Have you ever found yourself lacking the energy to do activities you once enjoyed, snapping at loved ones, or feeling a rush of fear when your alarm goes off on a workday? You may experience signs of chronic stress, which, if left unmanaged, can lead to burnout.
Research shows that burnout is on the rise among healthcare professionals. The World Health Organisation defines burnout in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as “a syndrome conceived as the result of chronic stress at work that has not been successfully managed.” dr. Christina Maslach, one of the world’s foremost experts on occupational burnout, outlines the three key dimensions of burnout in her Research as “overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from work, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of achievement.”
It is important to note that burnout is different from stress. Stress brings increased demands that lead to hyperactivity and over-involvement, but there is an attitude of hope that when the work is done there will be relief. On the other hand, burnout is an accumulation of unmanaged stress that leads to a feeling of non-commitment and lack of motivation, and an attitude of hopelessness.
Knowing how unmanaged stress is accumulating in your life is critical so we can focus on preventing burnout. As a new dentist practicing full time, I have experienced chronic stress. As a yoga teacher and wellness coach, I am equipped with the tools to successfully manage this stress. I’ve collected five strategies that have worked for me to manage stress and prevent burnout.
1. Optimize Basic Health Behaviors: Control the Way You Sleep, Eat and Exercise
We must master the basics of our well-being so that we have the energy to appear as the best versions of ourselves. The way we sleep, eat and exercise ultimately gives us the energy we need to thrive. When we try to work at full capacity without taking care of our own health, we end up on the path to burnout.
I won’t get into how we can optimize the way we eat and exercise in this article, but I’ll go into sleep because I believe it’s the most underused yet powerful tool available to us. As one of my sleep teachers, Jennifer Piercyas eloquently states, sleep is an anti-inflammatory drug that literally nourishes all physiological and psychological functions – hormones, circulatory system, cardiovascular and brain function, metabolism, memory, consolidation of learning experiences, emotional processing, creativity and ability to concentrate.
The best strategy for improving the quality of sleep is to practice a digital sunset† At least an hour before bedtime, turn off technology and avoid computer work, scrolling on the phone, and watching TV. Instead, create a bedtime ritual that will help you slow down before falling asleep. Consider relaxing activities such as reading, practicing restorative yoga, taking a bath, cuddling with a pet, meditation, or yoga nidra. A digital sunset calibrates our circadian rhythm because exposure to blue light at night suppresses the release of melatonin. We can support melatonin production by getting ~10 minutes of sunlight in the morning and evening
If you’re having trouble falling asleep, consider Yoga Nidra, an ancient sleep-guided meditation ranging from 10-45 minutes, which guides you into deep states of calm and recovery. My favorite sleep hack is to practice Yoga Nidra Insight timer using this one special eye mask before going to sleep, waking up or to replace an afternoon nap.
While I’ve only mentioned three basic health behaviors, there are several other basic health behaviors that, when optimized, have a major impact on our performance. In particular, the way we breathe, our ability to focus (i.e., reducing thought wandering and increasing focus on the present moment), and learning to regulate our nervous system are important tools for optimal health that support their own health. require future discussions.
2. Perform an identity check
We spend almost ten years training as a dentist. We embark on this journey with the promise that if we just work hard now, we will be successful later. When we graduate from dental school, we often realize that the goal post is just further away from us. Somewhere along the way we may realize that the life we are living is not the life we expected or that we realize that we have been working towards someone else’s goals. When our lives are not aligned in this way, reconnecting with our authentic selves is a powerful step in creating a fulfilling life and preventing burnout. It’s natural that our identity has evolved over the years that we’ve trained as a dentist
Run identity check: Set aside an hour for an identity check and consider how your identity is evolving by answering the following questions:
- What are my values?
- what are my signature strengths†
- What do I really like to do? When do I feel in flow†
- How do I define a successful life?
- How do I want to feel every day?
- What is my vision of my life?
- Are my current goals in line with this vision?
3. Do Less: Break Up With Bustle
Preventing or recovering from burnout requires a radical shift in our relationship with busyness. Most of us have spent our lives busy and over-planned. Being busy has become our programmed baseline and when we are below the baseline there is a homeostatic tendency to return to pressure. If we want to prevent burnout, we must stop wearing crowds as a badge of honor.
