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Counselor's Corner: Is multitasking a burnout maker?

Sept. 5, 2019
You might think that without multitasking, your life as a dental hygienist would be over. But research suggests there is a cost to task-switching. Kandice Swarthout, RDH, LPC, looks at the science and presents three tips for staying mindful.

On a recent vacation to Negril, Jamaica, I booked an early morning massage in an outdoor hut on the edge of a cliff. The sky was a perfect color blue. The water was a turquoise I had not seen before. The waves crashed one by one on the rocks just below, where a giant sea turtle paddled along. If I listened intently enough, the sounds of birds and reggae were heard in the distance. The massage therapist had magical hands that were blessed by the heavens. It was a massage in paradise. One might think this was the perfect place to be still. More than anything, I wanted my mind to be still. Instead, the monkey mind took over this more than perfect moment. As hard as I tried to be still, my mind wandered again and again and again. My head was hijacked by thoughts of an upcoming move, whether my students received their licenses, and various streams of consciousness that had nothing to do with relaxing. Where did it all come from? Where did it start? My guess was it was born in my operatory starting somewhere around 1995 when the hygienist multitasking environment became my new way of life.

What does science say about the monkey mind and multitasking? Our human brains are not designed to truly multitask. You might be thinking that without multitasking, your life as a dental hygienist would be over. This superpower that allows for efficient patient care and the ability to do all of the duties that are required in an appointment time seems crucial to our dental life survival.

The American Psychological Association defines multitasking as “when someone tries to perform two tasks simultaneously, switch from one task to another, or perform two or more tasks in rapid succession.”1 Research shows that efficiency is compromised when subjects are forced to quickly task-switch. The more task-switches that occur while attempting to bring two or more projects to fruition, the longer it takes someone to fully complete each assignment. If the subjects focus completely on one topic before moving to the next, each project is completed in a timelier manner. It is believed that the cost of rapid shifting can be up to 40% in productivity time. (1)

If you are having a difficult time quieting your thoughts while not in the op, you may be experiencing the aftermath of multitasking. Perhaps you have trained your brain to quickly jump from one topic to the next and now live in an almost constant state of task shift. We start with health history review and are quickly onto periodontal charting or oral cancer exam. It doesn’t stop there; we do a variety of assessments and treatments all while building excellent relationships with the patients. Let us not forget the device you are using to read this article. Scrolling social media takes you quickly from one subject or image to the next without the ability for your brain to truly focus on one topic. This trains our brains to more readily engage in task jumping because new pathways of behavior are actually formed in the brain while we scroll.2 In fact, my phone has lit up with notifications at least ten times while writing this article. I am quickly pulled away from focus and have to gather myself to proceed, which wastes valuable time and energy.

This leads me to the question: Could the multitasking nature of dental hygiene be a contributing factor to clinical burnout? I believe that it is. It may seem impossible to eliminate task-switching in our world, and quite frankly it is. When we cannot change our environment, we can always change the reaction to the environment. Even though the dental hygiene process of care will continue to require swift adaptation to change, we can refocus or reframe our thoughts to stay attentive on one task at a time. Here are a few tips to gain control over a monkey mind and increase efficiency:

Compartmentalize

In psychology, compartmentalization is known as one of the classic defense mechanisms. It can be detrimental when overused in life circumstances that require emotional regulation and resiliency. When compartmentalization is used to mange a busy day, it can be quite effective in making space for task completion. Here is how it works: If I am writing this article and my phone lights up, I can simply switch my phone to silent mode and put in the back of my mind. I know that it awaits me when I am finished here, but the pull of the constant buzz or lighting up does not reduce my productivity. This proves especially helpful when I have an emotional issue going on in life that may be distracting in the work environment.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a buzzword in popular psychology, but has been used by societies for centuries. Mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention. This can come in many forms, such as yoga or medication, but for most people mindfulness is used during routine activities. This might mean that when I am taking vitals, I focus only on the vitals. When my mind wonders to the perio chart, I bring it back. It takes practice to be good at being mindful, but it is worth the mental and emotional payback. Research shows that mindfulness is an effective treatment for conditions such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and ADHD, to name a few.3

Physical activity

Exercise of any kind is a great way to refocus thoughts to the present. It allows for space to calm our minds and reenergize our bodies. If you are not already engaged in physical activity three to four times a week, seek out something that fits your lifestyle. A morning walk, a class at the gym, kettlebells, and biking are just a few of many examples. Moving your body not only helps reduce that end-of-day beat-up feeling, but also calms an overactive mind.

Overall, our lives as dental hygienists are demanding and require a lot of task-shifting to make it through the multidimensional process of care. With a few simple exercises practiced daily, you can calm your mind, reduce anxiety, and be well on your way to a long career.

References

1. Multitasking: Switching costs. https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask. Published March 20, 2006. Accessed July 18, 2019.

2. Haynes T. Dopamine, smartphones, and you. A battle for your time. Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Science in the News website. http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/. Published May 1, 2018. Accessed August 10, 2019.

3. Hanson R, Mendius R. Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. New Harbinger Publication: Oakland, CA; 2009.

Kandice Swarthout, RDH, LPC, is a full-time dental hygiene educator in Texas. Swarthout is the owner of Inspired Education & Wellness, where she combines her clinical dental and mental health experience to help other health-care professionals have a fulfilling work-life experience.