Reinvest in yourself to stay excited and fulfilled in your hygiene career
by Jodie Heimbach, RDH, BS
Life has changed considerably since 2020. In dental practices alone, we made it to the other side of a lengthy deadly pandemic that affected our physical and mental health leading to team shortages, anxious patients, and thrusting more layers of PPE upon us. As it stands, dental hygiene can already feel isolating—especially if you’re the only hygienist in the entire practice. It’s no wonder so many dental hygienists currently endure unsettling feelings of burnout, hopelessness or even just plain boredom. If you can relate to this, it’s understandable that you might be looking outside of your practice or even outside the hygiene profession for a change.
When I think of the personal and professional fulfillment being a dental hygienist has given me, I think about how every patient I have treated has enriched my life in one way or another by sharing their stories, hobbies, recipes, vacation experiences, photos of their children and grandchildren, and so much more. I also think about the numerous lives I have positively impacted. I think about when I treated a particular cigarette-smoking patient who was morbidly obese and had severe periodontal disease. We detailed her current dental prognosis and talked with her about all of the various factors negatively impacting the health of her teeth. Flash forward six months after her completed periodontal surgery and not only did we improve her periodontal health, but she had quit smoking and started exercising regularly. This patient truly turned her life and health around and our team had a major part in it.
I’ve also thought about the frightened children who, by the end of their visit, became my biggest fans. I’ve thought about the times I took a few extra minutes to make an anxious patient feel more comfortable. And there was also the time we treated a retired physician’s wife whose extremely elevated blood pressure indicated to us that she should seek medical attention. After that, every time she and her husband visited our practice for their subsequent check-ups, her husband profusely thanked all of us for saving her life. We make a difference every day!
Remember why you chose to work in this profession in the first place. I listed a few examples of why I love dental hygiene, but I also know how hard this job can be. At times you can feel like you’re on your own little island with very few resources, and it can feel so frustrating. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can find your spark again. I’m happy to share with you a few things you can do to help overcome professional hygiene burnout.
Join a dental hygiene study club
This is not the chore you might think it is. Yes, study clubs are mainly thought of as groups where you will learn about new techniques, products and paradigms, but the most important aspect of a study club is that it facilitates networking with other dental hygienists. Networking is vital for us because nobody on Earth can understand how we feel or what we go through in our practices like other dental hygienists.
Start by joining online groups, either on hygienetown.com or other well-known forums. Consider joining the American Dental Hygienists Association (ADHA). I have met some of my best friends through ADHA by attending its national conventions and local study club meetings. I met my best friend, who happened to also be a hygienist, at a maternity exercise class more than 35 years ago. Since then we have worked on many projects together, used each other as a sounding board, learned from each other, presented at a national conference, and were the continuing education co-chairs for the New Jersey Dental Hygiene Association for more than 10 years. Through all of the connections I have made through professional associations, there is always someone in my personal network I can reach out to for support.
Having your own professional network is so important. It can help you with clinical information, and help you think through certain work situations. When searching for any new opportunity. Whether clinical or not your network is essential. When I searched for my current position as a consultant, I reached out to many hygienists in my network. It turned out someone I had mentored a few years prior at a previous company was working with a consulting company and recommended me for a position.
Helping others can be extremely rewarding. I once mentored a hygienist on how to ask for a raise. She called me a few weeks later and told me she got a considerable raise. In fact, the dentist told her, “No one has ever asked me for a raise before or had the information that you came prepared with.” Expanding your network can lead to job satisfaction, amazing support and opportunities.
Talk about what bothers you
If you’re upset about an issue or if something (or someone) is bothering you, don’t let negativity fester inside you, talk about it with your office manager or dentist.* Problems don’t get fixed unless the entire team is on the same page and working toward eliminating them altogether (but they won’t know about these problems until you speak up). When you have these discussions, it’s important to be respectful and always bring the focus back to the “patient experience.” After all the patient is whom you go to work for every day.
Let’s say you’ve noticed patients have not been asked to update their medical history prior to their appointment or when they arrive at the office. When talking about the need for this to be done, discuss how it affects the patient’s experience. If you have to go through your patient’s medical history update while they’re sitting in your treatment room, that could take you 10 or 15 minutes to get through. Talk about being under pressure, because now you’ll either have to cut the appointment short, or you will rush your patient through the cleaning. Or it becomes a domino effect when one appointment pushes into the next.
Do not just talk about the problem. You’re the dental hygiene expert in your practice, and you know what you need in order to perform your job to the best of your ability. Discuss solutions with your office manager or dentist (e.g., asking patients to come in 15 minutes before their appointment to update their medical history) and explain why they are important.
*Of course, you could be in a toxic situation where the practice’s standard of care or its values do not align with yours at all and you aren’t able to talk freely about problems facing the practice. In that case, it’s your responsibility to seek alternative opportunities and find a better place to work in which your skills and input will be appreciated and respected.
Prioritize technology, new products and education
It can feel like a grind getting up early and going to the practice doing the same thing every day, but implementing some new technology or products or applying a new technique you learned at a seminar can help reinvigorate your day-to-day responsibilities.
Stagnation is the death of the spirit. If you aren’t consistently developing your skills or growing professionally, you’re never going to feel fulfilled no matter where you work. Negotiate with your office manager or dentist about supporting the team with an annual continuing education budget. You don’t have to look too hard to find affordable webinars or seminars you can attend to bolster your skills.
If there are any new products or technologies that you think would benefit you and everyone else in the dental practice, schedule a lunch-and-learn with a consultant or product representative so everyone can get trained and learn all about it. If you need to discuss this with practice management first, talk about how the team, practice and especially your patients will benefit from this new product. Remember to always circle back to the patient experience. If it affects a patient’s health, it’s obvious, but don’t forget that a new product or technology that can help your practice run more efficiently can also help a patient indirectly.
Some days might seem repetitive, but every patient you treat is different. To cut down on the day-to-day monotony of the job, go through each of your patients’ charts, examine their risk factors and plan on how you can help them become healthier. If you know you’re about to work with a challenging patient, discuss them with other hygienists to see what they have tried in similar situations. Seeing positive results every day will motivate not just your patients but you as well.
Remember the reasons why you were attracted to dental hygiene in the first place. Remember how hard you’ve worked to get where you are. You know firsthand that dental hygiene can be an amazing career that allows you to have a positive impact on the lives of many people every single day. What you do cannot be understated. You are part of every patient’s healthcare team. You save lives and improve the health of patients daily.
Jodie Heimbach, RDH, BS, has been a clinical dental hygienist for 31 years and is the clinical calibration coach at Productive Dentist Academy, guiding dental teams to become aligned with the standard of care. Heimbach is a past president of the New Jersey Dental Hygienists’ Association and is the recipient of the 2008 Sunstar/RDH Award of Distinction. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.