Doing less does not mean putting in less effort, but only doing the things that are in line with your vision of life. If you let go of the distractions and the non-essentials, you can achieve more. Instead of running through life with raging energy, you can enjoy everyday moments and feel more fulfilled
As we adjust to being less busy, we may feel agitated or as if we are should going to do more. It takes doing the inner work to really understand our drive for achievement and external definitions of success
Here’s what helped me break the busy:
- Take only concerted action: It’s important to do that identity check and evaluate whether your current goals and actions align with your desired identity. As James Clear it states, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you want to become.” Be realistic about how you currently spend your time. What are you working on that does and does not match your vision? Which things can be optimised, automated or outsourced?
- Say no and set boundaries: Boundaries are the way to self-esteem and self-compassion, and the tendency to please people can be a major cause of stress and burnout. Think of limits with regard to planning, specific procedures, cutting back on working days, changing jobs or hiring more support. Start filtering new opportunities by asking; does this align with my vision, is this necessary now, can this be done by someone else?
- Time blocking instead of to-do lists: Your happiness is NOT at the end of a completed to-do list. To-do lists don’t take into account the time it takes to complete tasks. Instead, set aside a certain amount of time for a certain task. Create blocks of time in your calendar for work and your other values such as family, self-care, rest, creative projects, social media, etc. This allows us to appear with focused, non-distracted energy and we can overcome the nagging feeling that we are doing something. should do otherwise.
Doing less of what you drain leaves room to more effectively do what energizes you, and is a powerful tool in reducing stress and preventing burnout
4. Celebrate the highs and learn from the lows
Another tool to help prevent burnout is to create a system to celebrate your successes and learn from your failures. This is important because it helps us decompress after stressful procedures, separate our identity from our clinical failures, learn and grow from experience, and it allows us tocookie jar†
To create a system for self-evaluation on success and failure, consider the following:
- Keep a notebook or note in your phone and think about important cases, think about what went well, what went wrong and how you can improve it. I call this a ‘Keep-Stop-Start’ review
- When you get positive feedback or are happy with a result, add it to your ‘cookie tin’. Keep these victories in the back of your notebook or digital note for a positive reminder when the going gets tough
- Connect with a buddy regularly to share highs and lows
5. Ask for help
We are always more successful with the support of others. Asking for and receiving help is an opportunity to build vulnerability and connection, and it’s a sign of strength. Consider reaching out to another dentist who has been open about their burnout journey. Join communities of like-minded dentists through study clubs or mastermind groups.
Expand into new communities outside of the dental world that may align with other passions of yours. We are often so entrenched in the world of teeth that we forget that there is a whole world beyond dentistry. Exploring different interest groups or hobbies is a great way to rebuild your identity outside of dentistry and connect with supportive communities.
If you’ve reached the end of this article, completed the steps above, and are still feeling burned out, it could be a sign that something bigger is going on. Consider talking to a licensed counselor, therapist, or coach. I have worked with professionals on BetterHelp, a virtual therapy service, as well as with two tooth-specific coaches. I worked with dr. Laura Brenner on identity and career satisfaction and dr. Jessica Metcalfe about dismantling the scam phenomenon, perfectionism and burnout. Working with coaches who have been in my shoes gives me incredible strength.
To avoid burnout, we need to learn to manage stress, spot early warning signs, and stay vigilant about protecting our well-being. If you’re looking for extra support in preventing burnout, I’ve created a free guided mini course here† You are not alone, you have this!
dr. Shivani Kamodia Barto is a general dentist, yoga teacher and wellness coach. She completed her 200-hour yoga teacher training in 2012 and graduated from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry in 2018. Shivani is an active leader in organized dentistry, environmentally sustainable dentistry and dental wellness. In addition, Shivani has a passion for encouraging other healthcare professionals to apply the science of wellness so that they too can thrive in dentistry without sacrificing their body or mind. She currently offers support through immersive retreats, private coaching, and online programs. More information can be found at drshivasana.com†