DDU council member, and is acutely aware of the need to manage workplace pressure.
"I try to ensure I give myself breaks during the day and avoid the temptation to book patients during lunch breaks or after work," he says. "I aim to take a break every couple of hours, take some deep breaths and have a stroll. As clinicians, we can find it difficult to turn off, but I try to do something totally different when I'm not working."
Here are some of Andrew's other tips for coping under stress:
1: Communication is key
"Dentists can be very good at hiding their feelings or stresses when in busy working environments. It is essential to find a 'safe' group of people or a person of whom they can confide in. This may be a partner, friend, colleague or even someone more official. Voicing your feelings means someone hears it and so can help - Without this, managing ourselves through tough times can be very difficult."
2: Try not to 'sway' to all of the varied needs of your patients.
"We are all busy in clinical practice. At times, access to patient care has been limited and so it seems as though the flood gates have truly opened. Try to ensure you give yourself breaks during the day. Do not book patients during your lunchtime or after work. Ensure you take a break every couple of hours even if it for a few deep breaths and a stroll around the surgery."
You can only stretch a piece of elastic so far. Pressures are intensifying, caused by a number of issues outside of dental professionals' control.
3: Decompress when you get home
"Talk and think about something else. Physical exercise works well as do other activities. As clinicians, we can find it difficult to turn off but try to do something totally different."
4: Plan or aim for annual leave activities every few months.
"Even if it is a long weekend it is important to work towards an aim - this helps focus us at times."
5: Resilience is key
"At times, and particularly in the current climate, being resilient can be a challenge. Surround yourself with supportive people and try not to get bogged down in the professional politics on social media or at least go onto social media for the funny bits that make you think of other interests outside dentistry.
"We are only as good as we let ourselves be, and so engaging, resting and separating from dentistry in the right combination can prove to be a healthy choice."
"One of Covid's legacies is my willingness to diversify my working practices to cope with pressures. I now work part time as a DDU dento-legal adviser alongside my clinical and training roles. I think it's important to allow yourself time to decompress after a stressful working day. I get plenty of fresh air and exercise through coaching an under 16s rugby team in my spare time."
James Kingham, general dental practitioner and training programme director for Health Education England
"I like to get out of at lunch time for a 20min walk. That change in air and space combined with a brisk walk (and sometimes a podcast) powers me up for the afternoon. In summer, I enjoy an evening walk to relieve the day's stresses. Having an informal chat to colleagues helps. My colleagues are a friendly, sociable group with lots of positive ideas and sensible suggestions. Getting a good night's sleep fires me up for another day."
Tom Norfolk, general dental practitioner and DDU vice chairman