Prioritizing Self-Care: Why Putting Your Own Oxygen Mask on First is Vital

Rebecca Herring, FAADOM, with Real-World Insights.


We have all heard airplane safety instructions: “In an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.”

This may seem counterintuitive or selfish, but it makes sense. If you are not breathing, you cannot help anyone else.

The same principle applies to dental team members and their self-care. If you are not caring for your physical, mental, and emotional well-being, you cannot provide the best care for your patients, colleagues, and family.

The Risks of Burnout and Perfectionism in Dentistry

Dentistry is a demanding and stressful profession, and the risk of burnout is becoming more and more common. Dental team members face many challenges, such as high expectations, time pressure, infection control, patient anxiety, financial issues, legal liability and team member conflicts, and personal struggles at home and in their personal lives.

These challenges can take a toll on their health and happiness, leading to burnout, mental and physical fatigue, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and worse, even suicide.

One of the factors that can contribute to burnout and stress in dentistry is perfectionism.

Many dental team members have high standards and strive for excellence in their work. While this can be a positive trait, it can also become problematic when it leads to unrealistic or rigid expectations. This can also cause team members and leaders to succumb to self-criticism, rise in fear of failure, and procrastination.

Perfectionism can also affect the working relationships and communication among dental team members, which can cause resentment, frustration, and blame.

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The Benefits of Self-Care and Teamwork in Dentistry

Some of us may consider self-care a luxury or a sign of weakness, but we must view it as a necessity and a responsibility for ourselves and our dental team members. Self-care means caring for your needs and well-being to function optimally and cope with stress.

Self-care can include physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual aspects, such as eating well, sleeping enough, exercising regularly, relaxing, meditating, seeking support, expressing emotions, having hobbies, and setting boundaries. Just like putting on your oxygen mask, how can you help, teach, and guide others on your team or your personal life if you aren’t at your best?

Self-care can help dental team members prevent or reduce burnout, improve their mood and performance, and enhance their resilience and creativity at work and home.

Self-care can also benefit patients, as dental team members who are healthy and happy can provide a better quality of care, show empathy, and communicate effectively with patients and fellow team members.

Self-care does not necessarily mean dental team members must do everything independently. Teamwork is an essential component of self-care and dentistry. Dental team members work together to provide comprehensive and coordinated patient care and support each other in their professional and personal growth.

Teamwork can foster a positive and collaborative work environment where dental team members respect, trust, and appreciate all while learning from each other.

Teamwork can also help dental team members cope with stress and challenges. Building upon those bonds of trust and support, they often share their feelings, ideas, and solutions and offer encouragement and assistance to each other.

Teamwork can also make dentistry more enjoyable and rewarding. Team members can celebrate their achievements, have fun, and build friendships. If someone is struggling and having a difficult day, the team is also there to build them up and offer assistance when someone on their team needs them most.

How to Put Your Mask on First

Putting your mask on first does not mean neglecting or ignoring the needs of others. It means prioritizing and balancing your own needs with the needs of others and recognizing and respecting your limits and boundaries.

Putting your own mask on first also means being proactive and intentional about self-care and teamwork and seeking help when needed.

Here are some tips on how to put your mask on first as a dental team member:

  1. Check in with yourself regularly and honestly. Ask yourself how you feel, what you need, and what is working and not working for you. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of burnout, such as exhaustion, suspicion, detachment, irritability, lack of interest, inefficiency, and frustration.
  2. Develop a self-care plan that suits your needs and preferences. Identify the activities and strategies that help you relax, recharge, cope, and grow. Schedule time for self-care in your daily or weekly routine, and stick to it. Treat self-care as a priority, not an option.
  3. Ask for help when you need it. Do not hesitate to reach out to your colleagues, friends, family, mentors, coaches, counselors, or other professionals for support, advice, and guidance. You are not alone and do not have to suffer in silence.
  4. Look for the positive. Express gratitude, appreciation, recognition, and praise to yourself and others. Give and receive compliments, feedback, and encouragement. Celebrate your achievements, milestones, and successes, whether big or small. Focus on your strengths, values, and goals and how you can use them to make a difference.
  5. Be flexible and realistic. Accept that you are not perfect and that you cannot control everything. Learn from your mistakes, failures, and challenges and use them as opportunities for improvement and growth. Set reasonable and attainable goals and expectations for yourself and others. Be open to change, feedback, and new ideas.
  6. Have fun and enjoy your work. Find joy and meaning in what you do and why you do it. Remember your passion and purpose for dentistry and how you can impact the lives of your patients. Engage in activities and hobbies that make you happy and fulfilled. Laugh, smile, and have a good time with your colleagues, friends, and family.

Dental team members are valuable and vital members of the healthcare system and deserve to be healthy and happy. By putting their masks on first, they can care for themselves and others and provide the best care possible. Self-care and teamwork are good for the dental team members, the patients, the practice, and the profession.

So, put your mask on first, and breathe easy.


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About the Author


Rebecca Herring, FAADOM, profile picture.
Rebecca Herring, FAADOM

Rebecca is a Chief Operations Officer and dental coach focused on transforming team members using their skills to enhance and develop their current skill sets. Rebecca is focused on empowering her team members and clients to make decisions and take actions that bring them closer to their ultimate vision by being a positive team motivator.

She is focused on increasing front office protocols, refining the fundamental solutions to develop a patient centered and customer service driven practice without sacrificing service-oriented care. Rebecca is known for showing teams how to transform team members’ best intentions into enduring relationships that result in trust, treatment, health, productivity and profit.

Rebecca has worked as a front desk coordinator, insurance specialist, office manager, practice administrator, Director of Operations and Chief Operations Officer. Her 15+ years in the dental field brings firsthand knowledge of what it takes to be successful.

Rebecca has provided leadership and transformational training to small and large practices and empowers teams and individuals to maximize their potential. She helps them identify their (often) hidden potential and cultivate growth strategies to propel them to their potential greatness. Rebecca is focused on creative communication and leadership to empower dental professionals with proven, effective, and easy-to-implement strategies for success and profitability.

She is a Lifetime member of the American Association of Dental Office Managers (AADOM), is acting Vice President for her local AADOM chapter, attained her Fellowship with AADOM in 2023 and will graduate with her Masters in September 2024.


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