Earning R-E-S-P-E-C-T

There are occasions when I hear my colleagues express concern that they are not given the respect that they believe should be accorded to them.

By JoAnn R. Gurenlian, RDH, PhD

There are occasions when I hear my colleagues express concern that they are not given the respect that they believe should be accorded to them. Their employers do not appear to value them as integral to the practice. Patients view them as extensions of a cleaning service system, something nice to have done on occasion, but of little worth in the grand scheme of health care. After all, you are "just removing plaque and tartar," and we all know there is nothing remarkable in that.

If you are reading this and waiting for the Rodney Dangerfield joke, "I get no respect from anyone," stay with me. Feelings of disrespect in the office setting are no joke. So let's examine this issue and try to make sense out of what happens that causes this untoward situation.

This notion of respect, or lack thereof, is concerning. Some factors that may contribute to this problem arise from external issues. For example, most dental hygienists are viewed as having limited education with a job that focuses on technical skills, with little critical thinking or decision-making involved. The work is limited in nature and is, frankly, a bit unpleasant. There is no glamour involved in handling saliva, blood, and oral debris. How hard can it be to remind people to brush and floss? Is this work worthy of full-time employment with benefits?

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While you digest the external elements, take a moment and reflect on the internal issues related to respect. How many times have you diminished dental hygiene in the eyes of the public, your patients, the staff, or your boss? "Hi, Mrs. Jones. Come on back for your cleaning." "I am just a hygienist." "This is a great little job I will do until I start having children." "You only need a two-year degree."

Frankly, if you've heard yourself or your fellow dental hygienists making these statements, it's no wonder that you may not feel respected. You really have not earned it. In trying to make dental hygiene seem relatable to someone, you have completely devalued it with those types of statements. Truth be told, you have disrespected those who place a higher value on this career choice.

So, how do we resolve this issue of respect in practice? First, listen to yourself and the exchanges you have in the office with your patients and staff. Ask several of those that you trust to give you feedback on how you portray yourself and your career. You may not realize that you undermine who you are and what you do by your words.

Next, compare yourself with other health-care professionals. Do speech therapists, physicians, physical therapists, and nurse practitioners represent themselves as uneducated technicians? Listen carefully to how they describe their work and their careers. How is your image different from theirs? If you notice there is a difference, take charge of changing your image.

Lastly, treat yourself to a mental makeover by reading "Lean In" by Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg is the COO of Facebook and has numerous career accomplishments to her credit. However, she herself notes how difficult it is for women to have a satisfying career. Sandberg addresses issues of leadership, career development, and respect. She acknowledges that many women struggle to balance families and careers, and challenges us to consider what we might do if we were not afraid -- and go do it. She encourages women to "lean in" and get as much from their careers as they possibly can by approaching their careers with gusto, pride, respect, value, and courage. Her book is inspiring and empowering.

After taking the above suggestions to heart, challenge yourself to set and achieve three new goals related to your career. Give yourself a reasonable time frame (9-18 months), but not so long that you do nothing (3 years). At the end of this time period, evaluate what these accomplishments have done for you in terms of your self-worth, as well as your worth to others. Changing your sense of self and recognizing that what you do is important may help alleviate some of those doubts that cause you to limit yourself.

This next step may be even harder: sit down with your boss during a quiet moment and ask what you can do to make the practice better. You may already do a great deal that benefits the practice. However, saying these words aloud lets your employer know that you are invested in the business and that you want to contribute. In the day-to-day grind, we forget how important it is to keep improving the practice. Sandberg encourages women to articulate what they can do to make things better. This effort elevates your value to the company.

Ultimately, you cannot demand respect from others. You can, however, command respect by first respecting yourself and your career. If you believe you are important and that your work is important, you will convey that, and others will notice. If you don't believe in yourself or your contributions to the health of the public, though, that will be equally obvious.

Now close your eyes and forget about Rodney Dangerfield. Imagine, instead, Aretha singing, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me (sock it to me, sock it to me…)." Let that resonate for a few moments. Like they say in those commercials, "You're worth it!"

JOANN R. GURENLIAN, RDH, PhD, is president of Gurenlian & Associates, and provides consulting services and continuing-education programs to health-care providers. She is a professor and interim dental hygiene graduate program director at Idaho State University, and president-elect of the International Federation of Dental Hygienists

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