A call to action

Each dental workplace should have an identified individual who acts as a ‘mental health wellness lead’

21 June, 2021 / editorial

An initiative has been launched to encourage all dental workplaces to make mental health wellness a priority. The Mental Health Wellness strategic steering group was formed through the Dental Professional Alliance, specifically to co-design, develop and maintain a framework that encourages and enables all dental professionals to act in a timely, appropriate, and safe manner when identifying mental health wellness issues in the workplace.

The steering group has been led and chaired by Fiona Ellwood BEM DPA, a trained and practising Mental Health First Aider, and Roz McMullan, Chair of Probing Stress in Dentistry in Northern Ireland.

Why now? Mental health is never far from front page news, and it has a longstanding association with dentistry. But when you look closer this appears to be more commonly associated with dentists rather than the whole team. To anyone that understands the intricacies of being part of a dental team and especially the clinical team, it is perhaps difficult to understand why there have only ever been papers and research on dentists.

Yes, there are added pressures, but if pressures spill over it can very quickly become a team matter. Support for the whole team is varied across settings – primary and secondary care – and across team members and yet mental health knows no such boundaries, and this was the driver and start of the work from the Dental Professional Alliance.

There have been several papers produced during the pandemic about stress, anxiety, and burnout, most have again focused on the dentist. When you look to the NHS in general, it talks more broadly of frontline staff, although much has been written about the nursing teams too. Whilst we know that stress, anxiety, and burnout are not mental illnesses we know that they can add to mental health issues.

Last month, the Office for National Statistics published data on coronavirus and depression in adults, and this paints a worrying picture. Double the number of adults have experienced depression symptoms in comparison with the pre-COVID statistics1. Between January and March this year, one in five (21%) have suffered with depression symptoms, with an increase from November 2020 which was 19%. Notably, the evidence shows that 4-10 cases are young adults and female.

Coincidentally, Humphris et al2 published a paper in April looking at health and wellbeing in dental team members as an outcome of the uncertainties of the pandemic. “Of 329 respondents the researchers report that 27% appear to have reported significant depressive symptomology and 55% appear to suggest that they have suffered emotional exhaustion”. The paper suggests that primary care staff reported a higher incidence. What is of great interest are the recommendations, which clearly suggest that there could be benefit of “resourcing staff support and interventions to help team members in challenging times.”

Not only does the Humphris et al paper speak to the whole team it touches on the narrative of resourcing staff support and interventions, which takes this full circle and right back to the principles of the extensive work recently undertaken by the

Dental Professional Alliance and stakeholders, who have designed a framework introducing the need for a mental health wellness lead in every dental setting with an underlying ethos that early intervention and safe signposting is paramount.

The initial call to action from the initiative is that each dental workplace should have an identified individual who acts as a ‘mental health wellness lead’ and who, through a recognised training programme, is confident, competent and committed to improving the perception of mental health wellness in the workplace. This forms part of a six-stage process:

  • Identify mental health wellness lead
  • All members of dental team to undergo stress awareness training
  • Leads to undertake MHFA training
  • Design workplace action plan
  • Join local peer support networks
  • Complete annual training and maintain skills

Roz McMullan said: “No one should feel alone or unable to talk to someone at work and for this very reason, this call to action asks decision makers and line managers to adopt this cultural change to mental health wellness in the dental workplace and commit to the recognised training pathway.”

Fiona Ellwood added: “We want this mental health wellness initiative to deliver real change in the dental workplace through a plan of practical advice and action. We will work with partners to provide leadership, support, and direction on joint work. We will work with employers, local teams and professional partners in the UK to oversee implementation of the framework. Fundamentally, we want to see a mental health wellness lead in every practice and place of dental employment across the UK.”

The launch of the framework was welcomed by the General Dental Council (GDC). Rebecca Cooper, Head of the GDC’s Policy and Research Programme, said: “Conversations about mental health should be encouraged. Dental professionals should feel able to share their experiences and think about the steps that can be taken to improve and safeguard mental health wellness.

“Produced from within the sector, this new framework provides clear and simple everyday guidance which promotes mental health wellness for all members of the dental team. Dental professionals’ mental health plays a vital role in the provision of safe, effective, person-centred care and this framework is an important step forward.”

For more information about the initiative and how you can get involved, visit: https://mhwd.org

1Coronavirus and depression in adults, Great Britain: January to March 2021: https://tinyurl.com/du64j7zf

Exploring the Effect of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Dental Team: Preparedness, Psychological Impacts and Emotional Reactions: https://discovery.dundee.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/58285932/Humphris_et_al_Frontiers_2021.pdf

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