The Importance of Wellness for Dentists: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Key Takeaways:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges to dentistry, impacting the wellness of dental professionals, their staff, and their families.

  • It is crucial for dental practice owners to create and implement strategies to prioritize wellness – physical, mental, and financial – to maintain a successful practice.

  • Valuable tools such as the Members’ Assistance Program (MAP) sponsored by CDSPI are key to supporting the wellness of the dental community.

The Reality of Stress and Anxiety Among Dentists

Dentists, like other frontline medical professionals, faced heightened levels of stress and anxiety throughout the pandemic, particularly during those fraught first months in 2020. The risk of increased occupational exposure and worries over potential financial losses significantly impacted their wellness. According to some recently published research, while the worst of the pandemic is likely behind us, recognizing the impact it had and addressing the physical and mental health toll it took is an on-going concern for dentists in Canada1 and around the world.

In particular, the persistent difficulty of finding and retaining staff continues. While this was an issue before COVID-19, the pandemic made addressing it even more difficult. Encouragingly, the same research also suggests that prioritizing the concept of wellness can help mitigate the negative effects of stress and anxiety on individual dentists and the overall practice—including both staff and patients.

Let’s take a closer look at how a focus on wellness can help the dental profession apply the lessons learned from the pandemic to support dental teams and patients.

Pandemic Impact on Dental Practices

COVID-19 brought unprecedented operational challenges to dental practice owners. Immediate closures, emergency triaging, and the need for costly clinic adaptations strained resources. Early on, acquiring personal protective equipment (PPE) and implementing stricter infection prevention and control measures further added to the financial and staff burden. Often overlooked is the impact COVID-19 had on access to dental care for patients. Many community dentistry programs were suspended or cancelled with the impact falling disproportionally on children. The number of patients who simply stopped seeking care and have not returned may never be fully known.

Thriving in the "New Normal"

According to Paula Allen, Global Leader and Senior Vice-President for Research and Client Insights at TELUS Health (formerly LifeWorks and the provider of MAP), the pandemic has significantly impacted employee mental health. "Before the pandemic, about 12% to 14% of working Canadians were at high risk of mental health issues. Now it's one in three.” Ms. Allen points out that the strain of long hours, high expectations, and the stress of dealing with an anxious and sometimes unpleasant public have taken a toll on healthcare workers.

Paula Allen, Global Leader and Senior Vice-President for Research and Client Insights at TELUS Health
Paula Allen, Global Leader and Senior Vice-President for Research and Client Insights at TELUS Health

With many dental practices back to running at pre-pandemic levels, it would be tempting for practice owners to assume that they can go back to “doing things the way we always have” and continue to experience the same level of success in the post-pandemic world. For those who want to thrive and build high-performing teams in the “new normal”, focusing on the wellness of their dental team is a great place to start.

Ms. Allen believes that employee wellness has never been more important as it directly impacts retention, mental health, and overall productivity: "The well-being of employees impacts quality of life, engagement at work and productivity. The pandemic has shown us how vulnerable we are as a society, and the recognition of how important well-being and support for mental health is to employees and businesses."

Role of Wellness in Recruitment and Retention

Employee wellness and retention are closely related. "We know that it impacts productivity and how you feel about your work,” Ms. Allen explains. “If you're in a good place, you want to stay in a good place." Dental practice owners could benefit by keeping in mind that wellness is multifaceted and varies from person to person. As Ms. Allen points out: "Well-being means being at the top of your own scale, which means that I might not have the same definition of well-being as you."

One way to enhance retention is to foster a supportive work environment. Ms. Allen highlights the importance of being part of a team: "People feel a sense of belonging when they feel valued, trusted, and supported". This sense of belonging is fostered by recognizing employees' contributions, encouraging open communication, and providing opportunities for collaboration and teamwork.

Addressing Employee Strain and Conflict

Ms. Allen warns that prolonged strain and a sense of loss can lead to increased conflict amongst colleagues or between managers and employees. Patient aggression towards staff, which rose dramatically during the pandemic, contributes to workplace strain. Ms. Allen advises practice owners and managers to reassess their strategies and consider the current mindset of their staff. "What worked before might not continue to work now," she states.

