The oral health workforce is facing a significant challenge: burnout. This issue has wide-ranging implications, including high employee turnover, increased absenteeism, and even depression. Furthermore, burnout has been linked to a higher risk of medical errors, which raises concerns about patient safety.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem of burnout, particularly for healthcare workers directly involved in patient care. Oral health providers, in particular, faced a heightened risk of COVID-19 infection due to their exposure to respiratory aerosols and spatter during dental procedures.
A recent report by the Oral Health Workforce Research Center (OHWRC) at the University at Albany’s Center for Health Workforce Studies (CHWS) sheds light on the prevalence and effects of burnout and stress among the oral health workforce in safety-net dental organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Researchers collaborated with the Health Choice Network to analyze a 2021 online survey of clinicians working in 25 community health centers across the United States.
The survey revealed that oral health providers reported alarmingly high levels of burnout, comparable to other medical providers involved in patient care. Of the oral health providers surveyed, 79.3% reported experiencing burnout, a rate similar to that of primary care providers (80.1%) and mental/behavioral health providers (76.2%).
To gain further insights, OHWRC researchers conducted key-informant interviews with individuals in different positions at safety-net dental organizations throughout the United States in 2022. The interviews aimed to gather information about the impact of COVID-19-related stressors on dental staff members’ stress and anxiety levels, as well as to ascertain if burnout and stress affected employee recruitment and retention.
At the organizational level, reported stressors primarily revolved around obtaining an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), implementing new clinical protocols, reallocating clinicians to nontraditional roles, and dealing with workforce shortages. On an individual level, the most common stressors were related to childcare, particularly for single parents, with women disproportionately affected. In fact, the lack of childcare emerged as one of the main reasons why dental assistants and hygienists decided to leave their jobs.
Jean Moore, the Director of CHWS, emphasizes the importance of not only recognizing burnout but also understanding the underlying reasons behind it. By identifying specific stressors, strategies can be developed and implemented at both organizational and personal levels to mitigate burnout among oral health providers.
In response to these stressors, organizations have implemented various strategies to support work-life balance among their staff. These include providing more time off, offering extra pay, allowing for increased break time, and offering greater work schedule flexibility for parents.
To access the complete report, interested parties can visit the CHWS website. For more information about the Oral Health Workforce Research Center, visit www.oralhealthworkforce.org.
It is worth noting that this research was made possible with support from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which provided a grant totaling $450,000. The opinions expressed in the report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of HRSA, HHS, or the US Government. For more information, please visit HRSA.gov.