Peace or war?

Too often a war of opinions between hygienists and assistants breaks out in dental offices, which can result in a miserable or even hostile work environment for the entire staff. Speaking from her experience as a dental hygienist and former dental assistant, Jamie Collins, RDH, CDA, shares some tips on how to develop healthy relationships in the dental office.

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Fostering healthy relationships in the dental office

Peace or war, friend or foe? Work shouldn’t be a battlefield between the front and back office or between the hygienist and assistant. Too often a war of opinions between hygienists and assistants breaks out in dental offices, which can result in a miserable or even hostile work environment for the entire staff. Let’s face it—working primarily with women in such a close environment can be difficult at times. In my twenty years in the dental field, I have seen the best of offices and the worst of people. Unfortunately, no office is drama free all the time, but there are ways to diminish the spiraling effects of negativity and differences of opinions.

Respect is a two-way street. As a hygienist, your attitude toward the assistants can make or break your relationships. Hygienists are often perceived as overpaid prima donnas by other employees, and for some hygienists, this may be true. Changing that stereotype can take work above and beyond your “job description.” You might be thinking, “We barely have time to do our jobs; how are we expected to do more?” When I worked as an assistant early in my career, I worked with a hygienist who refused to place her instruments in the ultrasonic because that was “not her job.” Her attitude toward assistants left an impression on me. How you perceive the assistants’ role, as well as your own, is key to how your approach to the working relationship can alter the assistants’ perspective of hygienists.

A dental office runs like a machine with all its moving parts. When friction (in the form of rumors, drama, etc.) exists between team members, it doesn’t operate smoothly. When care is affected, patients notice. The goal of a dental office is to provide outstanding patient care and experiences, but that is often forgotten when drama overtakes the office.

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Something as simple as loading and starting the autoclave or putting clean instruments away while the assistant is running from operatory to operatory can be a big help throughout the day, and tasks like these take no time at all. If you have a few extra minutes, help clean rooms, restock supplies, or perform other menial tasks, so everyone can have a lunch break or go home in a timely manner. Seating the doctor’s patients, anesthetizing, or even taking an x-ray for an emergency exam will help tremendously, if time allows. From the perspective of others, any little thing that you can do to help the practice run smoothly eases the burden on other staff.

Put a stop to the rumor mill. In such a small environment, anything negative you say or repeat will ultimately get back to the other person and the boss. You are a professional and should behave as such while in the practice, as well as on social media (when it regards your work life). For example, complaining to the office manager about the assistant will only make you appear to be a problem maker, and the story might be misconstrued as it gets passed along. When a problem arises, deal directly with the person involved and try to come to a solution together. Interoffice conflict in a small practice affects not only the people involved but everyone who is forced to listen to the drama.

At times, it comes down to basic manners. “Please” and “thank you” go a long way, and at the end of the day, “thank you” matters regardless of whether it comes from the doctor or other team members. Knowing our efforts are acknowledged and appreciated makes all of us feel a little better when exhausted from a busy day. When negativity arises, try to find the positive. You don’t always know what the root cause of the frustration is. You don’t have to like everyone you work with; however, you should show basic human respect and be professional. We undoubtedly mesh better with some staff members and create lasting friendships, while others remain as coworkers, and that’s OK. Practice showing gratitude and appreciation for the little things that help the practice operate smoothly, and for each team member’s unique qualities and skills. You spend more time with your coworkers than with family during the week, so make the most of it.

As in a marriage or other relationship, we each have good days and bad—problems happen at home, or a dreaded difficult patient puts a damper on a day. Everyone is entitled to an emotional day now and then. The assistants are there to do their jobs alongside the doctor, and when you help them, they will be more willing to value your working relationship and provide a helping hand in return. Diversify your talents and be a team player, and in turn, you will make yourself into a respected, valued, and irreplaceable member of the staff.

Jamie Collins, RDH, CDA, is a practicing clinical hygienist in Idaho and Washington states. She has been in the dental field for nearly 20 years, both as an assistant and hygienist. With a passion for patient care, especially patients with higher risk factors, she enjoys sharing the tips and tricks of the dental profession through speaking and writing. In addition to clinical practice, she is also an educator, has contributed to multiple textbooks and curriculum development, and is a key opinion leader. Contact her at jamiecollins.rdh@gmail.com.

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