5 ways dental assistants can prevent and manage burnout

pen and notebook with a message that says "Don't forget to take care of yourself"

There’s no doubt that dental assistants have encountered challenges in recent years. Practices across the country have dealt with staff shortages, which means dental assistants have had to take on additional duties and, in many cases, more hours. Some dental assistants are also unhappy with their compensation or feel unappreciated by their colleagues. Satisfaction in the profession has steadily dropped since 2016, and many dental assistants have reported experiencing burnout.

The American Psychological Association defines burnout as “physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes towards oneself and others.” Burnout can manifest in different ways, including stress, fatigue, irritability, decreased job satisfaction, and shortened attention span. In some cases, it can lead people to quit their jobs or leave their profession entirely.

Clearly, burnout is an issue that dental assistants — as well as dental practices — should take seriously and work to prevent. How can you avoid or manage it? Here are some tips.

Prioritize self-care

To perform at your best in the dental office, it’s crucial to take care of yourself outside of work. Make sure you prioritize your personal needs — physical, mental, and emotional health — before your job. Take time every day to eat a healthy diet, drink water, get plenty of sleep, and exercise. Having a hobby or something to look forward to each day can also bring you joy and keep your mind off work, whether it’s painting, watching TV, or spending time with loved ones.

Take breaks

Everybody needs to step away from work periodically, and dental assistants are no exception. For instance, studies have shown that taking breaks during the day, whether it’s eating lunch or taking a walk between appointments, can boost focus when you return to work, thereby increasing your productivity. These small daily breaks can also increase job satisfaction and positively affect your mental health.

Sometimes, you need a longer period away from work, whether it’s an afternoon off, a three-day weekend, or a weeklong vacation. Research has found that taking vacations gives your mind and body critical opportunities to rest and recover. This can lead to lower stress and increased happiness, as well as better productivity when you are at work. If your dental office gives you paid time off, use it — that’s what it’s there for, after all!

Establish boundaries

Dental assistants perform many tasks to ensure their offices run efficiently. Being a team player is important in the dental office, and there’s nothing wrong with lending an extra hand or occasionally staying late to complete the day’s appointments. However, it’s important to recognize when you’re stretched too thin or don’t have the time to take on another task and communicate that to your boss.

This doesn’t mean you should refuse to complete basic job functions or help your teammates. It means you should communicate honestly when you don’t have the bandwidth for an additional task, set and take breaks to go to the bathroom and eat lunch, and stick to working only during scheduled work hours. If you’re being asked to do something outside your job description, speak up. Many dental assistants strive to go above and beyond expectations, but if it’s interfering with your work-life balance or health, it’s OK to say no. Keep in mind that it may also be illegal for a practice to ask dental assistants to perform tasks not allowed by their state.

You should also set boundaries outside the dental office. In other words, leave your work at the office and avoid checking patient charts or reading and responding to work emails or texts that aren’t urgent.

Remember your purpose

When experiencing burnout, it can be beneficial to remind yourself why you became a dental assistant and what you enjoy about it. It may help to focus on the fact that you’re making a difference in the lives of patients by improving their smiles and confidence. Perhaps you get fulfillment from being a part of a team and helping your co-workers complete procedures smoothly. Whatever gives your work purpose, focusing on it can help you get through stressful times and adjust your outlook.

Start a dialogue with your boss

When you’re experiencing burnout, don’t keep it to yourself. Communicating with your boss about how you’re feeling can help you address underlying issues and ultimately improve your health and productivity.

If you don’t feel appreciated for your efforts in the dental office, explain that you’d like to receive more positive feedback, recognition, and respect for your hard work. Pay can also have a major impact on your job satisfaction. According to DANB’s Salary and Satisfaction Survey, pay is the most important factor for dental assistant satisfaction. Additionally, dental assistants who reported being “very satisfied” earn more than those who are “very dissatisfied.” If you’re unhappy with your pay, it may be time to ask about a promotion or a raise.

If your work-life balance is being affected by long work hours, let your boss know. Although the industry is facing a dental assistant shortage, this doesn’t mean you should have to work extra hours with no breaks. Being overworked is a common cause of burnout, and every dental assistant needs time to recharge physically and mentally.

While they may not be able to fix issues immediately, a good manager should listen to your concerns and make a genuine effort to address them. Remember, it’s in their best interest to help you maximize your job performance, which can be negatively impacted by burnout. If your concerns are dismissed or ignored, it may be time to consider finding another dental office to work for.

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