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Burn up, not out

Nov. 1, 2018
It’s no secret that many dental hygienists suffer from burnout in their careers. It’s up to each one to work on keeping the excitement alive in their careers. Yes, it takes some effort, but it’s worth it.

Andrea Kowalczyk, BS, RDH

Many hygiene publications these days feature articles about alternative career paths instead of clinical practice, primarily because so many nonclinical opportunities now exist. As a hygiene writer, recruiter, and coach, I’m an example of a hygienist in an alternative career setting. I frequently hear from my younger peers, who sometimes tell me that they feel uninspired by their jobs, even if they just recently started.

Early in my career, I also felt the monotony that can come with clinical practice, so I can relate to their disillusionment. Many hygienists fear the dreaded burnout that has become synonymous with clinical practice. Burnout is a real threat to our careers if we don’t take steps to avoid it.

Some hygienists’ career journeys lead them away from clinical practice. But shouldn’t more be said about those of you who choose to stay in the clinical setting for the long haul? Some of you may wonder how to continue performing the job you cherish, while at the same time maintaining your passion for hygiene in the day-to-day grind.

From what I hear from clinical hygienists who love their careers, it isn’t always an easy path and it takes some effort. Just as a marriage often takes work to keep the love alive, the same goes for our careers. We have chosen our career, the same way people choose their partners. But passion and excitement naturally ebb and flow. It takes a concerted effort to maintain career satisfaction.

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What can you do to keep the excitement alive?

If attending CE and speaking to schoolchildren on proper brushing aren’t enough to keep you energized, here are some other ways to get motivated and keep your career going strong.

Go easy on yourself, but not too easy—Hygienists often push themselves to their intellectual limit in hygiene school, and then, once employed, they stall out and coast. If you want to grow, continually learn and try new things.

Find a good mentor—This person does not have to hold any leadership position. He or she should be easy to talk to and be solution-focused. You want more than a sounding board. You want a person who will provide you with tips on how to be successful. To find a mentor, join your component society or a positive social media site for hygienists. Do not be afraid to ask someone to mentor you! Most people will be flattered.

Surround yourself with positive hygienists who like their jobs—If you hang around hygienists who are unhappy in their careers, it will rub off on you. Avoid too much negativity with team members. Spend time with those who love being hygienists, even if you need to join a group outside the practice. Volunteering is a great way to meet these people.

Become invested in your patients—I cannot say enough about the importance of tailoring your clinical recommendations to each individual person. Isn’t that what dental hygiene is all about? Investigate your patients’ lifestyles, home care, and medical histories to find specific suggestions for getting their mouths healthy. This ensures variety and personal satisfaction.

Find your niche—Chances are there are a few aspects of hygiene you like more than others. Some hygienists prefer working with children and teens, while others prefer adults or senior patients. Take a few minutes and think about what types of patients and procedures you prefer. If you are loath to place sealants but love to scale and root plane, a job in a pediatric or general practice that treats a lot of kids will not be for you. Some prefer to be solo hygienists, while others enjoy working with many other hygienists. Some like private offices, and some prefer corporate practices. Remember, your tastes and preferences will likely change over the years. When they do, it is OK to change with them!

Follow your heart—Are you passionate about tobacco cessation because you lost a loved one to cancer? Perhaps you had many cavities as a child and would like to help kids avoid the same fate. Do you feel compelled to help low-income people receive dental care? If you have an area of dental hygiene that tugs at your heart, consider making that your pet project. Talk to the owner of the practice about allowing you to set up a tobacco cessation program for patients, implement a caries risk assessment, or hold an annual free sealant day.

Be a mentor—Most academic instructors agree that there is more to teaching hygiene than working in the academic setting. I cannot think of a better way to renew your interest in the profession than by sharing your knowledge with others. You don’t have to be a seasoned hygienist or in a leadership position to be a mentor. There are hundreds of ways to be a support person for new hygienists. Here are a few ideas:

Contact your alma mater and offer to mentor a student or two via email or calls. You can offer to help with clinical questions, professional issues, or just be a support person.

Take a new hygienist in your office to lunch. Ask the person how he or she feels about the profession so far. Offer some tips that work for you.

Is there a new front desk team member or dental assistant in your practice? Offer to spend a few minutes answering his or her questions about the hygiene department.

If there are recent grads in your component society, offer to be a contact person for them.

Don’t be a robot—If you feel more like a calculus-removing machine than a care provider, you may not have enough time with your patients. Avoid offices that want you to perform back-to-back 40-minute prophies all day. These situations prevent you from knowing your patients’ needs and don’t allow for professional creativity and knowledge. The fastest way to burn out is to repeat the same procedure. If all of your patients are prophies because your office is not treating periodontal disease, you should help change that or find a new job.

Find your tribe—Events such as RDH Under One Roof are great ways to meet positive hygienist friends, reengage with the profession, and spark your excitement for hygiene. Likewise, you’ll meet fellow hygienists who want to grow by joining the American Dental Hygienists Association and taking advantage of local component meetings. These activities more than pay for themselves in the long run.

Go digital—Dental apps, podcasts, social sites, forums, and online CE are easy ways to stay current and learn things that make being a hygienist more interesting.

I encourage my younger peers to jump in and not hang back. In other words, immerse yourselves in your careers, shake things up a bit, and you may just reignite your passion!

Andrea Kowalczyk, BS, RDH, is a national hygiene recruiter for a large dental group. She is a published author, speaker, coach, and winner of the 2011 National Dental Hygiene Leader of the Year at American Dental Partners. She can be reached at [email protected].