Why I Stayed On as a Dental Hygienist

March 24, 2021
Lisa Newburger, LISW-S
Lisa Newburger, LISW-S

Lisa Newburger, a master's level social worker supervisor, helps audiences find humor in talking about tough topics. Her "in-your-face" style of presentations and writing will make you smile or just shock you into taking some action. Either way, she is very effective at empowering others to reach their goals and feel better about themselves. Her entertaining workshops are available for national and international audiences. Writing for the dental industry since 2010, she uses an alterego (Diana Directive) to illustrate her points in a sarcastic but effective way. Presentations can be scheduled by contacting Lisa at www.discussdirectives.com/dental.html.

Taking a look at some of the unique challenges a dental hygienist may face in their career.

There are people who inspire me by making me think and question my own decisions. This time it was a dental hygienist living in a midwestern town who shared her story.

I became a dental hygienist at age 40. Why? Kids. What can I say? Childcare for 3 costs a small fortune. I had my bachelor’s degree and investigated graduate school to become a counselor. It was horrifying to see that the salaries were ridiculously low and the debt I would incur from graduate work would be so high. It was more cost effective for me to stay home and be an at-home mom. But I was itching to get out and be with other adults as my brain cells needed the stimulation that work brings.

I looked at the dental industry and found that salaries for dental hygienists were surprisingly good. This excited me. Look out world, here I come! I was clueless as to how highly competitive it would be to get into a dental hygiene program. But I was determined. I wanted this. Getting through the prerequisites and getting accepted into the program was exhausting. Once in the program, it only got harder. There were 42 accepted into my program and only 31 of us graduated, but that made me appreciate it even more. Being in this challenging program is something I am proud of as it gave me an exceptional educational foundation to start my career. 

Upon graduation, I landed my first job and stayed a year. Then, I moved on to my current position where I have been for the past 6 years. There are 20 of us working together, and it has been very challenging from the start. The hygienist I was replacing was so beloved by the staff that there was resentment flung my way from day one. I cannot say it was “technically” a “hostile” workplace, but the stress was unbelievable. Where I live, some of the dentists have bad reputations due to their questionable ethics and poor-quality work. There is tremendous pressure to upsell, and it is smothering. 

After learning this firsthand with my first job, I found a practice where I really liked the owners. But there are challenges. I am praised for my thorough chart notes by one dentist just to be yelled at the following week by the office manager for taking too long writing my notes up. This is a constant balancing act, and it takes its toll on your psyche if you let it. We all know that writing good notes takes time and protects us from mistakes and liability issues, but praising me for the same thing I am being criticized for is something else.

I have learned not to take this personally and to develop a thick skin. Maybe I have survived because of my age. When you get to this stage of life, you have confidence built from life experiences. But, when I started, I felt insecure that I was an imposter. I felt that I would be compared to my peers who have been working for the past 20 years in this field. I lived in fear that I was going to get fired for screwing up and needed constant reassurance.

My dental patients are the reason why I have not given up and walked away. I am also a religious person who believes that I am here for a bigger purpose. I am an instrument of change. And…we are slowly making those changes. The instigator was the pandemic. My team ended up really coming together as a result. We realized that we needed to work together to get through this challenging time and we did.

The stress of the pandemic continues. We cannot order our PPE in bulk. We have the nonstop challenge of piecemealing the orders to get what we need. Some of the staff have retired out of fear they would get infected. We are the ones who will make patients feel safe to return to the practice. My doctors have been exceptional about following ADA and CDC requirements. They research best practices and modes to keep things safe and above board. This makes my patients feel safe, which is another reason why I stay.

You asked what could have been done to make this experience different for me. I think promotions need to be looked at closely. Just because you are an excellent hygienist does not necessarily mean that you have leadership skills. Leadership training is crucial. Managing people is a completely different skillset. For most, this is a skill that can be taught, that is if they are open to constructive feedback. Working with a consultant can effect change. I cannot begin to tell you how priceless our consultant is. We are now getting raises that we so deserve. Prior to this, I did not get a raise for 3 years. The annual performance review was so complicated, it never got done. The consultant simplified this and now I have received 2 raises. And finally, do not tear your staff down…pump us up. I was just given an evaluation recently and left feeling 10 feet tall. Previously, I was so focused on mistakes I made or perceptions that I would make mistakes. That took a toll on my confidence, but having a supervisor point out all the good work I am doing makes me feel valued.

I wonder why we do not do more of that. Why do we think that feedback or constructive criticism is how to get the best out of your staff? Yes, more money would be a great incentive. But, if I were honest with myself, I would say positive reinforcement is so much more important in having a healthy work environment.

I am sharing this story with you so that you will think about how your practice runs. Do you have someone on staff who lacks confidence? Do you have team leads who may not have the skills to manage people? Stop and look at your practice… and then do something. You could end up with an employee who stays and gives 150% to be the best hygienist you have ever seen. 

If you can relate to this story, email me at diana2@discussdirectives.com and share your experience. I know that many of you can relate to these feelings. This is why she inspires me. She is part of the solution. Are you?