Workplace stress is something more of us are experiencing, and professions such as dentistry are no different, says LINDA RYAN.

Stress is everywhere now. The recession means that we all have less money and fewer resources than in previous years. This, by extension, impacts on those who work in the service and professional industries.
Dentists are no different; indeed, there are specific areas where dentists demonstrate the amount of stress that their work and lifestyle can bring.

As an employee wellness specialist, I work one on one with those who experience stress and want to highlight the benefits of effective stress management. This article highlights the common themes that are present for dentists in relation to stress, and gives some guidelines on what can help in rebalancing the work–life conundrum.

Stress and dentistry
The physical aspects of stress are widely documented in research, which highlights dentists being challenged with lower back pain, shoulder pain and headaches due to the nature of how they spend their day physically (Palliser et al., 2005). Dentists have reported that it is difficult to heal existing or new injuries due to the physical requirements that go with being a working professional who is generally on his or her feet standing over patients (Wunderlich et al., 2010).

Rates of burnout have also been found to be high in dentistry, and a number of reasons have been suggested for this. These range from the stress of being the perceived ‘inflictor of pain’ to the difficulty of dealing with anxious patients and children. Dentists have reported that time scheduling demands, having to maintain high levels of concentration, and constant time pressure are high on their list of stressors (Murtomaa et al., 1990).

Some research has suggested that dentists report psychological fatigue, loss of enjoyment for the job and hardening as factors in burnout and stress in the workplace. Others have reported that they are exhausted at the end of the day (Gorter et al., 1998). Still others report that the fragility of the relationship they have with patients is challenging, while many report being anxious, nervy or indeed depressed at times. Professionals have also underlined that job dissatisfaction, problems with staff and technical difficulties have led them to feel overwhelmed and tired. Difficulties with sleeping and headaches were reported in one particular piece of research.

Research on student dentists has found that examination pressure, clinical requirements and dental supervision contribute to some of their stress and anxiety (Alzahen et al., 2011). Factors that add to the stress dentists experience include trying to build and maintain a practice and having too little work (Myers & Myers, 2004).

Stress in the wider working world
Dentists are not alone in this last point. Many employers and staff members are struggling with similar issues, ranging from lack of opportunity to taking on others’ tasks and work due to lower numbers of colleagues.

In recent Irish research conducted by the trade unions on employees in general, time constraints scored highly as a cause of workplace stress, with lack of recognition for work well done and hazardous working conditions coming in behind. Having nowhere to voice complaints, and little or no prospects for advancement, were also highlighted. Readers might be familiar with recent reports in the media that 60% of those leaving Ireland are in fact employed but view lack of future prospects and low pay as motivation for moving.

Managing your stress
Every profession has its own specific areas where stress is created, or is more likely to occur, and in this respect dentistry is no different. Working out what can be done to reduce or manage your stress is the important thing. One paper cited how career perspective was a factor with professionals, and stressed that an important point for every profession is the issue of work life–balance. Lots of people find themselves working harder and longer for fewer rewards. Being able to take time out can be difficult if money worries are at the forefront of your mind.

However, there are ways to keep and maintain some balance. A study in New Zealand highlighted that the best way for dentists to cope with the feelings stress brought them was to talk to someone about what is going on, whether that is a friend, colleague or a stranger; this provided a sounding board and space to find a different and more favourable perspective (Ayers et al., 2008).

Other techniques include keeping fit and regular exercise. Research from the UK highlighted the rate of obesity now creeping into the dental profession, so a daily walk in the fresh air or a visit to the local pool will do wonders for your spirit and waistline. It doesn’t cost much to slip on some running shoes and take a walk around the block or stroll outside during your lunch break. Regular sleep and good healthy food are all basics of stress management and are easily incorporated into our daily schedules.

It is nice to sit back and enjoy a beer or a glass of wine but some research indicates that this can be a coping mechanism that can potentially cause more problems than it attempts to solve.

When working with professionals trying to cope with stress, we can highlight the benefits of all of these approaches, as well as the importance of knowing what makes us personally stressed. What will stress one person out might be a release for another, so it is worth knowing this about yourself. Other areas that are relevant in managing stress are issues like clarity, control and overall satisfaction with one’s choices.

How do you cope with control in your life or are you attempting to control everything without realising that we really only have influence over specific things? Areas outside that may take up your energy and attention might also be wasting your time and efforts. How clear are you about what you want and where you are going? Do you have a plan to get there and if not why not? If you would benefit from having such a plan, engage someone who can facilitate this and support you in your questions and challenges. Clarity of mind counts for so much when stress management is being discussed. Many of those suffering with stress will talk about confusion and fogginess, so clarity of thought is very desirable.

There is no denying that the situation in Ireland right now are very conducive to high stress levels. Taking time out to reflect on how you are and what you can do about it will go a long way to deciding whether you are coping with or avoiding the stress in your life.


  1. Alzahem, A.M., van der Molen, H.T., Alaujan, A.H., Schmidt, H.G., Zamakhshary, M.H. Stress amongst dental students: a systematic review. European Journal Of Dental Education 2011; 15 (1): 8-18.
  2. Wunderlich, M., Eger, T., Rüther, T., Meyer-Falcke, A., Leyk, D. Analysis of spine loads in dentistry – impact of an altered sitting position of the dentist. Journal Of Biomedical Science & Engineering 2010; 3 (7): 664-671.
  3. Ayers, K.M., Thomson, W.M., Newton, J.T., Rich, A.M. Job stressors of New Zealand dentists and their coping strategies. Occupational Medicine 2008; 58 (4): 275-281.
  4. Murtomaa, H., Haavio-Mannila, E., Kandolin, I. Burnout and its causes in Finnish dentists. Community Dentistry & Oral Epidemiology 1990; 18 (4): 208-212.
  5. Moore, R., Brødsgaard, I. Dentists’ perceived stress and its relation to perceptions about anxious patients. Community Dentistry & Oral Epidemiology 2001; 29 (1): 73-80.
  6. Gorter, R.C., Albrecht, G., Hoogstraten, J., Eijkman, M.J. Work place characteristics, work stress and burnout among Dutch dentists. European Journal Of Oral Sciences 1998; 106 (6): 999-1005.
  7. Cooper, C.L., Watts, J., Baglioni, J.J., Kelly, M. Occupational stress amongst general practice dentists. Journal Of Occupational Psychology 1988; 61 (2): 163-174.
  8. Myers, H.L., Myers, L.B. ‘It’s difficult being a dentist’: stress and health in the general dental practitioner. British Dental Journal 2004; 197 (2): 89-93.
  9. Cooper, C.L., Mallinger, M., Kahn, R. Identifying sources of occupational stress among dentists. Journal Of Occupational Psychology 1978; 51 (3): 227-234.
  10. Palliser, C.R., Firth, H.M., Feyer, A.M., Paulin, S.M. Musculoskeletal discomfort and work-related stress in New Zealand dentists. Work & Stress 2005; 19 (4): 351-359.

Linda Ryan is a coach and wellness consultant.