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Creating balance: is it a choice? Every individual hygienist decides what the balance will be

May 1, 2017
Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, discusses how each dental hygienist must choose the best work-life balance.

by Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA

“The ideal state of life balance-perfect balance-occurs when all the different forces and influences in your life are contained within a satisfying and harmonious whole. Nothing is out of proportion and no one element is emphasized at the expense of the others.” Perfect Balance: Create time & space for all parts of your life by Paul Wilson

When I was preparing a seminar on work-life balance, a friend told me that “there is no such thing.” While I enjoy her humor, I believe we do have choices on how we manage our lives. Whether it is the manner in which we choose to practice dental hygiene or if we choose to exercise, we decide.

“A lot of people are having a more difficult time finding balance in their lives because there have been cutbacks or layoffs where they work. They’re afraid it may happen to them, so they’re putting in more hours,” says psychologist Robert Brooks, PhD, coauthor of The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life.

Just the idea of a layoff creates uncertainty and anxiety. I know hygienists who have taken on an extra job outside of dental hygiene when faced with a possible layoff. No one likes uncertainty, and it can result in undue stress if we let it.

Uncertainty occurs in a number of ways in the lives of dental hygienists. Here are some challenges you may have encountered:

  • An employer facing retirement and either closing the office or selling to a new dentist
  • Death of an employer
  • Loss of patients due to closure of manufacturing companies that employ your patients
  • A new associate dentist who is making changes in the practice and reviewing hygienist salaries
  • A new graduate replacing a seasoned professional for less money.

None of these situations was created by the hygienist. As employees, we are expected to adapt to the changes that occur in the practice, or find another path.

I was fortunate to have begun my career in the late 1960s when jobs were plentiful for hygienists. At that time, most employers didn’t ask for a résumé or a copy of my license. Times have certainly changed, and we seem to be working harder with more responsibilities that create work-life balance issues.

I have had my own personal struggles with work-life balance while employed in private practice, as a full-time educator, and in retirement from teaching while building my speaking career. The demands of being a homeowner, parent, spouse, caregiver for aging parents, and student while completing continuing education requirements can easily lead to stress. We face different stressors throughout our lifespan and ever-changing challenges to keep it all together.

In my 20s, I thought I could handle anything. I worked six days a week as a practicing hygienist while settling into a new marriage. Fast forward 10 years and I found myself commuting to three different cities as I went back to school, took a part-time teaching job, and worked in private practice. I was able to get by on little sleep; however, as I grew older, it became more difficult to function on just a few hours of sleep. I am sure many reading this article can relate. I have had conversations with friends wondering how we “did it all.” Our answer is always the same: We were much younger then. On the other hand, we realize that our personal relationships may have suffered during those years of trying to do it all and advance our careers at the same time.

When I reflect on 30 years of university teaching, there was a constant drive to complete more degrees, publish, present CE, serve on committees, volunteer, and keep abreast of trends in education and dental hygiene, while working on my portfolio for promotion and tenure. Throughout this time, I was the mother of a very allergic and asthmatic child who required lots of medical interventions, including frequent trips to doctors, the emergency room, visits to specialists, frequent medication regimens, and regular breathing treatments to keep her stable. Many a day I was able to get by with three or fewer hours of sleep. An impending divorce that made me a single parent complicated life even more.

The Digital Age Challenge

Do you ever look back at your life and wonder how you did it all? Are you one of those 20- to 30-year-olds doing it all and wondering how you will sustain it? Much has been published about work-life balance. Although no one has the answer to this balancing act, I believe there are many ways we can take control and design a satisfying life where stress is controlled and we enjoy family, leisure, and work responsibilities.

In my 50s, I was faced with caring for aging parents who required medical interventions, surgeries, and home care. Fortunately I was living in the same state then. However, my daughter developed complications about the same time. At one time, I had her in a hospital in one city, my mother in a hospital in another city, and I was working a full-time job. Many papers got graded in the hospital. My own health took a turn for the worse, exacerbated by the additional road travel and stress. I learned a lot about work-life balance during this time when I eventually opted for an early retirement package that would allow me to regain my health. I made many changes during this time to control stress and bring my life into balance.

