Director's Message: This is your brain ... this is your brain after hygiene

July 25, 2008
Let's strive for the ripple effect in spreading respect.

Most of us are familiar with the "fried egg" commercial. The Partnership for a Drug Free America's famous tagline, "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs," is the most widely shown TV message of any of those created by the Partnership in its 20-year history.

I'm not advocating that we all become "comfortably numb" after a clinical day, yet the commercial makes me think of burnout.

A recent article in the Journal of Positive Psychology examined respect as a critical component of burnout. Burnout is a "psychological syndrome in response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job" (Maslach, Schaufeli, and Leiter, 2001). Emotional exhaustion, a main layer of burnout, is defined by feelings of being "emotionally overextended and depleted by one's work" (Maslach and Jackson, 1981).

Emotional exhaustion has been linked to organizational and individual outcomes and behaviors, including turnover and low performance and commitment to an organization or company. Emotional exhaustion is a common thread among dental hygienists working in clinical practice, and hence is one of the main contributors to hygiene burnout.

How many times have you not felt respected? The journal article discusses that there was a statistical improvement in respect in Clinical Nursing Assistants who were involved in their organization's efforts to bring them more respect. Those CNAs who were not involved in groups with increased respect reported more emotional exhaustion and were less satisfied in their work.

The bottom line is that feeling respected at work can directly influence and reduce emotional exhaustion in the work environment. If you find meaning in your work you should feel less emotional exhaustion. In addition, the journal article states that this type of respectful change has rippling effects. It positively affects not only employees, but also patients.

What is respect? From the receivers' standpoint, respect communicates recognition of one's existence (Haoneth, 1992). It encourages positive views of one's self worth. Receiving respect shows an individual's worth as a person. The giving of respect is based on one's self esteem, dignity, and care for another person's positive self-regard. (Ashford and Mael, 1989).

How can you use this article to push away burnout? It starts from within. First you have to respect yourself enough to realize that you are more than a cleaning person or mouth janitor. Your work is meaningful. It supports your patients' health and well being. You provide valued, life saving services. Here's an idea: say one of the following every day, 10 times in the mirror before work. These affirmations can make a difference. I know that when I do my best at my job, I will be rewarded in many ways. I create a good feeling at work. I support my patient's oral health goals and well being. My talents are in demand, and my unique gifts are appreciated.

If you can wrap your mind around the important roles you play in your patients' lives, the office environment, and the world, then you can influence respect and change within others. No longer can you accept behavior that demoralizes colleagues or patients. Your own burnout meters cannot sustain gossip about the front office, or brushing off the dental assistant because you believe you're on a different tier than her. If you are to expect respect, and thus limit your own emotional exhaustion, you must believe you deserve respect and you must show respect to others. Yes, this means even patients who only want "drive-by" cleanings, who don't value their oral health, or who only show up every four years. We must show respect for all.

The dental office environment can begin to change via the hygiene department. Giving and receiving respect has a clear role in limiting burnout. By improving respect, we may be able to improve the quality of care given to our patients.

Creating or implementing respect across your life is a complex process, yet it can have far reaching effects into the non-dental world. What would happen if you gave your teenage daughter more respect, or the neighbor down the street, or the coach of your son's soccer team? Lead by the respect example. What have you got to lose, except a little exhaustion and burnout?

In respect,
Kristine A. Hodsdon RDH, BS
Director, eVillage