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Beyond the Mask: Prioritizing Well-Being and Resilience for Dental Hygienists


Burnout, stress, and injuries are all too common in the dental hygiene profession.

Beyond the Mask: Prioritizing Well-Being and Resilience for Dental Hygienists: © Dikushin / stock.adobe.com

Beyond the Mask: Prioritizing Well-Being and Resilience for Dental Hygienists: © Dikushin / stock.adobe.com

The world of dental hygiene is one that gleams with bright smiles and promises of oral health, but behind those radiant grins lies a profession battling a silent menace: burnout. As the demand for dental care grows, so does the stress and strain on dental hygienists. From the incessant pressure of meeting quotas and maintaining a full schedule to the physical toll of sitting for extended periods of time and in awkward postures, dental hygienists are facing an alarming prevalence of burnout that’s taking a toll on their well-being.

In this article, we delve into the intricacies of burnout in the dental hygiene profession and explore strategies to prioritize well-being and foster resilience.

The Harsh Reality: Burnout Among Dental Hygienists

Statistics paint a ghastly picture of the state of well-being among dental hygienists. Studies have shown that dental hygienists report higher levels of stress, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), chronic pain, and burnout compared with other health care professionals.¹-³ In fact, a distressing number of dental hygienists are leaving the field altogether because of these issues. One study shows that 74% of dental hygienists who left the profession at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic voluntarily chose not to return to the profession.⁴ This alarming trend affects not only the individuals involved but also the quality of care provided to patients and the dire need to improve oral health awareness.

The Underlying Factors: Unmasking the Causes of Burnout

Why is burnout so rampant in the dental hygiene profession? It’s a question that requires a multifaceted answer. The nature of the job itself demands meticulous attention to detail, often leading to time constraints, pressure to meet production targets, and, therefore, mental overwhelm. The repetitive motions, awkward postures during procedures, and sitting for extended periods of time contribute to physical strain, which can translate into chronic pain and discomfort. Add to this the emotional toll of patient interactions and navigating challenging coworkers and offices, and it becomes clear why dental hygienists are vulnerable to burnout.

Creating Lasting Change: Preventing Burnout Through Self-Care

Before we started our careers as dental hygienists, we took an oath to provide the best quality care for our patients. What we don’t often realize is that in order to provide that care, day after day, we need to prioritize taking care of ourselves first.

The path to preventing burnout requires a holistic approach that encompasses both mind and body wellness. Prioritizing self-care is not an option; it’s a necessity for maintaining a thriving career in dentistry. So often dental hygienists experience pain, stress, and exhaustion yet continue to show up day after day for their patients. Over time, this leads to burnout. So, what do we do?

An individualized approach to self-care is vital to understand and integrate for every dental hygienist. While this requires a level of self-awareness and the ability to check in with oneself, it’s crucial for hygienists who want to maintain a long-lasting career. Many hygienists experience varying degrees of pain, stress, and burnout, and each scenario is unique to the individual. What works for one person may not work for everyone. Dental hygienists should focus on an individualized and multifaceted approach to mind-body health.

Protecting Your Most Valuable Tool: Your Body

As dental hygienists, our body and our health are our most valuable tools. Without a healthy body, we cannot practice hygiene. Prioritizing our health, both inside and outside the dental office, is paramount. Practicing good posture and implementing proper ergonomics during procedures can significantly reduce the risk of MSDs and chronic pain. Dental hygienists should ensure that the clinician and their patients are both in the proper position throughout the appointment. Ergonomics in dentistry also includes the setup of the dental operatory and utilizing proper tools and equipment that not only promote better alignment but also reduce the strain on our bodies.

Beyond ergonomics, hygienists should consider incorporating chairside stretches and exercises at work to help maintain their physical well-being. Chairside stretches can reduce muscular tension throughout the day, minimizing the amount of recovery time required at the end of the day. At home, hygienists should focus on exercises that help release tension from tight, overworked muscles, build strength and stability for proper posture and alignment, and bring the body back into balance after sitting for long periods of time and in awkward positions. In order to maintain our well-being in dentistry, we must focus on a multifaceted approach to physical health.

Nurturing Your Mind and Managing Stress

The dental office environment, with its fast-paced appointments and high-pressure situations, can be a breeding ground for stress. Dental hygienists constantly feel the weight of providing the best quality care for their patients while trying to balance the increasing number of tasks given in the same appointment time. Dental hygienists are constantly faced with anxious, unhappy, and challenging patients, which can take a toll on our mental health over time.

There is a clear connection between stress and pain, making stress management an integral part of preventing burnout.⁵ Prioritizing mental wellness through mindfulness practices, meditation, or even seeking professional support can significantly enhance resilience. Simple breathing exercises can easily be incorporated during the patient appointment or throughout the day to reduce stress levels and support the nervous system.

Preserving Your Energy and Vitality

Maintaining energy and focus is crucial in dental hygiene, but it can be extremely challenging to achieve when feeling overwhelmed, undervalued, and unsupported at work. Energy levels will likely improve when hygienists prioritize their physical and mental well-being. In addition to that, there are multiple other factors that can contribute to low energy and focus among hygienists, including the environment in which we practice.

At a baseline, hygienists should consider seeking out dental offices that resonate with their values. Hygienists can focus on establishing clear boundaries at work and ensuring their work schedules align with personal needs and the season of life they are in. Recognize that saying no is not a sign of weakness but necessary for career longevity. In order to maintain vitality over the years, we must consider where we are practicing and who we are practicing with.

A Lifelong Journey to a Long-Lasting Career

Beating burnout in the dental hygiene profession is not a quick fix; it’s a lifelong commitment to well-being. It’s about understanding that caring for oneself is not a selfish act but rather a prerequisite for delivering exceptional care to patients. Beyond the mask that dental hygienists wear, their own well-being deserves regular attention and care.

The prevalence of burnout among dental hygienists is a concern that requires a deeper discussion, new tools, and better solutions for each individual and dental practice alike. By addressing the root causes of burnout and prioritizing self-care, dental hygienists can pave the way for a fulfilling and long-lasting career. Let’s unmask the truth and embrace a future where dental hygienists not only preserve smiles but also their own well-being.

1. Harris ML, Sentner SM, Doucette HJ, Brillant MGS. Musculoskeletal disorders among dental hygienists in Canada. Can J Dent Hyg. 2020;54(2):61-67.
2. Saccucci M, Zumbo G, Mercuri P, et al. Musculoskeletal disorders related to dental hygienist profession. Int J Dent Hyg. 2022;20(3):571-579. doi:10.1111/idh.12596
3. Haslam SK, Wade A, Macdonald LK, Johnson J, Rock LD. Burnout syndrome in Nova Scotia dental hygienists during the COVID-19 pandemic: Maslach Burnout Inventory. Can J Dent Hyg. 2022;56(2):63-71.
4. Why the Great Resignation offers opportunity for young dentists. American Dental Association. June 8, 2022. Accessed August 15, 2023. https://www.ada.org/publications/ada-news/viewpoint/my-view/2022/june/my-view-why-the-great-resignation-offers-opportunity-for-young-dentists
5. Abdallah CG, Geha P. Chronic pain and chronic stress: two sides of the same coin? Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks). 2017;1:2470547017704763. doi:10.1177/2470547017704763

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