Managing Professional Burnout at the Dental Practice

Kevin Cook

Kevin Cook

June 14, 2021 7 min read

Ogden Nash, an American poet well known for his light verse and humor, summed up the discomfort of dental visitations with his quote, “Some pains are physical, and some are mental, but one that’s both is dental.” 

While the quality of dental procedures has progressed considerably since Ogden's time, the perceptions among people still remain the same. This is especially sad, considering that the tables have turned, and this quote now applies more to dental practitioners than patients. 

Workplace Burnout at Dental Practices

Dental practitioners believe that occupational stress in dentistry is slightly higher when compared with other professions (1). With COVID-19, this is bound to have increased. The impact of burnout might not be evident initially, but they eventually creep up over time and cripple your practice. When workplace burnout is ignored consistently with no active measures, it becomes a gamble of hope and faith. 

Practice owners who are also dentists, constantly have to juggle between the clinical & business pressures of running a practice. A study confirms this, where 84% of dentists have reported feeling burnt out (2). Burnout is not limited to practice owners but is prevalent among dental staff as well. This includes both the clinical and non-clinical workforce. Let’s examine the possible causes, consequences, and solutions for workplace burnout. 

What Causes Burnout among Dental Staff

The key reasons for employee burnout at a dental practice include: 

  1. Unreasonable and unclear expectations: If goals and tasks for each seem unreasonable, and lack clarity and consensus among the employer and the employee, then staff members are unlikely to feel comfortable at work. Setting expectations without a clear roadmap to achieve them or without the necessary support, resources, or expectations that conflict with personal values (3), makes the job an uphill climb for your staff. No matter how actively staff members get involved with their work, unclear and unrealistic expectations fuel the perception among employees and employers that performance is never up to the mark.

  2. Limited authority: When there is a limited stake for employees in key decisions that affect their jobs, such as schedules, workloads, resources, and support, it adds to staff burnout.

  3. Negative work culture: Enforcing a top-down hierarchy, thereby treating staff members with disrespect, can foment trouble at the dental practice. Lack of an open forum or a work environment where the staff cannot fearlessly communicate issues can lead to burnout.

  4. The monotony of repetitive tasks: Repetitive tasks can be monotonous and lead to a lack of motivation in the workforce. Such tasks require constant energy to stay focused and eventually lead to fatigue and burnout.

  5. Imbalance in work and life: If burning the midnight oil is the norm at a dental practice, burnout is eventually a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if.’ This is largely due to a lack of workload planning (4) and organization, where employees are tasked to consistently pick up the slack for failed operational strategies. 

What Are the Consequences?

When you and your employees are burnt out from stress and overwork, everyone loses. It puts a massive strain on personal relationships and affects the quality of professional services at your practice. The worst thing is, if left unchecked, your practice culture develops its own workarounds and band-aid fixes to keep things running. You can’t grow and achieve practice success with sub-optimal practice production, clinical procedures, and patient engagement. 

Ultimately, it’s the patients who are most affected by workplace burnout. Maintaining excellent patient relations is foundational for a dental practice to grow and thrive. In the end, no one wins unless workplace stress gets acknowledged as a real phenomenon. Measures must be implemented to manage the well-being of the practice owner, dentists, employees, and patients.

Let’s look at effective approaches to managing professional burnout at a dental practice. 

Effective Methods to Manage Burnout

  • Smart Goals & Clear Guidance

Goals are the markers that track specific outcomes required to grow your business. While goals outline specific outcomes, a business plan constitutes the tactical roadmap of activities and procedures that helps you achieve them. Goals need to be broken down into smaller goals in the org structure, within each business function, and for each job role. Define the goals and operational guide map for your front desk, clinical operations, and marketing teams. This breakdown of goals is key, as a high-level goal doesn’t provide the necessary direction for employees to contribute at an operational level.  

Breaking down goals is the best approach to setting expectations with your staff, driving performance, and managing workplace burnout. An engaged staff understands what is expected of them and is the engine that drives practice performance. The S.M.A.R.T framework of goal setting is an effective approach to defining goals for employees and monitoring their performance. S.M.A.R.T stands for Specific, Measurable, Aligned, Realistic, and Timebound. This framework helps you set employee goals that have specific outcomes, can be measured and tracked, align with the high-level goals and practice vision, are realistic, and have an established timeframe to achieve them.

  • Automate the Boring Stuff

Repetitive tasks, while being part of the job, adversely impact the energy and motivation of the staff. Outside of burnout, they lead to multiple issues that include, an increase in human error, reduced productivity, increased labor costs, unpredictable workflows, compliance risks, business agility, and a lack of visibility into your processes. 

The best approach to automate the boring stuff and focus on what matters most is to invest in a competent practice management system. An efficient practice management software helps you monitor, measure, and control the key functions in your business that maximize production, improve efficiency, deepen provider-patient relationships, and improve employee engagement. 

Moreover, access to real-time data provides smarter insights that help you make better decisions. Let us look at how modern practice management software streamlines operations, mitigates repetition and makes life easier for employees. 

