The 4 stages of a fiery hygienist: Where is the flame of your passion for dental hygiene?

Control the flames and control the burnout is the message that Dee Humphrey, RDH, shares with any hygienist who is questioning his or her career choice.

Aug 1st, 2017
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By Dee Humphrey, RDH, BHSc

Flickering flames attract the eyes of many - the combustion process is an astounding transformation to watch. When the fire is controlled, people everywhere will gather around a blazing fire just to keep warm and relax. When a fire gets out of control, people are alarmed because of the damaging effects it could cause. No one wants to experience the negative effects of a fire, but we can benefit greatly from the positive attributes that it can bring. A fire goes through stages, just like a hygienist, and we can all identify with this process.

When I graduated from dental hygiene school, I was given the opportunity to work for a community dental clinic. I was beyond excited and ready to strike the match of change! My job as a prevention specialist consisted of 65% clinical work and 35% creating and conducting programs for many underserved areas, such as special needs populations, Head Start centers, and children in public schools. This variety in my profession is what ignited my fire. I loved spending time carrying out the programs, learning new things, and seeing amazing changes taking place. My career felt like it was on fire as I was developing within my role as a hygienist. People within my sphere of influence could see this change taking place. Our office was blazing with new client referrals and education of the public was making profound, transformative steps.

Then, after three years, our company hired a new dental director, and my position changed for the worse. The job became 100% clinical, and I was no longer able to go out of the office to educate. This created in me a sense of loss, hopelessness, and restlessness, and I felt undervalued and not being used to my full potential. My once red-hot flames became little flickering flames. Exhaustion set in from the extra hours of clinical work five days a week; I rarely took time off. My career development significantly slowed down and I no longer looked forward to learning new things in CE or learning about new products. Spending years in this situation helped me to adopt a negative attitude about my job and profession while I searched for other opportunities. Keeping my fire burning brightly was very difficult - I felt like a tiny gust of wind could blow it out.

Better options were limited in my community because there was not much turnover. I felt stuck and desperately needed a change while looking for innovative ideas to keep my fiery passion alive. Upon seeking advice, I learned that I was right about needing change, but I was wrong about something big: there needed to be a significant modification in me, not in my profession, because I was using my fire to hurt others instead of help. I needed a better outlook, so I chose to leave that office on good terms in search for what kept my fire burning in the beginning.

This lesson showed me how easy it is to go through the stages of a fire. We must recognize burnout quickly before it spreads, causing significant or permanent damage. Understanding and allowing smoke to cloud judgment is a formula for disaster to our patients, our careers, and our profession. It only takes a handful of burned-out hygienists to ruin an office and bring a bad name to our profession. Letting our flames become extinguished and passively leaving the fire to decay has the potential to spread to those around us. Below are four stages I created to help identify which stage of a fire you are in and to see if a change is needed.

Incipient (i.e., developing) hygienist

When a fire gets started, it needs heat, oxygen, and a fuel source. You can be the budding student, the emerging dental hygienist on the job, or the passionate hygienist who moves to a new office or keeps things fresh in your respective environment. You are excited and are the walking-talking-putting-plaque-index-on-everyone hygienist . . . and you eat, sleep, and breathe the oxygenized teeth air. You are eaten up with all things dental - come on now, we’ve all been there and we probably even decorated ourselves from head to toe in tooth gear! You’re ready to get settled into a new office and sling some calculus off without an instructor checking your every move or a micromanager getting onto you for time management. A warning: this can also be a stage of error, because you can become too busy trying to impress others with acquired skills and knowledge instead of focusing on the issues at hand. Your passion and energy spread like a fire and we are thankful for your sharing it with those who may have let their flames fizzle out. Keep growing and learning!

Flickering and growing hygienist

This is the stage where the structures of fire begin to form and oxygen is used as fuel for the fire. As a hygienist, your new experiences come into play; this is where you start to think your instructors in hygiene school were not so bad, and you’re understanding the whole office setup now. You’re no longer the newbie, and you’re getting some valuable experience by now. You may also be learning about new products and going to some incredible CE courses, which means your flame will keep flickering till it reaches its maximum potential. Keep collecting other key components needed to grow your flame and continue soaking up all the fuel necessary to keep your fire alive. Find out what area in dental hygiene you are passionate about: Is it finding oral cancer? Whitening toothpastes? Or educating on the systemic-oral link? This stage is vital to any hygienist and it continues to be a breath of fresh air in our profession. Remember, combustible thinking spreads, and you can teach other hygienists (seasoned ones too).

Blazing hygienist

This is the hottest phase of a fire, and the most influential for those around you. This stage is one of continuous development and reaching your maximum potential while being a potent force to be reckoned with. All the combustible materials - experience, education, CE, networking, and product research - have been igniting your career, and you see amazing results within others and the dental practice. You are the agent of change and continue to help others’ flames be scorching. Continue igniting your fire and burning bright for all to see!

Burned-out hygienist

In fires, this stage is characterized by a significant decrease in oxygen or fuel, putting an end to the flames. The strain of working in a negative environment can suffocate the flames of others around you. Your strength and energy are depleted, and you don’t work to your full potential. You are exhausted, worn out, and growth in learning has significantly slowed down or stopped. Someone in this stage is easily identified: You have a negative I-don’t-care attitude, tear others down, tend to be haughty and prideful, hate being corrected, become lazy in expectations, leave sub calculus, stop probing altogether, don’t feel valued and stop valuing others, show disregard to others (including patients), and disrespect the dental practice and the dental hygiene profession. Sometimes you’re ranting on social media or other places where you can be heard. You will keep fueling conflicts and cause permanent damage to others. These hygienists should find another profession or retire early if they cannot be taught how to stop burning others.

What about you? Can you recognize yourself in one of these stages? If you allowed burnout to happen, then it’s time to figure out what has caused your passion to be destroyed or damaged. Many things may be making you feel as though you career is stagnant. Talk with the dentist and office staff to see if they can help formulate ideas in the areas you are passionate about - maybe the entire office would like to see some positive energy come alive, too. If it’s the mundane routine, then maybe it is time for a vacation (perhaps a permanent one) or time to try part-time work. But first, be creative with finding solutions and ask others to help in creating a different sequence in scheduling. If you are spending more time complaining about your job, then find out why and quickly get a better outlook. Who knows? You may not have the full story as to why things changed in your office or situation. After taking careful consideration and seeking advice, an office change or permanent break may be exactly what you need. If a change in scenery is needed, then switch treatment rooms with someone for a while. Only you can decide which change is needed. Lastly, communicate with other professionals and ask for suggestions in ways that can foster your creative fiery passion.

Let us not forget that the dental hygiene profession has vast opportunities to inspire others and make positive changes. We must keep in mind what made us love this profession in the first place and avoid burnout at all costs. Burnout can be avoided, but you must take the proactive approach if you want to keep the fire ablaze! RDH


Dee Humphrey, RDH, BHSc, has been infecting the masses with her contagious laughter and enthusiastic passion for ministry and dentistry. She worked as a clinical dental hygienist prevention specialist for six years in a tribal community dental clinic in northeast Oklahoma. She is a clinical educator for American Eagle Instruments, a member of the visionary board of directors for the National Cancer Network, on the Crest & Oral B’s Smile Council, and an educator for the Delaware Community Cooperation Partnership in Oklahoma.

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