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Finding fulfillment in your career in dental hygiene

June 16, 2020
In this article, Natasha Terroade, RDH, shares tips and tricks for maintaining an engaging, fulfilling career in dental hygiene while avoiding potential pitfalls.

“Got it!” I exclaimed happily as the blade of my scaler popped off a large chunk of calculus. My patient laughed at my enthusiasm as best she could with a mouthful of blood and saliva.

“You really like your job,” she grinned after a quick swish and spit over the cuspidor.

I’m happy to say that I meant it wholeheartedly when I replied, “I sure do.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this comment. I’ve been accused of being comically enthusiastic about dental hygiene, though there was a time when the monotony of performing a dozen prophylaxes a day detracted from the joy I got out of my job. Our relationship to our profession is just that: a relationship. Relationships require effort to keep them fresh and satisfying and our work is no exception. As my zeal for my work began to fade, I went on a quest to find ways to rekindle the spark. Job satisfaction is so important—I knew that accepting stagnation at work would allow unrest to leach into other aspects of my life. As Max Ehrmann famously stated in his poem, Desiderata,1 “Keep interested in your career, however humble. It is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.” I chose to take Max’s advice to heart.

A recent survey reported that, across the world, the percentage of adults who consider their jobs “great” rarely exceeds 10%.2 That means that around 90% of us are truly unhappy, or at least bored. Dental hygienists are known for our cheery enthusiasm as we educate and serve our patients, but the sad reality is that many of us have lost our former drive and focus. The good news is that there are things we can actively do to put the spark back into our work while avoiding some pitfalls along the way.

Remember your initial motivation

After you’ve been out of school a few years, it’s easy to get caught up in production goals and office politics. The best way to combat that is to remind yourself why you became a hygienist in the first place. People who gravitate toward helping professions are usually interested in making an impact on their community. We not only clean teeth, we educate our patients on the systemic/oral connection, and often become invested in our patients’ lives outside of the dental office. We make a good, honest living, with a flexible schedule. These are things to reflect on each morning, as well as other personal motivations, to reconnect to your “why.”

Remain a student of your craft

A “been-there-seen-that” attitude does a disservice to professional growth. While it can become second nature to classify patients rather quickly, it is imperative to stay humble and curious about each patient’s unique needs and habits. We may discover new connections between lifestyle and oral manifestations that we never considered before. There are always new approaches and techniques that we can learn and integrate. Consider yourself an eternal student of the craft of dental hygiene, and you’ll consistently find new and interesting things to keep your job fresh.

Make the most of CE requirements

In the same vein of being a student of your craft, the continuing education requirements can be your ticket to staying engaged at work. Take classes you are really curious about that can enable you to bring better service and care to your patients. Taking classes simply to get it done, with no regard for the subject matter, turns a wonderful opportunity into a chore. Dental hygiene is always evolving, so there is no shortage of material to explore.

Use your voice

People are happiest when they feel they have a measure of control.3 Try and be proactive in giving constructive feedback to your employer about the role and function of the hygiene department. Whether your office is a huge practice or a small mom-and-pop operation, there are ways to improve process and efficiency. Not only does this make a difference for us personally, it has the added benefit of showing dentists and managers that we value our position enough to take an active role in how we work. This is especially true if a current policy is making you stressed or overwhelmed. Employers would rather have an exchange of ideas and compromise then deal with a high turnover rate. Even small suggestions can make a big impact. Knowing that your input counts will result in a great deal of satisfaction.

Avoid gossip and politics

This one isn’t easy. Everyone will click with some people quicker than others, but showing up with an attitude of mutual respect for coworkers can go a long way toward keeping the peace. As a general rule, before you open your mouth to criticize, consider how your actions may have played a role in the very thing you’re thinking of complaining about. There is no doubt that some of us are unhappy at work and get lost in a mental spiral of pity and blame, but each day is a clean slate and we can choose to change our habits. Focus on what you can do and not what others don’t do or should have done. The workday is long enough as it is without added drama.

Understand patient progress

When we do our job on autopilot, we often don’t pay close attention to detail and that can spell disaster for our patients. Growth is always disrupts the pattern of doing the same old thing. We often enjoy the routine we have and going out of our way to make an effort and really see what the patient in front of us needs can be exhausting at first! I have been guilty of discussing the weather and my patient’s last vacation while I work and never getting to really consider their teeth. This is especially common for hygienists who have been in a practice a very long time. We come to know our regulars so well that we relax to the point of negligence. Is your patient long overdue for a full mouth series of radiographs? Does the patient have composites past their prime? Is chronic bleeding present, yet the patient has never had SRP? Who is in need of follow-up perio charting and ARESTIN placement where indicated? These are services that can often fall by the wayside, but in skipping them, we cheat our patients, employers, and ourselves. Making the commitment to review charts and see what each individual requires can make all the difference.

