Understanding Occupational Stress Among Oral Health Practitioners

by Jennifer Hawley

Oral health practitioners experience a significant amount of occupational stress from the time they start studying towards their chosen qualifications. This stress, which is believed to affect nearly 50% of the overall Canadian workforce according to the Microsoft Work Trend Index, can have a severe impact on everything from the personal health to the professional performance of these individuals. In extreme cases, occupational stress can result in professional burnout which, surprisingly, is most common among exceedingly responsible, dedicated, and hardworking individuals. In order to fully grasp the impact of stress and burnout in the oral health sector, it is important to garner a better basic understanding of the prevalence of burnout, its contributing factors, and available coping mechanisms worth utilizing.

Occupational Stress Has Many Causes

There is a large variety of very diverse factors that can lead to occupational stress and eventual burnout among oral health practitioners. According to a new, large-scale study published across various dentistry journals, dentists rate fear of litigation from patients and regulatory concerns as among their biggest work-related stressors. Other stressors, as outlined by the NIH, include time restraints, a toxic work environment, financial difficulties, and patient behaviors. The personality traits and personal circumstances of the practitioner will also influence how stress is experienced and dealt with. A person who is naturally more prone to anxiety may, for instance, be at a greater risk of occupational stress than someone who is calm by nature. Despite the underlying causes of the mounting stress, it is vital to seek out effective coping mechanisms as a matter of urgency in order to reduce the risk of complete burnout. Although professional medical intervention in the form of medication and counseling may be required, making certain lifestyle changes can also be very beneficial.

Burnout is More Common than Expected

Burnout among oral health practitioners is a global occurrence that is far more prevalent than expected. In the UK, researchers from the British Dental Association found that nearly half of the dentists experience stress that is exceeding their coping abilities. As much as 17.6% of respondents in the survey that involved more than 2,000 dentists stated that they were stressed to the point of seriously considering suicide. Two common health concerns associated with severe occupational stress, high blood pressure, and coronary disease, have also been found to be more than 25% more prevalent among oral health practitioners than the general population. Every year, the North American dental industry loses an entire dental school’s class of individuals due to illness and death associated with burnout and stress.

It is Complex and Far-Reaching

In the event that occupational stress goes undetected or untreated for too long, burnout can occur.  There are three components of burnout to be aware of: depersonalization, emotional and physical exhaustion, and low personal accomplishment. The earliest symptoms that point to a looming burnout include changes in appetite and sleeping patterns, diminished concentration, and unexplained nausea, headaches, and gastrointestinal concerns. Orthodontists, and oral hygienists have also reported feeling increasingly disillusioned about their jobs, becoming increasingly irritable without any known trigger, and finding themselves turning to food, alcohol, or drugs in a desperate attempt to feel better. In some cases, the transition from typical occupational stress to full-blown burnout is slow while, in other instances, it is swift and unexpected.

Occupational stress and complete burnouts can wreak havoc with the physical and mental health, as well as the professional performance, of an oral health practitioner. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to know to what extent it can impact your life, when to seek professional help, and what symptoms to look out for.

About the Author

Jennifer Hawley is an occupational health therapist turned freelance writer. She has a passion for digital and health related topics and loves exploring and commenting upon the latest research. When not working, she loves to visit family in Europe, enjoys horse riding with her children and reading as much as possible.