Can dentists achieve a work-life balance?

Posted on 27th August 2019

As a busy professional, you might think there’s no such a thing as “work-life balance”. As Brooke Evans-Butler discovers, however, work-life balance is not only achievable, it’s also essential … especially for dentists

In the July issue of The Western Articulator we wrote about mental health and burnout in the dental industry. The feature generated an enormous amount of interest from members, leading us to explore the topic of work-life balance more fully. Is work-life balance necessary and – more importantly – even achievable for dental professionals?

Why it’s important
Australians aren’t great at achieving work-life balance, according to research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017 report, which shows Australia is in the bottom third of OECD countries when it comes to long working hours.

“When our work-life is unbalanced, or remains unchecked, it can have a negative impact on every component of our life including our career, mental health and relationships,” says Maria Szybiak, manager of Mentally Healthy WA.

“Working to achieve a more balanced work-life can help to prevent the onset of a variety of physical and mental health issues,” she adds. “It can reduce your stress levels, improve your quality of sleep, improve your relationships and connections with others inside and outside the workplace, and your overall feeling of wellbeing. It can also prevent burnout, help you to perform better in your career, improve your relationships and help you to feel better about yourself.”

We spoke to experts about work-life balance and simple things you can do to get the balance right.

The time-management expert

Kate Christie, founder and CEO of Time Stylers, says she doesn’t believe in work-life balance. “When I hear that expression, it conjures up an image of everything being perfectly balanced with equal amounts of time dedicated to each area of your life – and that is just not possible,” she says.

Instead, Kate says “work-life integration” is much more achievable.

“Work-life integration is understanding what is most important to you and then making sure that you are where you are most needed at any given time,” she explains. “For example, if your patients are an absolute priority and your family is also a priority, you can’t balance those priorities out equally.

“However, what you can do, is make sure you are giving time to where it is most needed. If there is an urgent case at work, then that needs to take priority, but if you want to get to watch your child get an award at assembly and there are no urgent cases at work, then that is where you should put your time.”

Kate says one of the traps of not achieving a healthy work-life integration comes from people thinking they have to work very hard to establish themselves in their profession. “There comes a point in time, however, when you have to say: ‘I have achieved that baseline, now I need to make sure that I am looking after the other aspects of my life.’

“There is always going to be another really important step in your career,” she adds. “Or there is always going to be a more challenging patient or a more difficult procedure to master.

“If you only focus on career, then of course the other aspects of your life are going to slip. It is important to understand your non-negotiables that you need to make time for. You should sit down and reflect on this annually.

“You should have a list of three or four things; for example: I am always going to make time for professional development, I am always going to make time for my kids, and I am always going to make time for my health. Then you have to carve out and lock in time for each of those things.”

Kate says there are five steps to implementing changes, called SMART:

  • S is for Self-aware. You need to understand what is getting in the way and what your key time challenges are. Reflect on that and know what your non-negotiables are and where you want to spend your time.
  • M is for Map. You can’t make changes to your day until you know exactly where you are spending your time. Map out a day to find out how often you are being interrupted. Who is interrupting you? How often are you looking at your phone or taking calls? How often do you check social media? Mapping helps you understand exactly what a day looks like to you.
  • A is for Analyse. Once you have made a map of your day, then divide or categorise each task as a must, a want, something you could delegate or outsource or something you could reject.
    The “must” is something that you and only you can do – for example, “I must do that root canal.” A want is the nice things – “I want to go for a run” or “I want to go on a date night with my partner,” The wants are the things that people will see the least on their time maps.
    Your delegates/outsource list are the things that someone else, an expert, can do smarter, better and cheaper – for example, getting a cleaner to clean your house.
    Your rejects are things that you don’t need to do but you do them out of habit. A classic reject is multi-tasking. When we multi-task, our productivity goes down by 40%. If you notice you have two screens open at once when you are writing up your patient notes, or a colleague pops their head in and asks for five minutes of your time during a task, these are all examples of multi-tasking.
    Everyone is going to have dozens of things they could delegate or reject – but they are not going to know that until they look at where they are spending their time.
  • R is for Retrain. This is when you decide exactly what you are doing to do differently. “I am going to hire a cleaner” or “I am going to outsource the social media for my practice.”
  • T is for Take Control. That’s when you start to implement those changes.

