Recognize and Address COVID-Related Stress in Your Dental Office

Across the nation dental offices that were closed for weeks or months due to the COVID-19 pandemic are finally back up and running, at least part time. However, they are back with several profound differences that make a big impact in the lives of dentists and their staff. For the health and safety of the community it is important to follow the safety protocols set by your local government. However, we must still acknowledge that the current state of things may lead to increased stress and anxiety. When your staff returns to work it is important to be aware of how they are performing their daily tasks. Running a successful dental practice depends on having reliable staff members. If your employees are acting differently or seem distracted it can be a serious problem, especially if you are considering selling a dental practice in the next five years.

Stress and anxiety can come from many different factors related to the pandemic. Financial pressures from weeks or months without work may be mounting. You or your staff members may know someone who is sick, in the hospital, or has died due to COVID-19. Concern about keeping at-risk family and friends safe may cause your staff to feel unsure if they should return to work. Finding safe and reliable childcare options is especially difficult with schools and daycare centers closing or reducing their capacities. The bottom line is, COVID-related stress and anxiety affects everyone in some capacity.

For dentists, hygienists, and other dental office staff members, fears over contracting COVID-19 are not unfounded. A recent study looked at how likely individuals in certain occupations are to contract the disease. After evaluating data that considered the job’s frequency of contact with others, physical proximity, and exposure to disease, researchers assigned scores to different occupations. These scores revealed that dental hygienists are at the highest risk for contracting COVID-19 at work. In fact, dental hygienists scored 99.7 out of a possible 100. Dental assistants and dentists were not far behind at 92.5 and 92.1, respectively.

As a small business owner and healthcare professional, whether or not you plan on selling a dental practice in the near future, the health and safety of your staff and patients is vitally important. In order to reopen, many dental practices have spent thousands of dollars on new PPE equipment and cleaning supplies, and invested hours of time into training staff members. However, the health and safety of your staff relies on more than following physical safety protocols. The new normal of increased risk puts a psychological strain on your staff members who must quickly learn to work in this environment.

Speaking about the link between physical and mental wellbeing Bernadette Melnyk, dean of the College of Nursing and chief wellness officer at Ohio State explains, “physical and mental health are closely intertwined” which is why you must take time for both. Melnyk continues, “while you practice good hygiene and physical distancing in the office, you should also practice stress-reduction.” In addition, Dr. K. Luan Phan, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, explains that the current situation can affect everyone. According to Dr. Phan, “uncertainty and unpredictability can really create an unhealthy amount of fear and stress, especially when it’s sustained over such a long period of time.” 

It can be easy to take one of two approaches to working during the pandemic. Either ignoring the signs of stress and anxiety, or responding with fear. However, ignoring the signs and symptoms of stress, in yourself or your staff, will not make it go away. In fact, it can make it worse. In addition, anxiety the coronavirus has introduced is real, and for many it is scary. But responding with fear will not allow you to manage your stress in a healthy way. 

We want to encourage you to respond to stress and anxiety appropriately, by neither ignoring nor giving into fear. Below we will help you recognize the signs of anxiety and stress, and provide tips on how you and your staff members can manage your wellbeing. These tips are helpful for all doctors and their staff members, whether or not selling a dental practice is in your five year plan.

Identifying the Problem

Most of us can admit that even if we love our jobs, they are often a source of stress. Now that the day-to-day stress is compounded with COVID-related stress you and your staff are likely feeling its effects across multiple areas of your lives. However, not everyone will feel stressed about exactly the same thing. Here are some of the COVID-related factors that lead to added stress and anxiety:

  • Potential exposure to COVID-19 at work
  • Spending time away from family
  • Finding safe and reliable childcare
  • Lack of proper tools or equipment to do your job effectively
  • Adjusting to unfamiliar tasks and a different office rhythm
  • Concerns about job stability and the future of the industry
  • Fears that your efforts are not making a difference
  • Concerns about your practice’s valuation if you plan on selling a dental practice soon

As we mentioned above, stress and anxiety manifests itself mentally and physically. A recent survey of dental office workers revealed a wide range of discomforting symptoms in those who are now using PPEs due to pandemic protocols. According to the survey “workers… reported experiencing dry eyes, sore throat, rash, runny nose, pressure blister on nose bridge, coughing at night, TMJ discomfort, eyestrain, tight chest, chapped lips, ear pressure, occlusion changes, clogged ears, bloating, itchy tingling skin, bloody nose, intermittent PVCs, facial muscle twitches, and sleep apnea.” In addition, over 50% of respondents reported experiencing a sense of dehydration, headaches, mental fatigue, profuse sweating, and exhaustion.

