by Lory Laughter, RDH, BS
There are privileges associated with being an adult and contributing member of society. As a youngster, if I questioned rules or directives from my parents, the explanation was, "When you are the adult, you can make the choices." The day of having the freedom to choose for myself was like a carrot dangling that encouraged me to grow up, live on my own, and be in charge. Unfortunately, when that day arrived, so did the realization that those choices affected more people than me and came with great responsibility. Spouse, children, and my duty to community often made the choices for me.
The state of the economy, scarcity of employment opportunities, and the need to make wise choices for ourselves and other people can make a person feel trapped. Dental hygienists are tolerating employment settings ranging from less than ideal to outright illegal because there appears to be no alternative. Stories of burnout and even depression in our profession are becoming more common. E-mails and phone conversations from those seemingly faced with no choices but who stay in unhealthy settings leave me looking for answers and, admittedly, sometimes angry at our career.
There seems to be more RDHs than clinical positions available, and the tide is not changing. Experienced hygienists are being fired and replaced by those willing to work for lower wages. Some offices are choosing not to hire a hygienist at all. For many, the picture looks bleak, and this obviously contributes to discontent and burnout.
One fact remains despite all the negativity in print and conversation – we have choices. There is nothing standing in our way of making changes or standing up for our principles. Consequences are a part of every choice, yet our right to decide is unchallenged.
If clinical practice is making your life unbalanced, change is possible without leaving the profession. Teaching, sales, and consulting are areas in which you can use your expertise but find a change of scenery. More education may be required and new skills may be necessary, but for many this choice has brought growth and satisfaction. Expanding talents and creating happiness is a choice open to all.
There is nothing written in stone that says, "Once a dental hygienist, always a dental hygienist." People have gone back to college in their 50s, 60s, and even 80s to change careers or follow a new path. On the other hand, some leave after one or two years of clinical practice to pursue options outside dentistry. Changing paths at any point in life is a choice we're given as members of the free world. There's no guarantee the change is easy or the new path is smoother, yet the options remain.
In the parable of the Ant and the Grasshopper, we learn the only way to fulfillment is to always be working and planning. I grew up with this parable and promised myself at a young age to be an ant and never a grasshopper. In those moments when I found myself somewhat unprepared for the events in my life, the knowledge that I was not living up to ant status straightened me out. The lesson: Life is about always preparing and not for idle fun.
Imagine my surprise when some of my children grew to be sort of grasshopper/ant hybrids. These mystical beings seem to find happiness in living for the moment, draining a checking account down to $1.50, and surviving on canned foods. They are not true grasshoppers as they do not ask or expect the ant to support this lifestyle, but they have found a balance that didn't seem to be an option in my growing up experience. They choose to have adventures and change careers without feeling the trapped experience so many of my colleagues describe.
Burnout can be a symptom or a diagnosis. Explore within yourself to find an answer and act within the conscience of your heart and mind. If burnout is a symptom of depression or another medical condition, please seek help.
However, if you are merely experiencing discontent within your workplace, remember that you have choices (and consequences). Even if you choose to leave the career, do not leave the profession. Remain a member of our professional organization and continue to support those fighting for the choice to practice dental hygiene.
Being an ant is noble and necessary for a productive life – I would not suggest otherwise. Feeling trapped and unappreciated is still a choice. Every now and then, dare to be a grasshopper and do those things that make a difference today. Change those things that are out of line with your goals and dreams. Stop complaining for a moment and focus on happiness. Heck, stay up all night and make music if you want. Do not give away your right to choose simply because you fear tomorrow. Today is yours, and tomorrow is no guarantee.
Lory Laughter, RDH, BS, practices clinically in Napa, Calif. She is owner of Dental IQ, a business responsible for the Annual Napa Dental Experience. Lory combines her love for travel with speaking nationally on a variety of topics.
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