Professional Courtesy: Burned Out or Still Burning Bright? by Dr. Thomas Giacobbi

Professional Courtesy: Burned Out or Still Burning Bright?

by Thomas Giacobbi, DDS, FAGD, editorial director

Here we are in the heart of summer—the season forever imprinted on our brains as a time to recharge, take a break and enjoy the outdoors. Of course, life is not the same after you finish your education; there is work to be done and a team that counts on you to provide a living wage. But for some, the heat of the summer sun is a reminder that burnout is all too real and closer than we thought.

Reality crushed my summer daydream when I read “Zero Motivation,” a recent thread on Dentaltown’s online message boards. The title provides a strong clue to the nature of the conversation, and it’s just one of a series of discussions that have proliferated since the pandemic descended on our happy little lives more than two years ago.

The familiar refrains land in a few clear categories:
  • Lack of satisfaction with dentistry as a profession.
  • An inability to have a work/life balance.
  • A temptation to lock the doors and retire early.
Reading this conversation, I quickly realized that it could’ve been written be any group of professionals sharing their collective frustrations. Dentistry is difficult, but find a group of lawyers, physicians, architects, etc., and they’ll likely have some frustrations in common.

First, know you’re not alone. It’s more important than ever to address your mental health as you would your physical health. Find a daily practice that allows you to relieve your stress or a mechanism to discuss your professional frustrations, because keeping these feelings inside will slowly destroy you.

Another common approach to addressing professional frustration is to imagine your life after dentistry. How would you feel after the sale of the practice? What would change in your financial strategies, daily routines, etc.? Then decide what you would do next. This is a critical piece, because I bet that many people find the next thing isn’t all that great either. If they went to work for an insurance company processing dental claims, for example, what are the hours? Would they have the freedom to take time off? Would the isolation become a problem eventually?

Even if you’re already at retirement age, you need a plan for how you’ll spend your time. Many people retire with no such plan, and the first year is great but by year two they sink into a depression because they’ve lost their identity and purpose in life. The “grass is greener” concept is certainly at play here, and I believe one of the best ways to address that deep desire for a drastic change in your practice is to think of the extreme options.

For example, I can still remember opening my practice 20 years ago with two team members and only one patient on the schedule on the first day. I wanted to do anything I could to have two patients, then three, and so on. Fast-forward to a mature practice of seven operatories with four hygienists and two dentists, and there are days when that startup seemed like a lot of fun!

Some dentists like to imagine dropping all their insurances or cutting their team size in half because fewer employees mean fewer problems. However, you’ll find a point where you are doing very little and making even less, so your new problem becomes paying your bills and supporting your family. Well, at least you don’t have any stress at work!

I think the obvious lesson in addressing our practice stress and professional discontent is to find balance. You can always change things in your practice, but you should change things in your personal life as well. New projects, skills and challenges will often provide the stimulation needed to see your work day in a different light.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to adjust my vision of life after dentistry. I will try to have a well-considered plan before I make any drastic life changes. For now, I’m taking piano lessons, though I have never played a musical instrument in my life.

Do you have a story to share with your strategies for dealing with the stress of this profession? Share your comments below. You also can reach me via email at

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