Be a team player

Beyond treating coworkers with kindness and respect, you can reap rewards from a willingness to help with a rush of phone calls, sterilizing instruments, or restocking rooms (yes, even if it’s not your room). The motivation for doing this is what matters; it’s not so you can be beyond reproach or to earn favors in return. Your motivation must be purely for the sake of living up to your own standards. Setting the goal of exceeding expectations for any task that has your name attached to it is a great way to better yourself both personally and professionally.

Set goals

Speaking of goals, it’s impossible to achieve them if you don’t set them first. Make distinct goals for yourself and track your progress. They can be as simple as increasing your periodontal assessments by 20%, or as far reaching as building your resume so you can one day work for OSHA. Whatever your professional goals may be, write them out and remember them every day.

One aspect of setting goals is that you take a good, hard look at areas in need of improvement. While this self-evaluation can initially be a bit of a downer, it’s important to remember that everyone can do something better. Diagnosis must come before treatment; if you can’t acknowledge that you need to improve your record-keeping skills or that you slack off on giving sound home care instruction, you’ll never become the best hygienist you can be. And that would be unsatisfying.

Maintain a healthy work/life balance

Minor work woes can seem like the proverbial molehill turned mountain if we aren’t happy and active in other aspects of our lives. Eating right, exercising, spending time with friends or family, and doing things we love can help us get a well-deserved break. Use your vacation time, even if you just stay home and work on a favorite hobby. Don’t have a hobby? Now is the time to try something new. As an added benefit, having something outside of work to discuss can be a good way to avoid negativity and gossip.

John Rampton wrote in Entrepreneur, “Overworked employees are less productive, more prone to burnout, and less likely to be loyal to the organization. Additionally, research has found that the most satisfied employees are those who have a life outside the office.”4 Finding time for something you love isn’t a selfish indulgence, it’s a necessity for your long- term health. We can’t give our best at work if we don’t take time to recharge. 

Don’t be put off if you honestly can’t remember how to decompress. Especially after going to school, working full-time, and potentially raising a family, it’s not surprising that many of us have lost touch with what we actually like to do. Start small; try a class at a local community center or go to a museum you have never been to before. See where that takes you and indulge in your quirks. Be it swing dancing or Bonsai gardening, you may have an untapped passion.

While I’m happy to offer up these tips and tricks, I realize that not everyone is unhappy because they are failing to take charge. If you find yourself in a position where your employer won’t listen to your feedback, is working you long hours despite you voicing that you are feeling burnt out, or is not respecting your boundaries, it may be time to update your resume and start searching for an office culture that better suits you.

Changing jobs is often hard for hygienists because we get attached to our patients. We stay for the familiar faces that become near and dear to us, even though we feel underappreciated. However, we’re not doing our patients any favors by staying in a position under the guise that our employer is fair and just if that simply isn’t the case. Finding a new job may feel like a drastic change, but could be necessary for maintaining good health5 and lasting job satisfaction.


  1. Ehrmann M. Desiderata; 1927.
  2. 2016 Global Great Jobs Report. Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/services/191105/gallup-2016-global-great-jobs-report.aspx
  3. Salmansohn K. The No. 1 contributor to happiness. Psychology Today. Jun 30, 2011. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/bouncing-back/201106/the-no-1-contributor-happiness 
  4. Rampton J. Science knows you need to get a life outside of work. This is how you do it. Entrepreneur. April 28, 2017. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/293500
  5. Scott E. Can a stressful job cause heart disease? UVA Health. Aug 23, 2019. http://uvaheealth.com/?chronic-job-stress-is-a-risk-factor-for-heart-disease-3145083

Natasha Terroade, BS, RDH, is a licensed dental hygienist with more than nine years’ experience as a clinical provider. When her hands aren’t in someone’s mouth or changing a diaper, they’re in garden soil or a fish tank. Natasha encourages patients’ health and wellness in her NY practice where she is part of a dynamic team of dental professionals.

About the Author

Natasha Terroade, BS, RDH

Natasha Terroade, BS, RDH, is a licensed dental hygienist with more than nine years’ experience as a clinical provider. When her hands aren’t in someone’s mouth or changing a diaper, they’re in garden soil or a fish tank. Natasha encourages patients’ health and wellness in her NY practice where she is part of a dynamic team of dental professionals.