Hygienists need time to allow the body to repair itself
ANNE NUGENT GUIGNON
A couple of months ago a very intense debate erupted on a dental hygiene Facebook site. The discussion revolved around how many days a week everyone worked, and the relationship regarding whether or not they felt burned out physically or mentally.
The reported number of days per week was all over the map. While there were lots of opposing points of view, no one really got to the heart of the matter. The number of days per week worked is a huge generalization. The basic discussion should have been around how many hours a day and how many hours a week.
As I reread the 190 entries, I was struck by the fact that some were very smug about their hours, others felt sad or inadequate, some were quite superior, and others came across as invincible, proudly announcing they have worked six days a week for decades and have never had an ache or pain. One woman even boasted she worked from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. four days a week plus an additional six hours on Saturday and Sunday three times a month, which comes to 58 to 70 hours a week.
Barbara Casort, RDH, chimed in with some sage advice. "The important thing to remember is to take time for yourself and your family. You will not lie on your deathbed and think, Gosh, I wish I had taken on just one more patient."
Before you start patting yourself on the back or feeling bad about how much you are or are not working, step back and understand that everyone's body is different, everybody's financial situation is different, everyone's office setting is different, and everyone is at a different point in their lives.
Some have horrible equipment, impossible schedules, no time for breaks, and huge drama at the office. If you're pregnant or the solo breadwinner, there is even more stress. Others have fabulous equipment, loupes and a headlight, a saddle, wonderful power scalers, enough sharp instruments, a full-time dedicated assistant, and all the time they need to provide quality care in a serene and supportive environment.
There are other factors besides the number of hours that weigh into the scenario. Some work straight through their days without a break. Ergonomists know that breaks are needed to give muscles time to recuperate and repair. There are those who work 10- or 12-hour days to either boost their earnings or have more time off, but research shows this can be a dangerous tradeoff.
Again, the dental hygienist's body needs time for rest and repair. Other things to consider are patient load, appointment time frame, difficulty or intensity of the task, room layout, and emotional climate of the practice. Add some fuel to the fire if your diet is less than stellar, you're not well rested, or you're not exercising enough.
When you consider the effects of dental hygiene on your body, what you do the rest of the day impacts your body. Driving to work an hour each way creates physical and mental stress. Are you going home to four hours of childcare and housework? Even though we all need time off, leisure activities play a role as well. Muscles and bones don't know that the neck stress is coming from hunching over your personal portable device, or that your fingers are aching because you're gripping the handlebars of your bike too tightly. The human body needs rest.
Jeanne Graham, RDH, started practicing 46 years ago. She maintained a full-time clinical career, minus a few short years off to care for her young children, and time off to recover from a fall in the dental office. "I loved my dental hygiene career. It brought many benefits. But, yes, I would have traded a less damaged body for fewer dollars if I'd known then what I know now." She went on to say, "I didn't have good stool options or loupes or a light. I believe they would have helped, but not prevented the plain old wear and tear. We think we're invincible, and we're not."
Jeri Hozey, RDH, offered an interesting perspective. "Working 40 to 50 hours a week when you're in your 20s may be the physical equivalent of 30 hours a week in your 50s. Bottom line - realize things will change as the years go by. The way you practiced at 25 may not be the way you can comfortably treat patients when you're 55. Plan for it."
Regardless of the forum, many hygienists report physical pain or discomfort. Several years ago, I did a huge research project with Cindy Purdy, RDH, BS. There were over 1,200 participants from all over North America. Fifty-one percent reported one or more workplace-related injuries or disorders, and another 19% worried about getting hurt. All of those numbers are underreported. It's a sad commentary on the health status of dental hygienists.
The best advice overall is to strive to live a balanced life in every sense of the word-physically, mentally, spiritually, and financially. Far too many hygienists have sacrificed their health for the sake of the practice or patients, without facing the fact that their bodies will eventually break. That's a high price to pay.
Money can't buy health, and it can't be the basis of your comfort zone. You're never going to be paid enough to get hurt. Just ask an injured colleague. RDH
ANNE NUGENT GUIGNON, RDH, MPH, CSP, provides popular programs, including topics on biofilms, power driven scaling, ergonomics, hypersensitivity, and remineralization. Recipient of the 2004 Mentor of the Year Award and the 2009 ADHA Irene Newman Award, Anne has practiced clinical dental hygiene in Houston since 1971, and can be contacted at [email protected].