How 1 dental practice owner combats burnout

Combating burnout among dental staff can have a positive impact on practices and patients, according to Taylor Sutton, DMD. 

Dr. Sutton owns two Aspen Dental offices in Philadelphia and Parkesburg, Pa., overseeing about 20 staff members overall. He recently spoke with Becker's about how he supports his team members to reduce burnout.

Editor's note: Responses were lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: Have you experienced burnout before?

Dr. Taylor Sutton: I haven't really gotten to the point of being burned out. I've always been really good at managing all the things that contribute to burnout, like mental exhaustion, physical exhaustion and the stresses and anxieties of the field. I think it's because I have a lot of background in dentistry. I grew up in it. My father and my uncle were general dentists in private practice. My grandfather was in it. So I think I had that good foundation as part of it and then just taking bits and pieces both from my background in private practice and some pieces from the corporate dental world. I've kind of put together a good recipe for juggling and avoiding burnout.

Q:  Is burnout something you've seen among your staff in your time as a practice owner?

TS: There are occasions when you can definitely sense that burnout is reaching a boiling point, so to speak. There are definitely times when the staff as a whole can get more stressed out or closer to feeling overworked. That's something that we, as the doctors, especially me as the owner doctor, try to really be cognizant of at all times to take a multi-factor approach to keeping everybody even-keeled, well-balanced and avoiding boiling over the top.

Q: What are some of the factors that contribute to burnout among dental staff?

TS: Well, we certainly live in very stressful times. I think that's a cloud that hangs over everybody's heads nowadays. Everything is more expensive — cost of living, cost of gas and cost of groceries. That's a stress that everybody has either in the front of their minds or at least in the back of their minds. To combat those challenges, we obviously have to work extra hard to keep up with things. Everybody having things outside of work can certainly add to it, so we don't want the work environment to be another factor that's going to negatively affect their wellbeing.

The dental field is a tough environment. It's a tough industry. Patients are coming to see us who are in pain, they're unhappy, they're angry, they're stressed out, and it's very easy to absorb those emotions throughout the course of a day and it can do a number on you if you let it. Trying to change the narrative for each individual patient, trying to convert their negative state into a positive one will have the same effect among the staff. Every day is chock-full of new challenges. It's not an easy field to be in and it can bring you down if you let it, so it's important to really keep a well-balanced team environment.

Q: What are some of the consequences that come with staff members dealing with burnout?

TS: If someone's feeling burned out, then they might want to call out of work. That's a quick and easy out from trying to escape a stressful environment. Unfortunately, if an employee calls out, which can happen for a variety of reasons, that does have a negative domino effect on the rest of the team because everybody else now has to pick up the slack and everybody has increased responsibilities in those instances. So trying to really work together and have good camaraderie and teamwork is always really important. People are going to call out sick, it's a part of life. It's something that's going to happen, so you really want to have good relationships among the staff knowing that I'm here for you and you're here for me, and we're going to get through this one challenge at a time.

Q: How do you go about combating burnout at your practice? 

TS: First and foremost, it all comes down to having a really healthy culture in the office. That's a big talking point nowadays, and that's something we really strive and prioritize. We strive to have a really happy, healthy work-life environment and work-life balance because if the employees are enjoying coming to work, it really helps overcome all the other stress and challenges that we face on a day-to-day basis. When you have a really good culture and environment, the team is a lot more likely to band together to step up to challenges and take things head on versus if people are getting stressed out [and] pushed over their limits. That's when you start getting a lot of negative thoughts and negative attitudes that can really manifest into unhealthy work environments.

I'm constantly just checking in with employees, seeing how they're doing and trying to keep the mood light as best we can. For example, we like to have good music playing all the time to keep everybody marching to their own beat and keep an upbeat environment. [We] get together during lunchtime occasionally to do fun things, whether it's just sitting outside in the sunshine or doing activities outside of work, or even just having conversations in meetings [and] during our lunch breaks to celebrate the things we've been doing and just give a lot of positive reinforcement and encouragement to everybody to let them know their hard work isn't going unnoticed and it's very much appreciated by the fellow staff and more importantly by the patients.

Ultimately, the staff carrying themselves with a smile and a happy persona is going to translate to the patients' experience coming into our office. [We] certainly don't want employees walking around with sour feelings or bad thoughts because that's going to be palpable and translate to the patients' experience. That's the general recipe. More specifically, just really getting to know different employees and having one-off personal conversations here and there and keeping in mind that everybody has challenges and obstacles outside of work and keeping an awareness of things going on with everybody and making sure they're having an okay time.

I've always had a really big sports background. I was always the captain of my team from little league all through college, and I've always tried to take a captain mentality more so than being the boss of a staff because the captain of any sports team really tries to resonate with their players, with their teammates, to connect on a more personal level. Ultimately, a team is going to succeed and have a championship performance when everybody's really on the same page and understanding of one another. Also, one of the most important details of being the captain of the team is knowing every player on your team, or every employee on your team, all have different personalities and walks of life and backgrounds. So people are going to respond to stressors differently. People are going to respond to different coaching moments differently, so being able to identify how people react and respond to certain things is one of the most underrated qualities of a captain or of a leader, to really connect with different people in different ways and ultimately meshing all of those different personalities together to form one unified team.

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