“You don’t have to schedule every second of your life away but for those really important non-negotiables you do need to schedule them,” Kate says. “I often say to my clients, you have to schedule in ‘me time’. That means you have to sit down and put yourself in your calendar and you need to turn up, just as if you would turn up to see a patient.”

In order to make sustainable changes, Kate recommends changing one or two things initially. “Once you start getting some wins and getting some time back, then lock in something else. Then add another. You will build momentum.

“You only live once,” she adds. “You need to really enjoy all of the aspects of your life. You want to get to a point where you can regularly reflect and think: ‘I love all of my life. I’m a great dentist and I love my job and I get a lot of self-satisfaction from that, but I also love nature and make sure I get time to go for walks.’ Or, ‘I love my kids, so I make sure I am a fantastic parent.’

“You need to understand all the things you enjoy doing and then allocate time to them because you want to have success over all the aspects of your life. You don’t want to get to the end of life and just say: ‘I was amazing at doing root canals’ – there is more to life than that.”

The coach

Rob Taylor, director of Taylor Medical Coaching, is a coach and mentor in the healthcare field.

He says the trick towards achieving a healthy work-life balance is working out your priorities. “Work-life balance can mean something very different to different people,” he says.

“We can’t say ‘cut back your hours’ because that is not always possible or financially available. Instead, it is important to take a look at how you spend your day. We all have 24 hours in a day, so why is it that some people have heaps of time and others say they never have enough?”

Identify where you spend your time
Rob suggests getting out a whiteboard or piece of paper and drafting a “mind map”, listing what is important to you. “It might be family and friends, it might be study or fitting in pro bono work,” he says.

“Once you have identified what is important to you, then you can look at what is out of balance. For many of us, one aspect usually stands out. Then we use solution-focused brief therapy (a goal-directed model in counselling), which helps identify what is important to you and your goal.”

Plan your time
Once you have established which area of your life is important to you, one of the most effective ways to help achieve the balance between work and life is to carefully plan out your time.

“Get out your calendar and put in your work or study,” Rob says. “But also factor in time for you and your family and treat these as appointments, just like a patient is waiting for you. Schedule things such as walking the dog or spending time with the family.

“Sometimes by the time we get home from work, we can fall into the easy things, such as the internet or watching tv and then suddenly the day is gone.”

Prioritise caring for yourself
Booking out time for yourself should be listed in your calendar as a non-negotiable appointment.

“I think dentists are more community-connected to people; they are more in-tune with their patients, but sometimes because they are so eager to make their patient comfortable, they switch off on themselves,” Rob says.

“Book in a massage – even just shoulders and neck – once a month, and schedule it in your calendar as mandatory,” he advises. “Also book in your calendar time for exercise or to go to the gym.”

Have a transition between work and home
He says it is also important to have a transition time between work and home. “If you catch public transport or drive home, use that time to debrief, so by the time you get home you are more relaxed.

“It can be unfair to expect our partners or friends to understand what happens at work – or they might be tempted to solve a problem, when you just want someone to listen. If you go directly home and you haven’t completely debriefed from the day, you can say: ‘I have had a rough day, give me half an hour,’ and go for a walk or go outside.”

The relationship expert

Finding some balance between work and life is also important for your relationships, says Fiona Bennett, manager and counsellor at the West Leederville branch of Relationships Australia WA.

“What we know is that when one partner in particular is more focused on work or their professional life more than the other, the other person feels like they don’t matter,” she says.

“What we notice when that balance starts to change is their partner starts feeling like they are important, and that connection that grows again is very fulfilling for both partners in the relationship.

“Likewise with friends; we all have times we need to cancel because something has come up at work, but when that becomes the usual pattern, the other person can think that something is not quite right,” she adds.

Fiona says it is important to have conversations about finding the balance between work and life with your partner. “Often the partner will respect the other person’s professional life or their job and have an understanding that to do the job well takes time,” she says.

It’s important to have patience because what is “balance” to you will change as your life moves into different stages. “You enter a new relationship, or you have children or children leaving home, so it is important to bear in mind it will be a continuum over time. You think you are in some balance for a while and then suddenly it isn’t working as well.

“Give yourself that time to step back and access how that balance or integration is working. It is a continuing check-in with yourself when you ask: ‘Is this working for me at the moment?’