Technology has presented us with new challenges. I recently listened to interviews of two authors and shortly after purchased their books: Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle and The Cyber Effect by Mary Aiken, PhD. Dr. Aiken is a widely respected cyber psychologist. She gives an example of taking a train trip through the lush, green countryside of Ireland. Across from her sat a mother nursing her baby. For a half hour while nursing, she never took her eyes off the screen of her phone as she sent texts and e-mails, while the baby lovingly looked at his mother’s face. She goes on to illustrate how different our worlds would be if we spent 30 minutes away from a device and in personal eye contact with our loved ones, especially our children.

When we are too busy, we can forget to just pause and be in the moment. We are caught up in thinking about our future tasks, checking our digital calendar, and multitasking to get everything done that we think is required of us. I wonder if we forget that we are the ones making the choices and deciding how we spend our day, week, month, or years.

Sherry Turkle discusses the power of talk in a digital age, giving numerous examples of how conversation has changed since the introduction of our devices that connect us to the world and create our own virtual world on social platforms, adding additional stress to our lives as we respond to hundreds if not thousands of followers on social media. What about the spouse, child, or parent who may be sitting in our presence and seeking our undivided attention instead of the occasional uh-huh?

Are your electronics creating more stress as the above two authors suggest? Do you take time to unplug from technology, or are you constantly connected? How are the electronics in your life impacting your work-life balance issues? A recent USA Today poll revealed that 85% of people take their phone to the bathroom with them. They are checking social media and e-mail. I admit I have been one of those women. This is a topic for a whole different article. I think our lives are more rushed and complicated with the pressure to be ever-present in a virtual world.

Dr. Seuss writes, “It’s a troublesome world. All the people who’re in it are troubled with troubles almost every minute. Just tell yourself Duckie, you’re really quite lucky! Some people are much more . . . oh, ever so much more . . . oh, muchly much-much more unlucky than you!” I wonder, as a society, how we have become so troubled. Look around you and you will notice the stress in people’s faces - the angry driver engaged in road rage, the aging cashier rubbing her lower back with a sigh, the mother yelling at her child in the park, and so many more examples.

If you can incorporate only a few of these life changes listed in the sidebar on a regular basis, I am certain that you will feel better as you regain more control of your work-life balance issues. Continue self-evaluation as you face new challenges. You may need to change your course and set new goals. Remember, there is no magic wand and only you can make the necessary changes. I wish you much success and welcome your feedback. RDH

Steps to increase life balance

How do we take control and reduce our stress to balance our work and family commitments, while having time for leisure activities? I offer some suggestions that have worked for me and others whom I admire. If we don’t make the choices when we hear the whispers of our bodies telling us to slow down, those whispers will become shouts in the form of heart disease, digestive disorders, migraine headaches, depression, and even cancer.

1 Self-evaluation. Taking quiet time to reflect on our busyness, how it makes us feel, and how it drives our behavior is a good start. Keeping a diary or journal for just one week can be enlightening. When we truly account for each task and how much time we devote to the task, it can reveal why we feel overwhelmed and anxious. Start from the moment you awaken and write down everything. You may be amazed at what you see. Share it with a trusted friend or partner, and see their reaction to the many tasks you performed. I have a friend who told me I was “nuts” to spend so much time on a task that I thought was so important to my life. I truly evaluated that statement and decided that perhaps she was right.