The downside of not addressing conflict in the workplace can be extremely damaging both financially and reputationally, especially when disputes become litigation and move into the court of public opinion. Effective communication, understanding, and support can help mitigate conflicts and maintain a positive work environment.

Implementing a Wellness Strategy in Your Practice

Promoting wellness within the dental practice is crucial for enhancing job satisfaction and ensuring the delivery of high-quality patient care. Research has shown that psychological distress among healthcare providers can lead to reduced job satisfaction, lower patient satisfaction and compromised clinical outcomes2. Dental practice owners play a pivotal role in creating a supportive and positive work environment that fosters wellness.  By prioritizing the wellness of their teams, they can contribute to the overall long-term success and sustainability of their practice.

Ms. Allen suggests following some key principles for establishing a program to support employee wellness:

  • Foster a sense of belonging and connection within the workplace.

  • Prioritize psychological safety, allowing employees to be themselves and express their thoughts and concerns openly.

  • Provide flexibility and support for personal needs and challenges.

  • Recognize and appreciate employees' efforts and contributions regularly.

  • Communicate about available support services and resources for employees' wellness.

Workplace Wellness Enhancing Job Satisfaction and Patient Care

It might sound difficult, but there are a range of practical programs and activities that can be implemented quickly and without breaking the bank. Here are some examples of programs you can offer in the short-term:

  • 1

    Mental Health Workshops and Seminars

    Organize workshops and seminars that focus on mental health awareness, stress management techniques, mindfulness, and coping strategies. These sessions can be conducted by mental health professionals or organizations specializing in employee wellness. There are videos on this topic available through MAP that staff can watch together or as part of an independent study program. Find them here (registration required).

  • 2

    Flexible Work Arrangements

    Offering flexible work arrangements can be incredibly valuable for employees dealing with personal or family-related stressors. Flexible schedules, remote work options or temporary reduced hours can help employees manage their responsibilities and achieve a better work-life balance.

  • 3

    Financial Wellness Education

    Offer financial wellness workshops or resources to help employees manage financial stress and plan for their future. Financial wellness programs can provide guidance on budgeting, saving and investing. The team at CDSPI Advisory Services Inc. would be pleased to help you deliver this type of session at your office! Contact them today.

  • 4

    Employee Recognition Programs

    Recognize and celebrate employees' hard work and achievements through regular employee recognition programs. Feeling appreciated and valued can boost morale and contribute to a positive work environment.

The key to successful wellness programs is to tailor them to the specific needs and preferences of your dental team. Involve employees in the planning process and seek feedback regularly to ensure the wellness initiatives are effective.

Additional Sources and Strategies for Wellness

The insights provided here are just some of the resources available to enhance wellness in the dental practice setting. It is important to draw from a variety of relevant research, perspectives and strategies. The following additional sources and approaches can help:

  • Canadian Dental Association (CDA)

    The CDA provides resources and guidelines to support the wellness of dental professionals, including mental health resources specific to the dental community. Dental practice owners can access these materials to gain further insights and guidance. Your provincial association is also a great resource for services that support your practice.

  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)

    EAPs, such as the Members’ Assistance Program (MAP) sponsored by CDSPI, can provide confidential counseling services, wellness resources and work-life support to dental professionals. Dental practice owners can promote these programs among their teams to address stress, anxiety, and other wellness concerns.

  • Team Communication and Support

    Open and transparent communication channels within the dental practice can foster a sense of support and connectedness among team members. Regular check-ins, team meetings and providing opportunities for team members to express their concerns and suggestions can contribute to a positive work environment.

  • Work-Life Balance

    Encouraging a healthy work-life balance is essential for the wellness of dental professionals. Dental practice owners can promote flexible scheduling, time-off policies, and initiatives that encourage self-care and stress management among their teams.

The wellness of dental professionals, both staff and practice owners, is vital for maintaining a successful practice. Comprehensive resources like the Members’ Assistance Program – sponsored by CDSPI at no cost to members of participating dental associations, their families, dental staff and their families – provide valuable support to the dental community. By prioritizing wellness, dentists can enhance job satisfaction, provide high-quality patient care, and better navigate the financial challenges brought by unexpected events.

1 J Can Dent Assoc 2021;87:l5

2 CMA 2021, National Physician Health Survey