Maintaining a healthy workplace should be a priority of every dental practice in Australia. By Kerryn Ramsey
In 2018, Queensland dentist Dr Julee Birch noticed that there seemed to be more and more angst among dental practitioners. This owner and principal practitioner at More Smiles in Mountain Creek believed that conversations between professionals needed to be encouraged in order to aid mental wellbeing.
“A friend showed me a UK dentists mental health Facebook page called Mental Dental,” recalls Dr Birch. “They had 6000 members and it seemed a very effective way to reach people. Facebook often gets a bad rap but I saw the potential to do something good. I started a group called The Mental Block for Australian and New Zealand dental professionals in April of 2018. Today, we have over 1200 members.”
The Mental Block is a place for practitioners to support others in this field. It’s not a place for professional mental health advice or counselling but a chance to talk with someone who has walked in your shoes.
“Often dentists are already seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist when they join the group, yet they still want to be heard by other dentists,” says Dr Birch. “Occasionally, I’ll get a request from someone to post anonymously because they are in a group practice and don’t want to be identified by associates or staff. The only way to overcome the stigma attached to mental illness is through education.”
It should be noted that the group is limited to dentists practising in Australia and New Zealand; you need to be registered with AHPRA to join the group. Dr Birch has been forced to deny applications from dental students due to the fact that they have different pressures to practitioners. She would like to see a similar Facebook group set up for students but, currently, no-one has taken that step so far.
“We are in a caring profession,” says Dr Birch. “It’s unsurprising that mental illness is so prevalent in dentistry—it goes with the territory. There are pressures beyond our control, limited hours in the day and only so much energy to go around. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback about The Mental Block and many dentists have said it really helped them. I hope that’s true. I’m just doing my best to help my fellows.”
We know that dentists live with high levels of stress and burnout so it’s important they monitor themselves for any signs of mental illness. Ideally, a practice should be a mentally healthy working environment with procedures in place to support any staff member needing help. The sad truth is that the Black Dog Institute has found that mental illness is the leading cause of sickness, absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia.
Dr Aimee Gayed, a psychologist at the Black Dog Institute, has put together guidelines to help support staff in the workplace. This is particularly relevant as we struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The most important thing is to be engaged with the people who surround you. After all, mental illness flourishes when individuals feel unsupported or isolated. It’s important to schedule regular catch-ups with your team. “Having regular contact with your team means you’re in tune to pick up those little changes that can indicate someone’s having a particularly hard time,” says Dr Gayed.
Watch for signs of struggle or a change in mood or attitude among staff. Issues such as a different body language or a decrease in productivity can be a warning sign that something isn’t right. “Regular check-ins in a one-on-one capacity makes discussions easier,” says Dr Gayed.
If an employee is struggling, business owners need to be empathic and flexible by providing support in the workplace and beyond. This could mean approving requests for leave or modifying working hours or duties. These steps can immediately help reduce pressure. If professional help is required, don’t attempt to counsel—simply support and assist.
Most importantly, keep an eye on your own mental health. It’s all too easy for practice owners to become engrossed with other people’s problems. Stay in contact with your feelings and have regular catch-ups with a friend or trusted colleague. If this is impossible, online support such as The Mental Block is invaluable.
“A healthy lifestyle will definitely aid your mental health,” says Dr Leanne Beagley, CEO of Mental Health Australia. “It’s equally important to keep an eye on colleagues, especially when people are working long hours in high-stress environments.”
While mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is vitally important, it also makes good economic sense. Research shows that investment in mental health not only helps the individual employees but can also benefit culture and the bottom line.
“Mental health in the workplace should never just be about an organisation’s bottom line but there are clear economic incentives for employers to take care of their employees’ wellbeing,” says Dr Beagley. “Our Investing to Save report from 2018 highlighted the huge economic benefits of creating a mentally healthy workplace, not the least of which is increased productivity.”
Mental Health Australia is part of the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance. It has produced and contributed to multiple resources available to employers on how to support the mental health of their employees. It also leads the annual World Mental Health Day campaign on 10 October.
“The one thing that can’t be emphasised enough is that seeking help is one of the most important responses to mental ill-health,” says Dr Beagley. “The earlier you seek help and support, the earlier you can start to work on your recovery.”
Mentally healthy workplace resources
The Mental Block Facebook page: www.facebook.com/groups/174664313348067/
Black Dog Institute: www.blackdoginstitute.org.au
Mental Health Australia: mhaustralia.org
The Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance: mentallyhealthyworkplacealliance.org.au
World Mental Health Day: 1010.org.au