Hygiene schools can help graduates sustain enthusiasm for their entire careers

How many of you have heard the following statements from dental hygiene students or from licensed dental hygienists? "I`m just in it for the money." "I can`t afford to belong to my professional association." "I burned out on dental hygiene after three years." What happens to students who graduate with high ideals and find themselves disillusioned with their profession shortly after graduation? Wouldn`t it be wonderful to have all hygienists retain their passion for the profession and learn to st

Oct 1st, 1998

Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA and

JoAnn Gurenlian, RDH, PHD

How many of you have heard the following statements from dental hygiene students or from licensed dental hygienists? "I`m just in it for the money." "I can`t afford to belong to my professional association." "I burned out on dental hygiene after three years." What happens to students who graduate with high ideals and find themselves disillusioned with their profession shortly after graduation? Wouldn`t it be wonderful to have all hygienists retain their passion for the profession and learn to stay energized throughout their career?

For many, clinical private practice is the only "track" pursued to practice their knowledge and skills. For others, continuing their formal education or exploring an alternative practice setting has been the choice. A career in dental hygiene affords hygienists with varied options - from the traditional clinical route to "department chair" and a doctorate. Not all hygienists aspire to advanced degrees or alternative practice settings, but the opportunities exist.

Whether one chooses to practice in the clinical setting, or complement their dental hygiene degree with additional education, a passion for continued professional growth is the key to improved career satisfaction. Continued professional development can be achieved through many avenues other than formal degrees. For example, continuing education courses, alternative practice settings, foreign travel, and missionary sites provide a renewed sense of professional commitment. We know hygienists who have practiced for more than 20 years in the clinical arena and love it. They have learned how to stay re-energized by challenging their minds and spirit.

According to a 1992 research project conducted by Northwestern National Life Insurance Company, burnout has been attributed to prolonged periods of high stress - characterized by feelings of hopelessness - and thoughts of leaving and withdrawing from work. This is a consequence of two key ingredients: a high level of job demands and little control over one`s work. A high correlation exists between job burnout and the following factors: lack of teamwork, lack of job challenge, poor quality of supervision, unfair treatment, lack of employee involvement, heavy workload, and an organization`s inability to deal with change.

We need to prepare younger hygienists with attitudes and beliefs that promote a lifelong quest for professional development. Empowerment strategies that sustain enthusiasm can be taught in dental hygiene school. If a feeling of hopelessness leads to burnout, then we need to teach what the early warning signs are and provide resources for changing this attitude early in its development. Teaching skills in communication, teambuilding, leadership, coping with stress, collaboration, and flexibility need to be integral parts of the curriculum. Too often, these are considered "nice to know" topics and are taught "if we have time."

Tomorrow`s leaders need to know about leadership models that will propel them into high-level, decision-making positions. If our profession is to survive all the changes that lie ahead, we need to teach our students about shared leadership. A model developed by Kragness (1994) asserts that there are 12 effective dimensions to leadership that are dependent upon the needs of the situation and of the followers. Leadership is based on relationships and trust. Leadership is dynamic. It continually changes dependent upon the situation. If we can teach our students to collaborate, share leadership roles, increase flexibility, and engage in activities that promote the welfare of all, then we can rest assured that our profession will outlive us.

Students struggle with leadership roles when entering their professional sequence and becoming a class officer or student organization leader. If we can teach them their naturally occurring leadership styles and give them confidence to share leadership within their organization, we can minimize apathy, improve relationships, and build skills that will last a lifetime. For instance, administering a self-report tool, developed by Kragness, students can develop a profile based upon the self-administered assessment. The profile would enable them to identify their leadership strengths, learn when to lead, and when to follow. Sharing leadership requires trust and a spirit of collegiality - two traits that go on serving long after graduation. We will perform better at the office and with our professional association with an attitude of cooperation.

Learning to be part of a team is a skill that employers and colleagues will appreciate. No one likes to work with a people who are "know-it-alls" and/or refuses to carry their share of the office responsibilities. The image of the "prima donna" hygienist needs to be broken down as our new leaders emerge willing to collaborate with all personnel employed in the dental arena. Teaching our students that "attitude is everything," is a lifelong gift that will enable them to master their career, even under difficult situations.

Difficult situations occur to all of mankind. Choosing how we respond to the situation is our choice. According to Conklin, author of Adventures in AttitudesĀ® (1995), we use three times as much energy when we are thinking negatively. Spending our time blaming, whining, criticizing, and dousing our sorrows with food and drink is a conscious choice. Just as we choose our clothing we can choose our attitude. This is our gift as human beings. No one makes us tired, bored, stressed, or angry. We choose those feelings dependent on our responses to people and situations. Conklin states, "Not until you have learned to choose your attitudes will you really have the power and freedom to be your own person, capable of determining and achieving your goals and dreams."

Educators need to unite in a spirit of collaboration to build curriculum that produces responsible and passionate dental hygienists. The enthusiasm should surpass the idealism of a new graduate. We should help create hygienists who are eager to aspire to their individual greatness through pursuit of short- and long-term goals. We need to continually re-charge our spirit, minds, and bodies. We worked too hard as students to achieve the knowledge and skills of our profession to let our minds die. Dental hygiene forever!

`I began my career at age 19 with an associate`s degree in dental hygiene in 1968. I practiced for eight years, and I took courses at the local university for my bachelor`s degree. My next move was into education, beginning as a part-time clinical instructor and moving into a full-time faculty

appointment. During my first year of full-time teaching, I began pursuit of a master`s degree. Upon obtaining the master`s, I began my own consulting and professional speaking business. My career continued to grow with the completion of a second master`s degree and further development of my business. I recently completed training that qualifies me to deliver high impact training on a variety of personal performance topics. After 30 years invested in dental hygiene, I can say that I am as excited about my role today as I was the day I went through my capping ceremony.`

- Linda Meeuwenberg

`I, too, have advanced my career through formal education channels. As an entrepreneur, my career path went from

clinical practice to education, and on to consulting and owning my own firm. Being selected as a recipient of the ADHA/Warner Lambert Award for Excellence in Dental Hygiene was an honor and reward for

maintaining my professional development. As a former ADHA president and officer of local and state associations, I have kept my energy high through involvement with the issues and

surrounding myself with people who are

energized. Being able to address audiences around the world has given me a perspective on the number of issues that are universal to hygienists, no matter if you live in Israel or Chicago.`

- JoAnn Gurenlian

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