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you'll avoid burnout in dental hygiene if you can craft the hours and tasks you want.

Crafting a burnout-proof career as a hygienist

June 24, 2024
If you want to get rid of or avoid burnout altogether, think about mixing it up some. This will enable you flexibility to do everything you love about dental hygiene.

Health care is an extremely demanding field, and too many of us experience burnout. From heavy workloads to lack of scheduling autonomy to insufficient support, the health-care world is rife with factors that can lead to burnout.1 The dental hygienist shortage is hitting practices and patients hard, so burnout and hygienist satisfaction should be taken very seriously.2

I began my career as a clinical dental hygienist in 2007 and moved into higher education in 2013, when I became a professor of dental hygiene and then a program director. After nearly 10 years in higher education, I was feeling burned out by administrative burdens, academic politics, budgets, and all the extraneous factors that distracted me from what I loved: teaching and mentoring.

When I left higher education, I dipped my toe back into clinical practice by temping as a hygienist at several different practices. I hadn’t realized how much I missed practicing hygiene, but I didn’t want to give up teaching and mentorship. After temping for Aspen Dental, I joined the practice as a part-time hygienist, where I found a burnout-proof balance that has kept me fulfilled.

The benefits of a flexible schedule

Flexibility and autonomy are critical for avoiding burnout. Being able to design my own schedule gives me the ability to work the days and hours I want. I’m not subject to churning out prophy exams; if I have a patient who needs extra attention, I can build that time into my schedule.

One issue many hygienists have with part-time work is the lack of full benefits. As hygienists’ interest in part-time work grows, organizations are updating their policies so that even part-time hygienists can have access to the full suite of benefits. This is a huge step in the right direction to support hygienists and is one of the key advantages of working with a dental support organization (DSO). DSOs have a large bank of resources, which makes it much easier for them to offer top-of-the-line benefits to all hygienists.

The combination of schedule autonomy, flexibility, and access to benefits makes part-time work, with the right employer, extremely attractive.

Work-life balance is attainable

Yes, part-time hygiene work may sound great, but what does it look like in practice? For me, working three and a half days per week allows me to care for patients, which I love, while also pursuing the teaching and mentorship that made my time in higher education so valuable.

When I’m not working with patients, I work as a dissertation chair and PhD methodologist at Liberty University and give continuing education lectures and presentations. I’m also able to be active in my local and national hygiene associations. Volunteering with the Pennsylvania and American Dental Hygienists’ Associations gives me the opportunity to advocate for my fellow hygiene colleagues and influence policies for our profession. I love teaching, presenting, and mentoring, and being able to pursue these interests when I’m not in the dental office has helped me build the most fulfilling career imaginable. I don’t have to choose between education and patient care; I can have both.

Practicing chairside hygiene while having the opportunity to help students is exactly the work-life balance I need. I’ve been able to cut out the aspects of my previous roles that led to burnout, leaving only what I truly enjoy. This balance has helped make my career as burnout-proof as possible.

Reflect on what you really want

For hygienists considering part-time work, my advice is to seriously consider what you really want. If you’re not happy with what you’re currently doing, look for a different place to work. Especially postpandemic, many offices place a large administrative and clinical burden on hygienists to meet patient demand, and unfortunately, these burdens take away a lot of a hygienist’s autonomy and flexibility.

When I decided to return to clinical practice, I knew I needed to find a dental office that would let me practice the way I wanted. I was able to find the autonomy, flexibility, benefits, and support I needed, but I wouldn’t have had that success if I hadn’t taken the time to really consider what was important to me.

If you’re not happy in your current position, what don’t you like? Do you feel rushed? Are things too inflexible? Are you unhappy with scheduling? Whatever it is that you care about most, prioritize those nonnegotiable items when you’re interviewing at other offices. When you find the right fit, you’ll feel empowered to practice the way you want. That level of freedom is your bulwark against burnout.

Remember why you love hygiene

For me, the biggest benefit of part-time work is how it allowed me to fall back in love with dental hygiene. By having the flexibility and autonomy to control my own schedule and practice the way I want to, I can avoid the burnout that plagued me in the past and provide the best possible care for my patients.


1. Health worker burnout. Office of the Surgeon General. May 30, 2024. www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/priorities/health-worker-burnout/index.html. 

2. Hill A. The dental hygienist shortage: will dentistry ever look the same? Dentistry IQ. August 22, 2023. www.dentistryiq.com/practice-management/staffing/article/14297985/the-dental-hygienist-shortage-will-dentistry-ever-look-the-same

About the Author

Kimberly A. Erdman, EdD, RDH, FAADH, FADHA

Kimberly A. Erdman, EdD, RDH, FAADH, FADHA, is a dental hygienist at Aspen Dental, as well as a PhD Methodologist at Liberty University. She loves providing top-notch patient care while also being able to teach and mentor students pursuing graduate health science work. Kimberly is a proud member and Inaugural Fellow of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association and a Fellow of the American Academy of Dental Hygiene.