2 Analysis. Once the weekly log is complete, spend time analyzing where your time is being used. Is there too much time allotted to certain tasks? Could they be delegated? Could you change the manner in which you are carrying out the task? Once again, seek feedback from a trusted friend or partner. I made the decision years ago while working toward my next promotion, caring for a child who was often very ill, and building a new home, that it was time to employ a cleaning person. I had her come in on Fridays so my house was all clean for the weekend, and I could enjoy some downtime with my family rather than spending the weekend doing household chores. It was the best investment ever! At first this issue created an argument with my husband, as he didn’t want anyone invading his privacy. Eventually, through compromise, we agreed, and he later commented that it was a good investment.

3 Set goals. When your log has been thoroughly analyzed, set goals for changes you would like to make. Be very specific. Spend one hour less per day doing household chores and incorporate a half hour of exercise and a half hour of meditative time. You may also have to include asking for help with the household chores. I remember days that I didn’t make my bed and left breakfast dishes in the sink. I was sure the housekeeping police would show up that day or that I would die and people would know that I was lazy. That is the tape that was set in my mind as a child. I had a mother who was a full-time homemaker. She instilled in her children the need to always have your bed made and the dishes done before leaving the house. Mind you, she rarely left the house in the morning and didn’t have to rush to an outside job!

4 Remind yourself that you are in charge. You decide how your life will be lived. Let go of people who tell you differently. Empower yourself to implement your new goals. You may need to change how you think. George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

5 Schedule leisure time. Our brains work better when there is time to reflect, enjoy recreation, or just make time for conversation with loved ones. Too often guilt rules how we spend our time, and we don’t value downtime. We feel guilty when tasks are not being done. It took me many years to realize that there are no housekeeping police.

6 Downsize. When I retired from teaching, I moved from Michigan to Florida. After purging my parents’ home, I decided that my life would be simpler and I would not be a collector. My parents lived through the Depression and saved everything, including many items stored in the basement from my grandparents’ farmhouse. Although it was grueling to let go of so many treasured objects, I now enjoy living in a small townhome by the beach and no longer require cleaning help. It keeps me from accumulating “stuff” as I have no place to put it. I also committed to making life simpler with less house and yard maintenance.

7 Learn to say no. Are you one of those people eager to take on more? When was the last time you said no when being asked to take on more responsibility? I am a firm believer in volunteer activities. However, when you realize you are forgetting things, misplacing items, missing important dates, it may be time to say no to any additional responsibilities. At different chapters in our lives, we have time to volunteer in different capacities. As parents of small children, you are asked to participate in school or athletic functions. As children leave home and form their lives, we are faced with aging parents to care for and perhaps grandchildren who enter our lives. Once again, I suggest that you listen to the whispers of your mind-body signals to be certain you have not overextended yourself. Finding adequate “me time” is essential to our well-being.

8 Spend time with people who laugh. Humor is good for the soul and can make us look at our complicated lives with a newfound perspective. People who laugh and take life less seriously can enhance our lives in many ways. When we laugh with them, our muscles relax and we can enjoy the moment of release. Laughter is indeed the best medicine when it comes to reducing stress and creating balance.

9 Self-care. When was the last time you enjoyed a deep muscle massage, a nap, a walk along the beach, jogging in the park, skipping and laughing with a child, taking an elder in your family out for lunch or a movie? Take time for you and write it in your schedule; set an alarm on your smartphone to remind you. Create endorphins, the body’s natural morphine.

10 Breathe. There is considerable evidence indicating that most of us do not breathe deeply. The hygienist is often in poor posture treating patients, which constricts the lungs. Add the stress of working with difficult patients, coworkers, and staying on schedule, and you have a formula for shallow breathing. Many times under stress we actually hold our breath. When you begin to feel your muscles tighten, take a moment to focus just on your breathing. Enroll in a yoga class. The rewards will be worth it.

Linda Meeuwenberg, RDH, MA, MA, is the founder and CEO of Professional Development Association Inc. and professor emeritus of Ferris State University. Linda offers keynote addresses and seminars that help her participants improve their personal and professional performance. She has coauthored three collaborative books on achieving success. Linda is a 2009 Hygiene Hero Award and 2012 Award of Distinction recipient. Contact her at