Dr Anikó Ball on mental wellbeing in the dental profession

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Dr Anikó Ball
Dr Anikó Ball has shifted the focus of her posture workshops to a broader focus on wellbeing. Photo: Eamon Gallagher

Recent years have seen Dr Anikó Ball educating the dental profession about the importance of posture and ergonomics, but now she’s on a new education
mission—all about mental wellbeing. By John Burfitt

Over recent years, Dr Anikó Ball has been on a mission to change the experience of being a dentist in Australia, and it’s with a sense of satisfaction the Melbourne practitioner can report the local dental profession has come a long way in this regard.

Dr Ball has long been a committed advocate of the importance of improving posture and ergonomics within dentistry. Her goal is to equip practitioners with knowledge about how to protect their spines and joints to ensure career longevity. 

It’s a topic Dr Ball is all too familiar with, as back in 2008 she was told she needed to give up her career due to chronic back pain and would require surgery. After changing her work postures through studying the Alexander technique—a process that retrains habitual patterns of movement and posture —Dr Ball was able to return to her career as a practitioner.

She eventually gave up practise to instead open Optimum Dental Posture, a training agency specialising in reducing the risk of work-related injuries in the dental profession. She has become an in-demand facilitator running courses and workshops as well as speaking at various dental conferences.

“I have been talking to people in all areas of dentistry about this for six years, and now dentists have become much more aware about the importance of all this,” Dr Ball says. “When I started, I had to convince a lot of them about how harmful work postures and the ergonomics of their clinic could be doing them long-term damage. These days, I find most don’t need any convincing and just want to know more information.”

New focus

So in recent times, Dr Ball has embarked on a new mission to confront a major issue that has been impacting dentists for the entire 44 years she’s worked in the dental game—and for many years before that as well. 

That mission is to address mental wellbeing and stress management in dentistry. Dr Ball says the seeds of her interest in these areas were planted way back. 

I recall, just as I was ready to graduate from the University of Melbourne back in 1976, being stunned reading studies about Victorian dentists, and realising I was about to graduate into a profession that had a high suicide rate and a range of other high-stress related illnesses.

Dr Anikó Ball, founder, Optimum Dental Posture

“I recall, just as I was ready to graduate from the University of Melbourne back in 1976, being stunned reading studies about Victorian dentists, and realising I was about to graduate into a profession that had a high suicide rate and a range of other high-stress related illnesses,” she says. 

Career-associated mental health risks in dentistry have attracted greater awareness in recent years. The US publication Journal of Affective Disorders in 2011 found the risk of suicide increased among all health professionals, with dentists rated highest of this group at 7.18 per cent for men and women combined. 

Even with such targeted campaigns like R U OK? Day and Beyond Blue programs, Dr Ball believes that taking care of mental wellbeing and exploring methods of stress management is not something the dental profession has done particularly well.

“While the message about the need for better ergonomics seemed to have broken through, I knew that it was time to do something about mental wellbeing as the profession needs it,” she says. “My motto has long been, ‘Take care of yourself as you are your most precious instrument’. I’ve often seen dentists who take better care of their cars and their handpieces than themselves.”

Dr Ball re-structured her existing Ergonomics in Dentistry two-day workshops to incorporate mental health modules that she had developed from her studies in hypnosis and mind-body calming techniques. The modules address the main causes of stress in dentistry, such as dealing with agitated clients, time management, along with the physical stress of conducting often complex procedures in typically confined spaces. 

Stress-relief strategies

The toughest aspect of all, Dr Ball believes, is dentists having to deal frequently with a sense of rejection by one patient after another, who announce they hate coming to the dentist and would rather be anywhere other than in the chair.

“That is just so depressing to hear day after day, but that’s reality for many dentists and it is tough encountering that kind of engagement,” she says. “If you take all of that on, you would leave the clinic at the end of each day thinking many of your patients hate you or that they are difficult people you don’t want to work with.

“A lot of the dentists I’ve worked with say they’ve never been trained in communication and self-care skills, which is why it’s so important to develop the tools that help deal with such situations. That way, you don’t take that kind of negativity on board and know how to respond in an easier, more appropriate manner.”

My motto has long been, ‘Take care of yourself as you are your most precious instrument’. I’ve often seen dentists who take better care of their cars and their handpieces than themselves.

Dr Anikó Ball, founder, Optimum Dental Posture

One example she cites is when a dentist has a frightened patient in the chair, whose fear then manifests in defensive and hostile behaviour. 

“I train dentists to look past that facade, see the frightened person underneath, and allow their compassion to be activated, and start applying calming techniques for themselves and the patient,” she says. “That might be achieved through the dentist changing the tone and speed of their voice, running through calming affirmations in their own head and doing a few minutes of breathing exercises with the patient. It becomes a matter of knowing your stress signs, and then responding accordingly.”

She then laughs, “I love using analogies in training, so I always say stress reduction is like using an air conditioner. On a 40-degree day, you don’t wait until it is boiling hot to turn it on—you do so as soon as it starts getting warm. It’s the same with these techniques when dealing with patients and stress. The more you use these strategies, the easier it becomes.”

Meeting the need

She says the response has been overwhelmingly positive about the need for this training as the awareness of mental health and wellbeing has grown exponentially across recent years. “Dental associations have shown a strong interest in this area,” she says, adding that she has also presented on this topic at university dental schools in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.

The interest from dental schools in ergonomics and wellness particularly highlights how much change is taking place within dentistry. “It was the student societies that requested I present this year and hopefully run the workshops into the future,” she says. “So, the demand is growing with the new graduates coming through the ranks, understanding they need this training now rather than later.”

The impact of COVID-19 and all the associated shutdowns meant all scheduled workshops since March had to be postponed. Dr Ball is currently adjusting her training programs to present them online in a series of webinars, workshops and one-on-one coaching, that she plans to have running by the end of the year.

“It will initially be in small groups, so they can see the demonstrations of the postural work, and I can keep an eye on how the participants are going as well,” she says. “I am finding the wellness training module lends itself very well to online training, and as there has been great interest and response to all this by the dentists who understand why it’s so needed, especially in present times, I want to keep it going.

“One thing this year has taught all of us is the importance of taking care of yourself, and how to do that is so important in challenging times. Driving your body and mind in the wrong gear creates real problems—at all levels. If your mental health is not in good shape, then you will have a tough time helping yourself or other people. Like everything else, it requires constant maintenance.” 

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