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Helping your significant other understand the demands of dental hygiene

Feb. 13, 2019
Dental hygiene can be very stressful, and it's even worse when that stress gets in the way of your relationship with your significant other. Here's how to keep communication healthy and constructive, and how you two can become an "unbeatable team."

As dental hygienists, we have all experienced coming home from work feeling utterly exhausted, but our significant other doesn’t completely understand how drained we are. Family responsibilities, such as making dinner and taking care of the kids, still need to be taken care of before the night is through, and some sympathy from your partner would go a long way. But how can you get this support from your spouse when you need it? How can you help him or her understand where you are coming from?

The demands of dental hygiene

From an outside person’s perspective, dental hygiene can sometimes look like a profession that has it made in many ways. Our job doesn’t appear to be too physically demanding as it involves no heavy lifting or climbing. We work in air-conditioned office in a clean environment, so we don’t ever come home sweaty or dirty. We have a nice little space to work out of that is all our own. And fortunately, we don’t have to worry about working holidays and or overnight shifts.

There are many aspects that make dental hygiene an attractive profession, but along with this comes a variety of mental and physical challenges involved with providing patient care. We are continually pushing our bodies as we attempt to reach precise areas within the confines of the oral cavity. We experience time crunches on a daily basis that can be overwhelming. We are challenged with emotional exhaustion as we are constantly providing for the needs of others and trying to keep them happy. This list goes on as we attempt to provide our patients with the best possible care.

Research has demonstrated numerous times that dental hygiene often takes a huge toll on the body. A study conducted in 2009 showed that 64% to 93% of dental hygienists experience work-related musculoskeletal disorders during the course of their career.1 The mental demands are also readily apparent too. According to a 2015 RDH eVillage survey, two-thirds of dental hygienists feel stressed by their occupation on a daily or weekly basis.2Business Insider recently listed dental hygiene as the most unhealthy job in America, citing exposure to disease and infections, exposure to radiation, and time spent sitting as the top three associated health risks.3

But now that we have covered the risks and demands of dental hygiene, what role can your partner play in helping to make your job less burdensome and relieving your stress?

How your significant other can be there for you

In dental hygiene, we are taught to tough it out in many ways. We know that we entered a field that is both mentally and physically demanding. For the most part, I have noticed that dental professionals do not complain very often about their aches and pains during work hours. I think this is because we want our coworkers to think that we are capable of handling the job, but then on the other hand, that means we need someone to talk to when we get home. We need someone at some point to be there for us.

Venting your frustration to your partner can be one of the most effective ways to deal with work-related frustrations. According to the RDH eVillage survey mentioned earlier, over 47% of dental hygienists said they cope with workplace stress by talking to a family member or friend.2 Often just by sharing your experience with someone else, your stress level will begin to dissipate. If you have a partner that is willing to listen and empathize, then you have a lifelong asset continually at your disposal.

The initiation of the conversation begins with you and with what you choose to share with your partner. Some people don’t want to be viewed as complainers, so they keep quiet, which only bottles up negative emotions that will manifest at some point. By allowing your spouse to be to a part of your stress solution, you will both reap rewards as you will have someone to turn to and your partner will feel needed.

Frustrations can be vented in a constructive manner instead of just having a pure “gripe session.” Begin by giving your spouse or significant other a detailed explanation to help him or her understand what you have experienced and how it made you feel. You can be specific about the context of your situation with giving any of the patient’s personal information away.

Perhaps you had a patient who had an extremely sarcastic attitude and complained about everything during treatment, from the temperature of the room to the taste of the prophy paste to the length of the appointment. As you are explaining the situation, your spouse may feel tempted to interrupt early on, but it is best to defer any judgement and simply allow you to make your point.4 Then when he or she does say something, paraphrasing the experience or asking clarifying questions will help you feel like you are genuinely being heard and understood.

Ask for help when you need it

Another key part of communication is letting your spouse know when you need help with tasks at home. Sometimes people try to do too much and there is always a breaking point. Life is much easier when you do everything is your power to avoid that breaking point.

If you are exhausted from a difficult day, you may expect your partner to automatically know to help you out more. In fact, this is something I was guilty of myself. This expectation often leads to disappointment and frustration, as your spouse doesn’t even understand why you are upset or irritated. While attending marriage counseling, I learned that I needed to make a change and begin asking for help. This action was initially difficult and awkward for me because I am an extremely independent person, but it only led to positive outcomes as I learned who I could rely on.

Often it is best to be specific when explaining your needs. If you want your partner to pick up dinner on the way home from work, simply ask. If you have sore shoulders and need a quick massage, let your spouse know how much he or she can be of assistance. A relationship is supposed to be a team effort and asking for help will only lead to your spouse feeling valued and needed.

Listening is a two-way street

Part of communicating with your spouse is truly listening to feedback when he or she gives it, including things that you are not quite ready to “hear.” Suppose that you tell your spouse how you are experiencing neck pain on a reoccurring basis and it has begun to interfere with your workday. Your spouse suggests that you should make an appointment with your physician as soon as it is convenient. You know your spouse is on the right track, but you have been putting this off because you fear what your doctor may discover or recommend. Your spouse may even tell you that it may be a good idea to cut down on your work schedule, which is a change that you may not be comfortable with. Remember that with these types of suggestions, your partner has your best interest at heart.

Another critical part of communication in a relationship is being the listening ear when your partner needs to vent. When your partner has work issues that he or she wants to talk about, make sure that you take time out to listen. According to the Gottman Institute, which specializes in research pertaining to relationships, setting up a specific time of day to talk is a first step to initiating a “stress-reducing conversation.”5 This dedicated time will give both partners a chance to express their feelings along with receiving compassion and empathy. In this situation, a “we versus others” mentality will help each individual feel like they are never alone when facing a difficult situation.

Become part of an unbeatable team

A supportive spouse or partner can be one of the biggest benefits when it comes to dealing with the stresses of the workplace. When you have that person continually on your side through thick and thin, it is utterly amazing what you can accomplish. When you feel defeated after a tough day, the next day you can come back stronger than ever.

This person doesn’t even have to be romantic partner, if you have a close friend, fellow hygienist, or relative that you feel comfortable sharing your experiences and frustrations with on a regular basis. Let this person be a part of your supportive framework. Workplace stress is never something that you should have to contend with all on your own.


  1. Hayes MJ, Cockrell D, Smith DR. A systematic review of musculoskeletal disorders among dental professionals. Int J Dent Hyg.2009;7(3):159‐65.
  2. Hartley M. Career satisfaction survey: Coping with stress. DentistryIQ website. Published April 8, 2015.
  3. Kiersz A, Gillett R. The 47 jobs that are most damaging to your health. Business Insider website. Published November 14, 2018.
  4. Active Listening: Hear What People Are Really Saying. MindTools website.
  5. Benson K. The One Daily Talk That Will Benefit Your Marriage. The Gottman Institute website. Published November 30, 2016.

Amber Metro-Sanchez, BA, RDH, practices dental hygiene with Dr. Chris Bible at Comfort Dental in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She also works as a professional educator on behalf of Waterpik. Amber was a member of the 2015 Colgate Oral Health Advisor Board. Amber is also a contributing author for the Colgate Oral Health Advisor webpage. She can be reached at [email protected].