better to leave a dental office that's draining you before suffering burn out

If you have been to my lecture in the past ten years, you more than likely have heard a quote from a sign in my corporate office of years past that stated simply “BE HAPPY or BE GONE.” Participants in my seminars laugh when I mention the message but they get the picture loud and clear. Happy employees are productive. And if an employee becomes dis-enchanted for whatever reason, they not only become much less productive, they also negatively impact the office morale. Too often, this is what leads to professional burnout in some of the best practitioners of our industry.

What does burnout look like? In the dental practice, it could be a talented and valued employee who simply does not feel appreciated. It could be the team member others in the office resent because they go the extra mile while the others do just enough to get by. Sometimes the office environment may not be conducive to job satisfaction with ideas being shot down or frowned upon by a micro-managing boss. Perhaps, the practice is very fast paced and the employee prefers a more relaxed work place. There are dozens of reasons for burnout. The underlying message of the sign in our corporate office was that an employee could work at LLM&A as long as the company and their position in it made them happy. The minute they felt burned out or disenchanted, we gave them every Tuesday morning off, for three weeks (with pay), to find a job that would make them happier. But before granting that favor, we met with the employee that felt like leaving to see if it could be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Professional burnout is a serious and more common problem in dentistry than we would like to admit. Management consultants deal with it frequently. We are hired to fix weak verbal/communication skills and faulty management systems such as AR management, insurance, scheduling, overhead control and hygiene department numbers. What we must do however before the systems can be improved is work on the interoffice morale and leadership problems. If those obstacles are not overcome first, no amount of scripting, standard operating procedural manuals, or system efficiency changes will last.

I recently had the privilege of corresponding with a dental team member who shared with me her innermost thoughts on burnout. Together we decided it would be a good idea to jointly write this article, using her story as the basis for our message. Job security is not a given, it’s a privilege. Becoming complacent, irritated, and resistant to change or the office “leader of dissension” is not a trait any employer deserves to have to deal with, yet many dentists face this challenge on a daily basis. Being the employee who does not feel appreciated, with a dentist who assumes no responsibility for addressing small issues between team members before they mushroom, can become debilitating as well. Professional burnout can sneak up on the most valuable and longest-hired team member as well as be a problem for those with less tenure on the job. Following is that dental employee’s story and how it left her feeling after resigning a position she had held for nearly ten years.

“Being in Dentistry for about twenty-five years, first as a dental assistant, then for the past eighteen years as a dental hygienist, I have had, for the most part, pleasant work experiences. I have had the privilege of working in small and large offices, and I have learned a lot about the ups and downs of working with many different personalities. Being happy at work is ultimately determined by the quality of relationships that one develops with patients, staff, and colleagues. Getting along with co-workers, as well as employers, especially in a large office, is a challenge. Sometimes, due to lack of communication skills, misunderstandings, or unresolved conflicts, the only answer is to find another position that better suits your needs.

“Having had the experience recently of leaving an office that I had been in for nine and a half years due to the reasons mentioned above, I am now keenly aware of how important it is to recognize burnout and admit when it is time to go. Fear of change can make you sit in your rut for too long, and the damaging affects can take their toll. The constant negativity causes stress that affects your health, well-being and confidence, and it is not worth it. I was in a job situation where I had some great benefits. I think my employer would have said that I had great clinical skills, got along well with my patients, was loyal, dependable, trustworthy, and a high producer. But the frequent small conflicts between staff members were taking their toll on everyone. I felt unappreciated and lacked support from my employer in trying to work things out. I was not looking forward to going to work anymore, and I needed a change. Leaving, though it was painful, was the best decision I have ever made. As difficult as this was, my office was gracious enough to give me a “good bye” luncheon with a card and gift. It was very important for me to leave on a positive note, and I feel I succeeded. When I finally left that environment, I felt like the weight of the world fell off my shoulders. I only wish I had done it sooner.

“I now have a new job in a smaller office. I don’t have all the benefits that I once had, but the doctor and staff members have been wonderful to work for. Feeling respected and appreciated is worth its weight in gold. I also have learned that I need to make an effort to show my appreciation to them as well. I know conflicts in the workplace are unavoidable, but when they can be addressed early, the damage is minimized. Unresolved conflicts infect relationships to the point that they sap energy and take your joy away. If you find that you are not happy, and there seems to be no solution to improving the situation, then it is time to think about moving on to something that you will enjoy doing, even though there may be some sacrifices to make. Staying positive and believing in yourself will get you through this. It will be worth it in the end.”

Note: If you see yourself (dentists or team members) in this article, it is time for an evaluation of what is and is not working for you, personally and professionally. And remember, “When one door closes, two more usually open”.

The co-author’s name whose story is the basis for this article remains anonymous. Her pen name is Lynn Jackson, RDH. In sharing her identity, she offers the following:

I am married, worked as a dental assistant for 7 years before having two children, then graduated as an RDH in 1987. I have worked in General, Periodontal, and Prosthodontic practices, and currently live in Florida.

Co-author: Linda L. Miles, CSP, CMC, is an internationally recognized consultant and speaker on dental practice and staff development. She can be reached at 21714 Baccarat Lane, #101, Estero, FL 33928 757 619 1026 (cell) or lindamiles992@yahoo.co. website Asklindamiles.com.

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