© Jozef Micic | Dreamstime.com
Dreamstime M 131405722 5f6c9bb7d4bc1

4 mistakes every hygienist makes that lead to career disappointment

Jan. 24, 2023
Dental hygiene can be a difficult profession at times, but disappointment and resentment do not have to be foregone conclusions.

Each day, I receive 20 to 30 emails from dental hygienists around the country who are seeking advice to change their career. As I continue to ask questions, I often find it is not clinical hygiene that they are unhappy with. It tends to be their work environment that has them feeling undervalued, underpaid, resentful, and completely exhausted. My own transition from full-time hygiene was due to carpal tunnel that I acquired before dental hygiene school from waitressing.

As a new graduate I worked six days a week in three different practices. The offices I was a part of all had different cultures and expectations, however, all of them mentored me. I showed up every day with an intention to improve my skills and to partner with the dentist to allow our office to thrive. Through this attitude, respectful and open communication with the dentist that is exactly what we did. We created a rapport and environment of full collaboration.

When I moved to Boston, I left my amazing mentors with the intention that every office would be willing to mentor and know how to leverage my strengths. Initially, I thought I had found my dental home. The office seemed to appreciate all I was doing to improve patient education, case acceptance, and overall codiagnosis of periodontal disease.

Then, I slowly was met with resistance. I would assess the patient, probing 6 mm bleeding pockets, and the dentist would agree. The patient would ask to see their normal dental hygienist, instead the “new girl”. That provider would then say “You always bleed. That’s normal.” This happened just five short years ago and fueled my passion to get into consulting. Now, I am a part of a team who allows me to take ownership of my profession.

You might also be interested in:

What professional burnout really is, and what you can do about it
10 ways for hygienists to avoid burnout

Here are four mistakes that lead to career disappointment:

Treating dental hygiene as a job and not a career

I have found that many dental hygienists who are unhappy with their clinical positions are often not happy because of how their employers have made them feel. Yet, they stay. When I was in a toxic office (there have been three in my career), I would speak up when I felt something happening was conflict with my dental hygiene oath. I would do so in a manner that was respectful, and patient-centric. I would allow time to determine if the changes that were verbally agreed upon would be fixed.

When a full calendar cycle went by, if I made it until then, if they weren’t fixed, I left. Now, I know you are thinking it can’t be that easy. I live in an area where there are not many dental hygiene jobs, I have kids, I am the primary provider etc. All of this may be true, however there are many opportunities out there for you no matter where you are. You will be met with all opportunities as you feel worthy of them. Therefore, if you are currently unhappy get out and network. Make a list of must haves in your new role. You can focus on the positives in the current office you are in, but please don’t settle for less than what you want for more than one calendar year.

Avoiding communication

I have worked for many dentists that immediately go back to their office when they are not seeing a patient, and close the door. As an extreme extrovert, I pride myself of being able to get any person out of their shell. I am actually very proud of it. From day one, I like to determine what the doctor’s philosophy is, so I can best determine if I am a good fit. When a doctor recommends a crown when I was thinking a restoration, I ask why. Not in an accusing tone, with curiousity. I explain that I want to be in alignment with how they are treatment planning to be the best resource for them.

As an office, each provider should be communicating the same messaging. With peers, I recommend simply communicating throughout the day. There are times where I forget to replace the distilled water after a long clinical day. This is my awesome dental assistant’s pet peeve. When this happens, I apologize. The next day I may even put a sticky note on it with a smiley face. The truth is, we all want to feel valued and heard. I could write a whole series on communication and leadership so I will leave this short for now.

Evaluating the technologies in practice 

If it's not provided, build value for why it is needed. I typically start by providing the practice owner with a cost analysis of why the product needs to be updated. I establish the financial boundaries for the hygiene department by asking, "What is the hygiene budget for each quarter?" We all know that hygiene and power scaler tips don't last forever, and dull instruments negatively impact the patient experience and increase our risk of injury. You'll be surprised what happens when we respectfully approach the leadership team with a confident intentions. Every single time I've implemented this in a practice that is new to me, the other dental hygienists have been shocked by the outcome.

The conversation always leads to new instruments and technology updates they never thought the owner would agree to. In full disclosure, I'm not expecting an office to provide me with every piece of equipment I've ever dreamed of. In fact, during the last five years, I have purchased my air polisher, laser, saddle stool, hand instruments, and power tips. I understand this may not be an option for all hygienists, especially new grads. I share this because I started my career with carpal tunnel, and by investing in technologies that may be out of the office formulary, I've been able to work without pain. 

Harboring resentment

When we are working in an office that lacks the ability to allow us to feel heard, valued, mentored, or maximized in our clinical capabilities, resentment can easily occur. If you dread going to work every day, if you feel like you are the odd woman/man out, if you feel like people scatter when you walk into the room, I have been there. I see this often with clinicians who complete their entire appointment in 25 minutes to go hang out in the lounge. Don’t be this person. You have worked way too hard to achieve your degree to not be celebrated. There is a team out there for you.

I love my career, every single part of it. I feel fulfilled and feel that I have found a unique opportunity to empower others. Each day I feel like Ms. Frizzle putting the puzzle pieces together to demonstrate the patient’s risks and how they can improve their oral and systemic health. I had to work for it. I had to work for a lot of frogs to know what I was worth. No office is perfect; however you shouldn’t feel like you are staying and slowly losing your passion for the dental field. There is a golden opportunity in dentistry right now to level up like we never have before. The world demands us to be fully utilizing every aspect of our dental hygiene license, so let’s run towards practice owners who empower us to do so.

This originally appeared in RDH Graduate in 2020 and is updated regularly.

About the Author

Amber Auger, MPH, RDH

Amber Auger MPH, RDH, is an international lecturer, the 2019 Sunstar RDH Award of Distinction, editorial director for RDH Graduate, creator of Thrive in the Op, and the Functional RDH Certification. Amber has more than 18 years of experience in the dental field and has been practicing dental hygiene since 2010. An active mentor to fellow hygienists, she champions personal and professional growth through her innovative Thrive in the Op on-demand courses and live coaching sessions. She can be reached at [email protected]. 

Updated January 22, 2024