Work Reentry in Dentistry After COVID-19 offers Challenges, Opportunities

February 3, 2021
Lynne H. Slim, RDH, MS

The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to reassess our lives, presenting unprecedented change. But continuous learning and personal aspirations can lead to new opportunities.

Recently, I was privileged to chat with a very special health professional, entrepreneur, and coach whose work I have been following closely on Facebook. Sunie Nelson-Keller has been a registered nurse (RN) for 43 years and a registered dental hygienist (RDH) for 40. She also is a legal nurse consultant and health coach. Nelson-Keller just might be the spoonful of sugar some of us need as we navigate our careers during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. She lives in northern California and describes life as a series of obstacles that, if overcome, teach valuable lessons.

When Nelson-Keller became an RN at 20, she knew she did not want to work weekends and nights for the rest of her life. She wanted to earn a BS but was not sure what she wanted to do with it. Her brother-in-law, a doctor of dental surgery, said, “What about dental hygiene? Good hours and pay.” Nelson-Keller ended up liking both professions—nursing and dental hygiene. She worked in both for 30 years, with 2 RN and 2 RDH jobs. A typical schedule would include working as a hygienist from 8 AM to 5 PM and then a 7 to 11 PM shift at the hospital, with 12-hour shifts on weekends.

Nelson-Keller’s schedule suited her until she wanted to get married, have a child, and take life a bit easier. After 10 years and a more relaxed lifestyle, her marriage fell apart and Nelson-Keller thought she would never regain stability in her life.

She turned to legal nurse consulting and did well until attorneys stopped calling. Then she remembered a hygienist friend telling her about health coaching. Four years later, Nelson-Keller had her feet planted on the ground, but her balance was still slightly off. She assessed her life. This time she was willing to do whatever it took to make a difference for her and her daughter. Health coaching was the best decision she made for her financial security, and she was helping hundreds who had given up hope of being healthy again.

Nelson-Keller still loves hygiene and works part-time as a clinician but can choose her workdays. She has a passion for making a difference in her patients’ lives.

Working After COVID-19

Just as Queen Elizabeth II referred to 1992 as her annus horribilis (meaning “year of disaster” in Latin), wrecked by the collapse of 2 of her children’s marriages, 2020 was an awakening for all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic stunned and forced us to reassess our lives, presenting unprecedented change and opportunity.

I spoke to Nelson-Keller about positive changes dental practices and individuals may choose to make after COVID-19. For businesses, changes may occur for any number of reasons, such as making value shine brighter with a happier, more flexible workforce that is also more creative and diverse.

For individuals, the pandemic has changed thinking about careers. We may suddenly find that a pre-COVID-19 job is no longer a good fit. As Nelson-Keller and others have discovered, change through adversity does not have to be negative. Here are some tips Nelson-Keller and I came up with that you should keep in mind in 2021: 

  • Continuous learning, along with acquiring and perfecting new skills, is essential. Continuity in learning is part of career growth, especially in a profession as dynamic as dentistry. The situation after COVID-19 will be similar, except that health care practitioners may be dealing with the fallout for many years. Learning should be lifelong. Commit to reading 1 book per week. Join a group that shares your passions and goals so you can cheer on one another to be the highest version of yourselves. We are not what we know, but what we are willing to learn. Lifelong learning is an ongoing, self-motivated pursuit. The most valuable asset you will ever have is your mind and what you put into it.
  • Individuals need to explore career opportunities. Nelson-Keller believes that it is important to grasp every career opportunity, even if doing so is terrifying. It may prove to be a learning experience that fizzles, or it could be the beginning of a new skill set and career. Do not be afraid to act and think outside the box.
  • Keep experienced staff on board when possible. Individuals with experience are invaluable because they usually have a good understanding of practice needs and clients. It is tremendously costly to recruit and train employees, but workers need to be agile and flexible. Do not terminate a hygienist, dentist, or dental assistant who is loved by patients. Instead, try making it easier for individuals to succeed and contribute to the continued growth of the practice. Encourage employees to have a full, rewarding life outside of work, or they may become unhappy. The pandemic has taught many to appreciate time off and the value of family and a full life outside the dental practice.
  • Develop personal aspirations. A huge driving force in an individual’s loyalty to any organization (including productivity) is a personal aspiration. If you are an employer, try to harness these aspirations and overall production will increase.
  • More skills without more opportunities do not work. Individuals are hungry for opportunities that speak to their passion, potential, and purpose. If you ask a hygienist to upsell a procedure they do not value, without compensation, nothing will change. Becoming a health coach with opportunity to travel and enjoy leisurely activities such as waterskiing feeds Nelson-Keller’s passion.
  • Identify what is needed. Individuals and teams can run skill audits to identify gaps in knowledge. For example, hygiene departments might be more productive with an assisted hygiene model, but you should not shortchange the hygienist or the client—or else the practice could see a large turnover in both. A dental assistant might love being trained as a hygiene assistant if she is rewarded in several ways in the new career path. Find out first what the assistant finds attractive about the new position and allow the assistant to excel at it.
  • Self-assessment is necessary for improvement. Nelson-Keller learned that failure gives you a great opportunity to learn, and without it you will not always succeed. Avoiding failure makes you avoid the very thing that helps you achieve your dreams.
  • Leadership under lockdown is not for the faint of heart. The work-life conflict has weighed heavily on most employees during the yearlong pandemic. Changes in the workplace have been inevitable, but people need to see the value in change. Good role modeling has never been more important because it is necessary to stay inside and safeguard the health and safety of everyone around us.
  • Reskill staff after COVID-19. Reskilling is the process of learning new skills so an employee can do a different job. After COVID-19, jobs may shift or may have already shifted. For example, some front-office positions now operate remotely, and many workers have to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. Workers may have to be matched to new roles or tasks in order to deliver new business models. Even talent strategies may change, developing employees’ critical digital and cognitive abilities, social and emotional skills, and adaptability and resilience.
  • Talent supply and demand. Changing careers is a very popular topic on blogs for dental assistants and hygienists. Early in the pandemic, the fear of contracting COVID-19 was an issue for many dental professionals, but now hygienists and assistants worry about not being busy enough to pay bills. In addition, some in the industry, such as hygienists, feel they are being used as part of a production quota and nothing more. Value your staff for their individual contributions and give them the tools and time to do their jobs well.
  • Soft skills are crucial for career success. When you listen and ask open-ended questions, the person you are talking to feels validated. Trust is built when a person is genuinely heard. Listening is not understanding the words of the question asked but is understanding why the question was asked. The key to good listening is not technique but desire. Until we truly want to understand the other person, we will never listen well. To carefully listen is a powerful way of saying to another that we value that person. When a person feels validated, trust can be established.

Sunie Nelson-Keller can be reached at suniekeller@gmail.com Her main passions are health coaching, tournament waterskiing, and playing the violin.