Why Are Hygienists Stressed Out?

Sandy arrived early at her job at the busy two-dentist office. Her first patient was scheduled for 8 a.m., and she had to make sure all her instruments were ready, and the room was stocked with supplies.

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by Nancy Burkhalter, PhD

Sandy arrived early at her job at the busy two-dentist office. Her first patient was scheduled for 8 a.m., and she had to make sure all her instruments were ready, and the room was stocked with supplies.

A dental hygienist for seven years, Sandy truly enjoys her profession. She particularly likes the patients, many of whom she has gotten to know very well. Interacting with them is one of the most fulfilling aspects of her job.

Her responsibilities don't end there, however. A good hygienist must educate patients, communicate with the dentist about health problems, and cooperate with the office staff so things go smoothly. This is a lot to think about and may be the reason Sandy and so many like her feel anxious.

Their anxiety comes as no surprise to two experts on the dynamics of dental offices. Dr. Sherwin Shinn, a Seattle-based dentist for 31 years, says he was especially struck by how many hygienists are looking for more happiness and less anxiety. He says the desire to find something more is common throughout the profession.

Pennie Morehead sees the same thing from a different vantage point. She's worked closely with hygienists for 23 years as a human resources manager. She interviews dental health care professionals daily and says hygienists live "paradoxical lives."

"Hygienists have a natural desire to comfort, nurture, and counsel patients," said Morehead. "But they all seem to have pressure to produce, which keeps them from giving as much as they are capable of. They often tell me that their work can feel like an assembly line."

Morehead explained that hygienists are expected to be a profit center. They must adhere to their schedule while working patiently and painlessly, and yet be upbeat. Shinn admires their ability to keep so many plates in the air. The challenge, he said, is to do all these things with a different patient every hour and still develop a meaningful relationship with them. "It takes a lot of skill to identify and treat pathology and educate patients without overwhelming them."

Dr. Shinn understands the effect time pressure can have on hygienists. "They have a genuine desire to help people. They've spent a lot of time becoming educated and developing highly specialized skills to heal people. Unfortunately, these unique abilities also set them apart from the rest of the staff."

Because of this special status amid the hustle and bustle, Shinn admits that social interaction between the hygienist and the rest of the office staff can be minimized. This limited communication can lead to feelings of being misunderstood, unappreciated, isolated, and ignored. Morehead understands these emotions. "Hygienists often keep these feelings to themselves. With no way to build office relationships and receive positive reinforcement, stress can build up. This takes a toll on the joy and fulfillment people in the medical arts need."

None of this would be a problem if there was more time to foster communication. But, Morehead says, hygienists often don't share their true feelings on the job because they're afraid of rocking the boat. So they leave their jobs at the end of the day frustrated that communication was stymied.

How do hygienists like Sandy maximize their personal fulfillment and the benefit they provide to patients and the office?

"When hygienists feel trapped and frustrated, the best solution is to broaden their perspective about the contributions they're making in life," says Shinn. "They can do this by learning how to integrate all the parts of their life as well as get in touch with their dreams and who they are beyond the workplace. Doing this brings a lot more harmony than compartmentalizing their lives into work and home."

Both Shinn and Morehead encourage hygienists to concentrate on making their dreams and their world as big as possible. "Of course, learning how to communicate with one's co-workers and boss is certainly important," said Morehead. "But life will become a lot more stable and enjoyable if hygienists learn how to connect with their husband, children, parents and anyone else who is part of their lives, either emotionally or professionally."

Shinn agrees. "Stress will always be a part of the workplace, but when hygienists view their lives as having unlimited possibilities, then the challenges in any one area will be smaller and easier to overcome."


Enlightenment on the mountain

Dr. Sherwin Shinn began to teach others how to become more aware and increase their personal power after his own midlife crisis.

"I accomplished the American Dream sooner than I expected, and wondered what I was going to do with the rest of my life," he said.

He decided to follow his boyhood dream of going to Mt. Everest. On his journey he saw children dying from infections due to abscessed teeth. When he realized how much good it would do to hand out toothbrushes, he and his wife, Jeri, founded the International Smile Power Foundation. A dental outreach program, the foundation delivers education and services to children in underserved areas of the world, including Bolivia, Nepal, Jamaica, Micronesia, and the Cook Islands.

Dr. Shinn brings this experience to his seminars when he teaches people to self-actualize. He and Pennie Morehead teach a course for dental hygienists titled, "Happiness, Hope and Harmony for Hygienists."

Dr. Shinn also conducts workshops in schools to help children express their creativity and experience the power they have to make a difference. He recounts some of his experiences in his book, Confessions of a Modern Dentist.


Pennie Morehead has worked with health care professionals for 23 years. She is also a certified handwriting analyst. She and Dr. Shinn travel around the state of Washington giving seminars for hygienists. In these workshops, she helps hygienists find clues to patient personalities, create harmonious work teams, assist dentists with hiring employees, and improve communication with co-workers and family.

Nancy Burkhalter, Ph.D., is a freelance writer based in Seattle. She has written several books about language, a young adult novel about baseball, and a murder mystery. The Seattle Writers Association awarded her first place in their Writers In Performance competition in May.

Click here to enlarge image

"They have a genuine desire to help people. They've spent a lot of time becoming educated and developing highly specialized skills to heal people. Unfortunately, these unique abilities also set them apart from the rest of the staff."
— Dr. Sherwin Shinn

Click here to enlarge image

"They all seem to have pressure to produce, which keeps them from giving as much as they are capable of. They often tell me that their work can feel like an assembly line."
— Pennie Morehead

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