Thursday Troubleshooter: How can dental assistant reclaim her lunch break?

This dental assistant wants to know how she can get her lunch break back. More often than not the practice runs behind, and she's the one everyone expects to prepare for the afternoon's patients during her "lunch break."

Content Dam Diq Online Articles 2015 02 No Lunch Break In Dental Office

QUESTION: I’ve been a dental assistant for almost 10 years. This is the third office that I’ve worked in. In my first two offices we would occasionally overbook and have to miss lunch, but in my new office I don’t get a lunch break more often than I do get a lunch break. A lot of times we fall behind due to overbooking, and the duties to get caught up before patients start arriving after lunch fall to me as the assistant. I don’t mind the extra responsibility every now and then, but it would be nice if other team members would give up their lunch break periodically to help get things caught up. How can I get things to change?
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ANSWER FROM BRIDGET FAY, Senior Consultant, Odyssey Management, Inc:
Wow, they’re lucky you haven't ended up passed out on the floor at some point during the day! If it's just you and one or two other people that are not getting a lunch, I would bring this up to the dentist and office manager as a group, if the others are willing to participate. Mention things like decreased productivity, agitation, working with little to no energy (see decreased productivity), which are all the result of not getting a chance to eat. If you’re bringing in your lunch and still not getting the opportunity to eat it, make a few suggestions that would help everyone get a fair chance to eat, and be sure to refer to your employee handbook if there’s a section on break time.

Propose a rotation of staff because it doesn't always have to be an assistant that seats the patient. As a member of the administrative team, I've often sat a patient for the clinical staff so they can eat, catch up in the lab, or finish with another patient. I learned what information is needed to triage and made the patients comfortable until the assistant or doctor was available. When you talk to the doctor, be sure to mention the parts of your job you really like so it doesn't seem like you’re there just to complain, even though this is a serious issue for you.

If this doesn’t work, the next step is to research the employment laws in your state. Some states require employers to provide a certain amount of break time during the day for a certain number of hours worked. This information should be clearly posted in the office for all staff members to see, but you might need to refer to the Internet, a friend in HR, or call the employment commission in your state. I would reserve this option as a last resort. Be ready for some possible retaliation from management, or even worse, be prepared to find employment elsewhere.

What it comes down to is what you’re willing to live with on a day-to-day basis if your other options don't work. Sometimes you have to step back and think about what kind of office you want to work in. Every office is different and what works for one might not work for another, or might not even be legal! My best wishes to you.

ANSWER FROM LYNNE LEGGETT, Victory Dental Management, LLC:
I understand why you’re upset. Working through lunch occasionally is one thing, but you have stated that it happens more so than not. There is a central problem in your office, and that is the schedule.

I’ve heard it said many times that the schedule is the “heart” of the practice; everything revolves around it. This improper scheduling does three basic things – it does not value the patients’ time, it does not appreciate the staff, and it increases the stress level for all involved.

My suggestion is to discuss all of your issues with your office manager and dentist. Let them know that your goal is to make sure the practice takes the best care of your patients. They may not realize there are other ways to manage your schedule in a more efficient and profitable manner. There are many resources in the dental community that can help your office with this need. Good luck with your situation.

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Send your questions for the experts to answer. Responses will come from various consultants associated with Speaking Consulting Network, Academy of Dental Management Consultants, or Dental Consultant Connection. Their members will take turns fielding your questions on DentistryIQ, because they are very familiar with addressing the tough issues. Hey, it's their job.

Send your questions to megk@pennwell.com. All inquiries will be answered anonymously every Thursday here on DIQ.

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