I dare you!

Jan. 1, 2005
I dare you! Can�t you just hear a bunch of little kids egging each other on with that taunt, daring each other to try something new or scary?

I dare you! Can’t you just hear a bunch of little kids egging each other on with that taunt, daring each other to try something new or scary?

Well, I dare you! It’s a new year and time to break out of that old, comfortable mode of practice - one where you just punch in and punch out, day after day, with your brains on autopilot. No wonder some hygienists find our profession boring. Doing the same old thing, day after day, is as dangerous to our minds as repetitive motions are to our body.

Come to think of it, instead of workplace-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSD), how about a new category called workplace- related mental stress disorders? Are both types of WRMSDs inevitable? I don’t think so, but if you are on autopilot, then the risk is higher than for those who are engaged in their professional careers.

There is plenty of research about the etiology of workplace-related musculoskeletal disorders. There are lots of strategies and excellent equipment available to avoid or combat cumulative trauma disorders within our bodies. But is there a way to prevent all of the mental stress that we face every day, or are there antidotes that can help nullify the cumulative mental stress? Perhaps you or one of your professional colleagues is suffering from mental stress that is endemic in some dental offices. If this is the case, then it is critical that you understand the progression of a workplace related mental stress disorder.

First, it is important to determine if the condition is internal or external. In a number of cases, the problems start from within. For example, if you are the square peg in the round hole, stress will always be present. Secondly, if your goal is perfection, not excellence, stress is certain to rear its ugly head. Finally, if your life is full of unhappiness due to financial worries, a personal or family illness, or an unhappy personal relationship, then stress will be the albatross that keeps you from moving forward. Occasionally, work can be a safe haven when all else is going haywire, but usually, it is difficult to avoid developing a workplace-related stress disorder if your personal life is plagued with internal stresses.

Just like physical stress disorders, mental stress disorders have various stages and manifestations. The initial phase is called mental stalling. It is characterized by an ever-increasing, vague notion that something is just not right within your dental hygiene world. Some recognize the early signs and work to remedy the situation. While it is uncomfortable to deal with mental stalling, realizing that changes must be made can lead to the restoration of a happy, fulfilling career.

Mental stagnation is the next phase of WRMSDs. It results from not dealing with the nagging feelings that the balance is upset. Hygienists at this phase often feel powerless to change their circumstances. This stage is characterized by statements like: “I can’t because...,” “My doctor won’t let me,” or “I wish ‘x’ would happen, but…” Mental stagnation is a classic victim mentality. It frees the victim of responsibility and lays the blame on outside forces. It is really a self-esteem issue. Mental stagnation is a horrible place to be, but many spend their lives justifying their inability to move forward by blaming others or surrounding themselves with people who have an inordinate amount of control over them.

An even more frightening level is mental shutdown. Hygienists who reach this phase put their professional lives on autopilot. Their once bright dreams about becoming a dental hygiene professional are gone. It becomes impossible for them to view their chosen profession in a positive way. They go through the motions like zombies, impervious to any attempts to recreate excitement in their professional career.

Occasionally, a colleague is able to rescue a hygienist who is shutting down. The interventions are brave, generally complex, and often are not successful. Friendships are often put on the line. Hygienists who cannot get themselves out of shutdown usually develop the final stage of WRMSDs - mental suffocation, which usually means the end of a once rewarding, productive career.

Are WRMSDs inevitable or treatable? Some are; some are not. These are complex issues, but if we love our careers and value our professional colleagues, we’ll go out of our way to address these issues before another hygienist leaves our profession.

Getting excited and feeling positively challenged are great vaccines or antidotes against workplace-related mental stress disorders. Right off the bat, I can think of many things that each one of us can do. The list could include: trying a new technique or product, reading a dental hygiene journal, attending or forming a study club, joining an on-line dental hygiene group, or even just having lunch with another hygienist who is less affected by workplace stress.

Another key to solving these issues is how we view our place in a dental office. If we live with the thought that we will take whatever we can get instead of taking charge of what we can get, then we are doomed to suffer from extraordinary amounts of mental stress.

Dental hygiene is our career, and we need to own it. It does not belong to our employers or our co-workers or our husbands, wives, children, parents, or any other significant person in our lives.

Our career belongs to us, and we alone are responsible for its future.

Dental hygiene can be very isolating and tedious. Getting connected and staying connected are key components in the lives of satisfied, fulfilled hygienists. It is critical to keep our professional careers alive and vital. Connecting to each other and supporting each other will help each of us build an awesome professional life. I dare you to define and create your own professional comfort zone … and I’d like to hear how you are doing.

Anne Nugent Guignon, RDH, MPH, is an international speaker, has published numerous articles, and authored several textbook chapters. Her popular programs include ergonomics, patient comfort, burnout, and advanced diagnostics and therapeutics. Recipient of the 2004 Mentor of the Year Award, Anne is an ADHA member and has practiced clinical dental hygiene in Houston, Texas, since 1971. You can reach her at [email protected] or (713) 974-4540 and her Web site is www.ergosonics.com.