  1. Patient scheduling & Online appointments: Unproductive schedules are the major contributor to stress at a dental practice. Practice management software enables efficient schedules and minimizes open slots to maximize practice productivity. Both patients and staff can schedule appointments online using their smartphones or laptops. Bookings from the practice website get instantly recorded in the software interface, without any intervention from the staff. Added capabilities like sending automated texts and email reminders to patients make scheduling a breeze.

  2. Patient engagement: Practice management software automates engagement solutions in multiple formats like text messages, emails, and Interactive Voice Response Systems (IVRS). They simplify patient engagement initiatives for your employees and provide a greater return on their efforts.

  3. Claims management: Features such as validating charges to catch coding mistakes, integration with major clearinghouses, an overview of claims status, ERA posting, and statements help streamline revenue cycle management at practice and relieve back-office staff of monitoring the billing cycle end-to-end. 

  • An Empowered Work Culture

Office environments with a high level of mutual respect among colleagues, a safe space for open communication, and a zero-tolerance policy on gossip are unlikely to experience burnout. The chances of a one-way communication model in a top-down office hierarchy, causing employee burnout, are highly likely. While the top-down approach might seem effective in the short term, it’s both inefficient and unsustainable if growth and refinement are part of your business goals. Industry research and publications on burnout at dental practices confirm this (5).

An empowered office culture starts from values that are simple, straightforward, and consistently adopted on a day-to-day basis. A great work culture cannot be forced. It needs to be nurtured. Start by adopting human values that are inherently empowering. Empathy and encouragement are great examples. For instance, during peak hour demands, it’s likely that someone might drop the ball. It could be the dentist, the practice owner, the clinical staff, the scheduling coordinator, or someone at the back office or the front desk. Although undesirable, it is inevitable for such things to happen. 

Empowering office culture is where ‘my’ mistake or ‘your’ mistake becomes ‘our’ mistake. This is a far better alternative than pressuring employees to walk the plank at the sword point of their mistakes. If faults are addressed as ‘our’ mistakes, ownership becomes a natural consequence rather than a challenge. Moreover, employees show gratitude when they know their colleagues have their back and stay motivated instead of being dejected by their failures.

  • Initiatives for Open Communication

Drive initiatives that build the framework around open communication and empowering work culture. A reliable approach is by encouraging employees to share their feedback. Initially, feedback can be gathered anonymously to encourage participation. Monthly all-hands meetings, action committees, and recognition programs are great forums to discuss feedback and suggestions, where the staff members participate as accountable stakeholders.

A focused approach to building an actionable framework around open communication helps build a strong foundation of participation, ownership, continual improvement, and well-being at the workplace (6). 

Denovo dental startups, short-staffed solo dental practices, and even large group practices may often run at the cusp of serious professional burnout. The panacea for a better and focused work environment cannot be imagined without technology. However, legacy software systems that run on multiple software bolted to each other are in themselves a roadblock for optimizing practice efficiency creating more problems than they set out to solve. It is at this juncture that the role of disruptive technological interventions raised by modern practice management software has gained prominence with their potential to raise dentistry to a truly paperless, serverless mode of practice management that is staff friendly and scalable.

This is exactly the foundational philosophy of CareStack–to simplify practice management with a vision that helps practices to do more. With the clinical, patient engagement, and business management requirements handled from a single platform, CareStack eliminates the need for your staff to be well-versed with multiple software and gets them more time, so that they get to do more of what they are trained to do–personalizing care delivery and improving patient experience.

Running on a cloud-based software system, CareStack reimagines dental administrative work as your team can now be in the comfort of home managing paperwork, reviewing claims, and handling patient information. With no more in-house servers, routine maintenance and frequent downtimes are a thing of the past–your team may never need to juggle scheduled appointments because of a server issue. 

Reimagining dentistry as a stress-free workplace is a long road, and optimizing practice management is just the first milestone. Embracing technology and navigating change to adopt the latest disruptive interventions is the best strategy that lies ahead for the practice and the staff in the long run.


  1. Robert.E.Rada, Charmain Johnson. Stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression among dentists.

  2. Janulyte V. Self-perceived mental health and job satisfaction among Lithuanian dentists, Ind Health 2008: 46, 247-252.

  3. Sarmiento, Laschinger and Iwasiw. Nurse educators workplace empowerment, burn out, and job satisfaction: testing Kanters Theory. Journal of advanced nursing 2004:46;134–143.

  4. Maslach C and Leiter. Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World psychiatry 2016 June; 15(2) 103-111.

  5. Sarmiento, Laschinger and Iwasiw. Nurse educators workplace empowerment, burn out, and job satisfaction: testing Kanters Theory. Journal of advanced nursing 2004:46;134–143.

  6. Jenkins & Elliot. Stressors, burn out and social support: nurses in acute mental health settings. Journal of advanced nursing: 48(6) 622-631.

Kevin Cook

Kevin Cook

June 14, 2021 7 min read