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10 ways for hygienists to avoid burnout

Oct. 20, 2022
Letting go of fears and focusing on the future are keys to breaking out of a rut and moving forward in your dental career.

Are you working in a dental practice that has been doing the same thing year after year, and you feel like you are going nowhere? Are you bored within those four walls of your operatory and complacent with the outcomes of your daily routine? Do you suppose that you could be suffering from career burnout? Many hygienists in our profession experience burnout after performing years of monotonous, repetitive procedures.

Lack of enthusiasm can run rampant in dental practices. It can stem from the contagious negativity from one or more persons employed in the office, and sometimes it can even be an internal force that holds us back. When I am mentoring my peers, the most frequent question they ask is, “How can I get motivated and get out of this funk?” or “How can I motivate someone else?” The simple answer is, you can’t.

I know that was not the answer you wanted to hear, but, truly, the answer doesn’t stop there. A lack of motivation does not mean that the gene for caring and empathy isn’t there. It doesn’t mean that there is a lack of passion, either. The real question is not, How do I motivate them (or myself)? Instead, the question is, What is holding them (or you) back? The true road to motivation starts with the absence of fear.

Sometimes we choose our jobs out of necessity. They may be close to home, have good hours for our families, or the pay may be better than the last job. Practices come in many shapes and sizes and one may fit our needs at a particular time in our lives. They cannot always be the perfect fit, however. Sometimes we end up staying too long in a position because we are unsure of what a change could mean for us.

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Dental offices run smoothly when procedures and protocols are established and the staff collaborates and communicates with one another. But not all practices have the luxury of open communication and open-mindedness. The mindset of a practice most often revolves around the boss or office manager. When an environment is created where words cannot be said for fear of retaliation, then, overall, the office dynamics suffer. Motivation starts to plummet, and, ultimately, team members begin to mentally check out. You’ve been there, right? I most certainly have.

Rediscover that reason within yourself

When you look at the entire picture, from the beginning of your career journey, there was a reason—a need within yourself—that led you to the oral health-care profession. Maybe it was a need to create a career for yourself in which you provide care to others. Maybe it was to work with a team that strives to bring patients from disease to health with the newest in clinical technologies and procedures. Maybe it was a dream to be in a profession where all colleagues have a voice and contribute to the overall success of the business. Is your need being met? Are you feeling fulfilled every day or at least a couple of times a week? If your needs are not being met, what can you do?

Get out of your box

It’s time for us to step out of our box and experience new people, opportunities, and challenges. Growth starts with being uncomfortable. The obstacle that keeps getting in our way is that petrified feeling of the unknown. Being uncomfortable is a common barrier that holds us back when we can feel safe in our comfort zone. That fear is keeping us in a holding pattern and making it impossible to land in the place we need to be. Our new question now is, How do we get comfortable with being uncomfortable? Here are a few ideas.

Value yourself

We need to start looking at ourselves as the health-care professionals we are. A recent study regarding the education of dental hygienists found that hygienists with an associate in applied science (AAS) in dental hygiene degree are only 13 contact hours shy of the amount of hours earned by those in a BS program.1

Start using the word educated instead of trained when speaking to colleagues, patients, and your employers. Start taking your patients’ blood pressure, ask medical questions, and refer patients to physicians/specialists when you see any red flags that could indicate a systemic issue. When we exude confidence, we will allow others to see us as we want to be seen.

Manage up

In the corporate world, you will find employees setting expectations with their superiors, essentially managing their managers. It’s called managing up. Having a conversation with a colleague does not have to feel like a confrontation. Respectful communication allows for collaboration and cooperation. Using this strategy can ease the frustration in an office where coworkers are expected to read one another’s minds.

Ask questions

Find out what the answers are to your burning questions, such as the mission statement of your practice, periodontal protocol, oral-systemic referrals, and caries prevention. Asking questions will show that you care not only about patients but the business as well. Talk to your team members regularly to communicate about the company and individual goals to create a healthier working environment. Remind the team that you are there to provide care to patients the best way you know how and educate them about how changes will benefit the practice.

Make those changes

Start implementing changes that will benefit the practice, your patients, and yourself. Change can be exciting, but remember that creating change doesn’t always mean it will be successful. Allow yourself to fail. Continue evaluating the change and follow through with the process. Continue to transform what you do, keeping your mission in mind until success happens—and it will. Setbacks are not permanent!

Congratulate accomplishments

Paying a compliment doesn’t take away any of your power. Having a one-on-one conversation with a team member, applauding that person for reaching a goal or completing a task well, can mean a lot to that individual. It can be a social media post to recognize the team member’s efforts or words of encouragement. Showing respect to others will allow them permission to give encouragement back to you.

Invest in your career

Spend time away from the office surrounded by passionate colleagues. Join your professional association. Go above and beyond your state-required CE units to learn about the subjects that excite you. Attend courses regularly to keep your brain working. Knowledge is empowerment!

Don’t be a wallflower

Make conversations with others at your dental hygiene association meetings, talk to dental pharma sales reps, and introduce yourself to a CE lecturer by whom you are inspired. Create contacts outside of your operatory. Network, network, network. You never know who you will meet or where that contact can take you.

Let go of fear

You don’t need to be held back by fear. You should use fear as a means to keep focused on attaining your goals. Allow yourself to dream and envision yourself as the person you want to be. If you haven’t already, move toward that goal by writing down what you see. Revisit what you have written periodically to ensure that you are on the right track to achieve what you set out to accomplish. Small changes can turn you from being checked out to ambitious.

No one else can make another person motivated again. We are the only ones who have the ability to make the changes we need to be fulfilled and happy.

Originally posted in 2019 and updated regularly


1 O’Hehir T. Dental hygiene education exceeds the degrees granted: A pilot study. International Journal of Dental Hygiene. Wiley Online Library website. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/idh.12335. Published February 28, 2018. Accessed November 24, 2018.