The goal in identifying these stress factors is not to instill fear, but to help you and your staff members address them head on. As a dental practice owner it is important for you to create an environment where your staff feels safe to express their concerns and get help. When your staff is calm and confident your office will run smoother and it will be easier to ensure your patient’s safety and wellbeing. If you are selling a dental practice soon you should be concerned with creating stability for your buyer.

Be Aware of the Signs

How do you recognize the signs of stress in your dental office staff? You have likely worked with your staff day in and day out for years. Think about how they act in normal situations, and whether their “normal” has changed since returning to work. If their behavior and demeanor seems off it may be a sign that they have concerns about returning to work. Here are some of the signs you should be aware of in your staff:

  • Decreased productivity and difficulty meeting deadlines
  • Inability to concentrate and make decisions
  • Pulling back from work related activities
  • Changes in emotional behavior such as irritability, anxiousness, and depression
  • An increase in missing work or calling in sick
  • Difficulty adapting to changes around the office
  • Struggling with sleep
  • A general feeling of exhaustion and being overwhelmed
  • Difficulty concentrating while at work

Of course, everyone has bad days here and there whether or not there is a pandemic. But if you notice the above signs in your staff for longer than a week it is time to step in.

How You Can Help Your Staff

Creating a safe and stable environment in your office is important whether or not you are selling a dental practice. Make it a point to talk openly about stress and anxiety at your weekly meeting. Remind your staff members that you are here to help, and open to suggestions on how to lower stress in the workplace. Offer encouragement and understanding. Be open to staff members who come to you with problems.

If you notice any of the above signs in your employees take time to personally sit down with them and discuss how they are feeling. If your employee seems reluctant to share their concerns try relating your own stress and anxieties about the pandemic. Let them know it is important to talk together honestly so you can find a solution together. Be an active listener, and let them know you are looking to help them. You should also ask for recommendations on how to make changes that will make a difference. 

A major area of stress may arise from wearing additional PPE, a procedure which was likely unfamiliar to you and your staff pre-COVID. In order to cope with wearing additional PPE, consider the following measures:

  • Schedule frequent breaks in PPE for hydration, healthy snacks, and stretching
  • Require every staff member (including you) to take a lunch hour
  • Make sure you are getting enough fruits and vegetables, and stay away from salty foods
  • Consider putting off or delegating tasks if workloads are too high
  • Teach nasal breathing techniques
  • Make a habit of taking deep abdominal breaths when washing your hands
  • Encourage your staff to know and communicate their limits
  • Get outside daily for fresh air and exercise
  • Find activities you enjoy outside of work
  • Get at least 7-9 hours of sleep every night
  • Know that feeling a variety of emotions is normal
  • Take time to ensure children and other family members are being cared for
  • Seek out resources when you need help – check the ADA website for resources by state

Whether or not you have dealt with stress and anxiety in the past, the current pandemic presents a new dynamic for us all. With such a great amount of uncertainty it makes sense to feel anxious about the future. Remind your staff that it is ok to feel stress, fear, or anxiety, and that they are not alone. Open and honest communication will help your office work together for the good of everyone. Take time to tell your staff that they are an integral part of the work you do, and you recognize their dedication every day. 

Taking Care of Yourself

It makes sense to be proactive about the wellbeing of your staff, but remember that without you there is no practice for them to work in. The increased pressure and stress of the pandemic, which may coincide with selling a dental practice, will likely impact your performance and your ability to lead. But it can be difficult to recognize the signs of stress in your own life. However, as we mentioned above, ignoring these signs does not make them go away and will often make things worse. Take some time to think about your life over the past few months. Have you felt more tired or irritable? Are you sleeping less than usual? Are you drinking more or eating less? These are all physical manifestations of stress and anxiety. Read through the advice given above and take some time to implement it in your own life.

It is important to remember that significant changes need to be made in your life in order to adjust to the current situation. We are still in control of how we respond to each new problem that comes our way. Responding immediately with an emotional reaction will only serve to heighten your stress and fear. When you accept the reality of these changes and adjust accordingly you will be much better off. 

If you are having trouble dealing with the current situation don’t be afraid to reach out to someone for help. A trusted friend or family member may be able to help you sort through your feelings and find a solution. If you are feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or discouraged you should consider seeking out a professional for help. Use the ADA resources to find someone near you.

Selling a Dental Practice? ddsmatch Southwest is Here For You

At ddsmatch Southwest we are not experts in mental health. But we do know that transitioning your dental practice can come with added stress and anxiety, even in normal times. Our experts are investing in helping you successfully transition your practice. If you are considering transitioning your dental practice in the next five years, you likely have a lot of questions. We encourage you to reach out to our transition experts to learn more about selling a practice during the pandemic, or preparing your practice for sale in the future. 

As industry experts, we are here to help you make the best choices for the future of your practice. Call us today to learn more.

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