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Post–COVID-19: Do you feel safe?

Aug. 14, 2020
During this stressful time, do you feel safe going to work every day? Do you feel safe in your dental operatory? Here are some ways you can cope with your own fears so you can begin to help your team cope with theirs.

Dear colleagues, do you feel safe?

As clinicians, we’re steadfast in our commitment to put the safety of our patients first. We gear up in our personal protective equipment (PPE), preach prevention to all who will listen, and do our darndest to be the creative artists we are in restoring the tooth to its anatomically correct design. We go above and beyond to make our patients feel safe—protected even—as we provide extra physical comforts such as massage chairs, personalized video entertainment, and warm blankets. We look our patient in the eye and smile, perhaps even giving a light physical touch of assurance, and we spend an extra moment (the one we truly don’t have) to ensure that even the most fearful patient feels safe in our dental op.

But do you feel safe in your operatory? 

As we navigate the onslaught challenges and here-to-stay nature of what we now know as SARS-CoV-2, we’ve discovered a most frightening fact: our beloved dental op now not only feels unsafe for our patients but for ourselves too. 

It’s not just the anxiety of working in an industry that tops the list of “the most dangerous jobs” that creates this fear deep within. It’s the risk that we could unknowingly spread COVID-19 to our partner, our children, our aging parents. We’ve chosen a career in dentistry to help others—but what if this career might actually harm those closest to us?

Do you feel safe going to work tomorrow?

For many, the answer is a resounding no. Even if we get past the initial anxiety of seeing that very first patient, even if we get through consecutive days of seeing a full schedule of patients, even if we return to some semblance of postpandemic normal, chances are we’re simply coping just enough to make it through. We’re simply gritting our teeth and pushing ahead to do what’s “best” for our patients, practices, and loved ones. Chances are we’re doing this because we feel like there is no other choice.

But we know this better than anyone—gritting our teeth can have negative effects on a person. We understand that gritting, clenching, grinding, bruxism, and other parafunctional habits are the body’s natural response to feelings of anxiety. In essence, you and your team may be living in that constant fight-or-flight mode in which the sympathetic nervous system makes us hyperaware, on edge, and ready to protect ourselves at a moment’s notice, while gritting our teeth both figuratively and literally. In these circumstances, we must understand that living in a constant state of flight-or-fight can make a person, or a team, unpredictable. We may act out, get verbally or physically abusive, or even retreat and freeze.

It’s times like this—when we are daily faced with fear, challenges, and the unknown ... when we are faced with an unending barrage of moral dilemmas—that we become the most vulnerable. If we aren’t careful, our actions could cause deep pain, moral injury, loss of hope, struggle, and even more fear to those around us.

So, what can we do? 

Sometimes, in order to help navigate the future, we have to rediscover the past. Think back to when you were a young child. What did you do when you were afraid of the dark? Where did you retreat to when you were scared of a stranger? What physical comforts did you run to when you were sad? Was it the loving arms of a parent? Did you snuggle up in a heavy blanket? Perhaps listen to your favorite song? Or did you remember what it looked like when the fireflies danced on a warm summer evening?

We learn how to help ourselves feel safe from an early age. Take, for instance, my daughter Maggie. Stunningly self-aware, she’s been an “old soul” since birth. When she was four, she identified her most significant self-comforting measure, which she calls her “field of surround.” At four years old, Maggie was able to recognize that physically surrounding herself by something—a blanket, piles of books, or even a hug—helped her to feel safe. She took a pivotal step at that point in self-awareness. As her parent, encouraging her budding emotional maturity is now often a matter of helping her recognize those types of situations that make her feel unsafe and make her want to retreat to her “field of surround.”

Sometimes, identifying situations that make you feel unsafe can be the most difficult part of the whole process. As we reenter the dental op in a collective moment of fear, we must understand how we are processing the situation individually. We must take the focus off our patients for a brief moment and focus on ourselves. 

What makes you feel safe?

Let’s rephrase that. What makes you feel unsafe? Is it having to reuse your N95 mask until it smells? Is it providing services that generate aerosols? Is it just stepping foot into the dental op? Is it simply getting physically close to another human?

When you reach that pivotal moment wherein you discover the trigger that makes you feel unsafe, instead of gritting your teeth, own it. And then, identify your personal “field of surround.” What can you do to help yourself feel safe in that moment? Can you take a deep breath? Can you practice positive motivational self-talk and tell yourself “I am fine; I will thrive”? Can you stretch for a minute, call a loved one, or smell a cup of freshly brewed coffee?

How can you help your team?

Once you’ve identified your fears, the final step is to help your team navigate through their fears and fear processes. Here’s the thing: we’re in an unprecedented and dire “put your own oxygen mask on first” situation. And once you do, it is your responsibility as employer, CEO, manager, leader, or clinical provider to guide the rest of your team to feel safe and secure. The bottom line is, if you want your dental practice, team, and patients to thrive, you must take the lead by identifying your own fears and then owning them.

Let this be a call to action. Become the leader you know you are. Identify your fears. Discover what makes you feel safe. And then help others do the same. The time is now. Evolve. Lead. Thrive. Let’s do this. 

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Through the Loupes newsletter, a publication of the Endeavor Business Media Dental Group. Read more articles at this link and subscribe here.

Melissa Turner, BASDH, RDHEP, EFDA, an award-winning thought leader, influencer, and dental advisor, is a cocreator of careforabettertomorrow.com, an alliance of leading brands and companies committed to improving the dental experience for both patient and provider. She is chief hygiene officer for Cellerant Consulting and is a nationally published author and speaker. Cofounder of the National Mobile & Teledentistry Conference and the American Mobile & Teledentistry Alliance, Turner is the creator of the I Heart Mobile DentistryFacebook group and is affectionately known on Instagram as @thetoothgirl. She can be reached at [email protected].
About the Author

Melissa Turner, BASDH, RDHEP, EFDA

Melissa Turner, BASDH, RDHEP, EFDA,is an award-winning thought leader, influencer, dental advisor, and cocreator ofCare for a Better Tomorrow—an alliance of leading dental brands and industry experts committed to reimagining a better tomorrow. She is chief hygiene officer forCellerant Consultingand is a nationally published author and speaker. Cofounder of theNational Mobile & Teledentistry Conferenceand theAmerican Mobile & Teledentistry Alliance, Turner is creator of the I Heart Mobile DentistryFacebook community and is affectionately known on Instagram as @thetoothgirl. She can be reached at[email protected].