Why dental professionals need regular breaks for a respectful workplace

Why dental professionals need regular breaks for a respectful workplaceIn the face of the current recruitment crisis facing dentistry, Preetee Hylton highlights the importance of making the practice a comfortable and healthy place to work.

In June 2022, I came across an article in the Nursing Times about concerns raised over break times and the quality of food available to UK health workers. It mentioned that more than half of health professionals tend to miss out on regular breaks and lunchtimes. Members of staff are also worried about the quality of food available to them in their work settings.

Why is this a topic I’m passionate about? Because this is no different for dental nurses and other dental professionals. We rarely have regular breaks, often miss out on part of our lunchtime, if not all. There are times we barely have time to use the bathroom or even have a sip of water.

When I used to work in the NHS dental practices in the past, I would often miss lunch and finish my shift late, along with my colleagues. I used to work with one clinician in the morning and a different one in the afternoon.

Extra hours

This meant that I had to give up my lunchtime to carry out my decontamination responsibilities, set up for another surgery and look for patient records (we had almost 25,000 cards filed away). These were still paper based at that point.

We used to see approximately 20-25 patients in the afternoon, with no decontamination dental nurse to assist with the re-processing of instruments. There were occasions when we had to assist with emergency dental treatment during lunchtime. This meant my colleagues had to miss part of their lunch hour to help me out.

We did not receive any thanks, nor were we allowed to claim any time off in lieu for the extra hours we put in.

Physical and mental health

We often suffered from headaches from sheer exhaustion and perhaps lack of hydration, especially during summer. Feeling faint due to hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) was common as well, hence a never-ending stash of sweets and chocolates was a must.

I once was sent a meme about staff rooms in dental practices being one the unhealthiest places. This is no myth.

Dental nurses also tend to suffer from urinary tract infections as well, causing extreme discomfort and the need to urinate more urgently than usual. These are only a few of the symptoms. This is more likely to occur in women – who have a shorter urethra than men – meaning bacteria gets to the bladder faster.

These are all physical ailments but what are the implications on our mental health? I did not realise it then, but I was constantly anxious. This led to increased stress and burnout levels, which my teammates suffered from as well.

We often had dental nurses calling in sick – staff members on shift had to work twice as hard, running between surgeries to assist patients and clinicians. I recall the practice having high staff turnover. I lasted just over three years and chose to resign after being admitted in the hospital with a migraine and having tunnel vision, accompanied by vomiting.

I’m certain that many dental professionals will relate to this. We are already witnessing dental nurses leaving the profession due to no job satisfaction (and poor wages, of course).

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How do we start working towards a respectful workplace?

Effective management, promoting a healthy mindset and a respectful work environment is key. For example:

  • Implementing short (15 minutes) mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks into the work schedule, as well as providing adequate lunchtime for members of staff
  • Staggered quiet break times (15 minutes) for individuals to recharge and re-focus.
  • Encourage some form of physical activity during the 60 minutes lunchtime provided. This can be in the form of a vigorous walk or yoga
  • Organising social or team-building events throughout the year
  • Carrying out regular appraisals so that employees can express their concerns.

There are numerous benefits to breaks in the workplace:

  • Significant improvement in physical, emotional and mental health
  • Increase in productivity, creativity and, therefore, job satisfaction
  • Promotes dialogue and communication in the team
  • Restores concentration and attention, for both short-term and long-term goals in the profession
  • Better staff retention in dentistry

I was fortunate to receive the Mind-Flossing Toolkit (an amazing well-being toolkit for dental professionals) created by Dr Mahrukh Khwaja as part of a giveaway by Practice Success and Mind Ninja Wellbeing.

It was designed to help us nurture and maintain our overall wellbeing and resilience. The toolkit is divided into yellow and purple cards, as well as colouring cards – the yellow cards are about well-being concepts, while the purple cards focus on well-being activities in the workplace.

My favourite ones are the ‘Switching Off Autopilot’, ‘How To Eat Mindfully’, ‘Chair Yoga Poses at Work’ and ‘Habits That Stick’ cards. This toolkit is a great asset to dental practices and organisations, and I highly recommend it.

How do we promote better oral health in dental workplaces?

  • Providing fresh fruits and vegetables for employees during lunchtime (The No8 Partnership provides us with fresh fruits on a daily basis)
  • Keeping cakes, chocolates and sweets to special occasions and only during lunchtime
  • Making drinking water accessible to all members of staff by providing a water dispenser in common areas
  • Allowing clinical staff to keep their bottle of plain water in a cupboard in the surgery they are working in
  • Providing members of staff with complimentary toothbrushes, fluoride-based toothpaste and dental floss/interdental brushes
  • Incentives such as complimentary dental hygiene sessions for employees should be encouraged.

Dental care professionals deserve to work in a healthy environment, which promotes growth and resilience. This involves providing adequate quiet time, nutrition and incentives for better job satisfaction.

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