BY DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON, RDH, BS, MBA
I have been working at the same practice ever since I graduated from hygiene school 13 years ago. I have a nice boss and coworkers, but I'm starting to feel like I've hit a wall. I don't hate my job, but I don't love it anymore either. Part of my frustration is the fact that I haven't had a pay raise in three years. But that's not everything. My work has become boring and uninteresting, plus I'm starting to have neck and back pain associated with bending over patients all day. There are days when I really dread going to work.
I feel badly even writing to you, because I know I should feel grateful to have a decent job where I can earn a decent living. But when I think of the future, I really can't see me doing this work until I reach retirement age. Since I'm only 35, that means I have around 30 more working years. I'm beginning to wish I had not chosen dental hygiene as a profession, because there's no way to advance. Even if I had a four-year degree, I wouldn't make any more money.
Am I a poster child for burnout? Is there any hope for me?
Kelly, the unhappy RDH
Your post brought back memories of how I felt after 12 years of clinical hygiene. I was experiencing serious back problems that were brought on by years of repetitive stress and holding my right elbow above my patient's chest as I worked. (My teachers taught me correct ergonomics, but my posture got sloppy after school was over.) My X-rays revealed a deteriorating disc, and many trips to a chiropractor didn't help much. Like you, I was in my mid-thirties. I didn't hate my job, but I knew that if anything happened to my husband as the primary breadwinner for our family, it would be extremely difficult for me to keep doing this same work to support our family.
The addition of magnification and a headlight made a tremendous positive difference in my level of back pain. You didn't mention if you use magnification or not, but every practicing hygienist should have high-quality loupes and a headlight. Custom-fitted loupes/headlight helps you to see better inside the oral cavity, and they also help your posture.
With magnification, there's no need to do the human pretzel routine, and if you did, chances are you would be out of focus. There are a number of companies in the magnification market, but my number one choice is Designs for Vision (designsforvision.com) headquartered in Ronkonkoma, N.Y. They are the world's leading manufacturer of magnification and LED headlights in dentistry, and you won't find better quality and customer service anywhere else. So, if you don't have loupes/headlight, make this investment in your physical well-being and career longevity.
Like you, my physical pain was not my only issue. Eventually, I hit the top of my pay grade for dental hygienists, and I felt like I was stuck. With only an associate's degree in dental hygiene, there were few options other than clinical hygiene if I wanted to stay in dentistry. The only way to increase my options was to go back to school.
So, at age 39, I enrolled in an adult learning program to earn my four-year degree. I chose a business track, because I wanted to branch out into practice management consulting. One of my previous employers had hired a consultant to help in the practice, and she was able to implement some needed changes that really made a difference. (I had managed the front desk of a dental practice before I went to hygiene school, but I didn't have any formal business education.) Most of my classes were at night, so I was able to work part time and take care of my family/home, plus attend classes. It took five years. At the end, I had to complete an internship, and I narrowed my focus to dental practice management.
About that time, I was offered a part-time teaching position in a local dental hygiene program. This job, which got me out of the dental office, would have never happened without the bachelor's degree. So, teaching for me was a stepping stone in the journey to becoming a business owner. Then I decided to earn an MBA, which took an additional two years. It was challenging but worth every penny I spent. Earning my MBA didn't make me a better hygienist, but it does give me credibility in the business world.
You are correct in stating that a four-year degree will not translate into higher pay, if you decide to stay in clinical hygiene. However, earning the bachelor's degree opened up doors for me that would not have been possible otherwise.
There are options available for dental hygienists who desire to stay in dentistry but would like to move beyond clinical hygiene. The options include teaching, working in research, working in company sales, speaking, entrepreneurship, and consulting. Most, if not all, of these options are more achievable with a bachelor's degree. For example, if you are applying for a position with a large dental company, and you are competing with hygienists who have higher educational credentials than you, who do you think will have the better chance of landing the job? Education opens doors.
I think most people reach a stage in their careers where they feel the need to stretch and grow outside the boundaries of their work life. Continuing education can help dental professionals learn new skills and fuel their work passion or even find a new career path. As my friend Linda Miles says: If you rest, you rust.
My recommendation to you is to ask yourself some serious questions, such as:
• What do I need to do to address and eliminate the physical pain associated with my work?
• What has caused me to lose the passion for my work?
• What career path outside of clinical hygiene interests me?
• What, if any, are the barriers preventing me from furthering my education?
• Do I want to stay in dentistry, or would something totally different be better for me?
• Am I willing to expend the energy and money necessary to further myself professionally?
• How long will it take to reach the goal I have set for myself? Do I have the patience to see it through?
I want you to know that the future is bright, and there is abundant hope for you if you are willing to work hard and set your course. Let nothing-I mean nothing-deter you from reaching your goals. We still live in the greatest land of opportunity on the earth, but opportunity won't pursue you. No one can do this for you. It takes courage, determination, and a willingness to invest in you. And remember, nothing good is cheap. You have to take the first step, decide what you want to do, chart a course, network with others, ask lots of questions, and go for it.
You can do this! RDH
All the best,
DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON, RDH, BS, MBA, is an awards winning speaker, author, and consultant. She has published hundreds of articles, numerous textbook chapters, an instructional video on instrument sharpening, and two books. For information about upcoming speaking engagements or products, visit her website atwww.professionaldentalmgmt.com. Dianne may be contacted at (336)472-3515 or by email [email protected].