Contemporary Hygienist – navigating pressure in an isolated job

contemporary hygienist pressure

This month, Claire and Faye discuss how to cope with pressure in the changing, high-pressured environment of dental hygiene.

The landscape of dental hygiene has changed so much in recent years. Particularly, the role that dental hygienists and therapists play in practice has changed.

Having a higher standing in the dental community is something we’ve fought for as a profession for a long time. It’s fantastic that we’re finally getting somewhere.

But with that comes added pressure to perform, higher expectations and a tendency toward feelings of inadequacy.

Lack of support

Growth only happens when we feel safe and supported. These are fundamental needs if we’re to have the courage to push forwards, explore new avenues, challenge old systems and introduce new behaviours.

Feeling isolated isn’t about lack of company, it’s about lack of support. As human beings we are tribal. We’re hard wired to stick together because survival when we were cave men was impossible without a tribe to share the duties.

Finding ourselves in situations where we feel unsupported, or when we have to make decisions on our own, be it clinical, business or life decisions, can trigger these cerebral and negative chemical reactions in our brain. Not having support in practice will leave us feeling exposed.

Likewise, our natural human instinct when we feel this way is to retreat to safety. The problem is that this place of safety is often the very place we’re also trying to escape from. This conflict of emotions over time will wreak havoc with our mental health.

Adapting to change

The new S3 guidelines saw the biggest shake-up to the way we manage periodontal patients in over 20 years. They forced the hand of practices and clinicians alike.

Some embraced and welcomed the changes. But others felt totally derailed by the upheaval and have been slower to adapt to the movement. This can lead to the frustration of not having a supportive team around us as hygienists, and therapists working with us toward this same goal.

This is something Contemporary Hygienist hears again and again from clinicians.

Fear and doubt

Imposter syndrome and doubting one’s own ability is another thing we often hear. Unfortunately, feeling this way is known to be disproportionately high among dental hygienists and therapists. Perhaps it’s because we feel we have had to fight for recognition within the dental team. Many clinicians are still fighting to be valued, or even seen as equal within the practices in which they work.

Social media also plays its role here too. There seems to be little between Instagramable success stories, posted from futuristic surgeries using only the latest technologies, and the nemeses, which are fear-inducing dental forums where we read the ways in which our world could come crashing down around us with one small lapse in concentration.

These are snippets in time which don’t reflect the majority of the real world. Although most of us actually appreciate that is the case, they still somehow manage to drive fear in us and lead us to question our own adequacies. Fear will cripple an individual’s confidence if it isn’t challenged and managed.

So, how do we manage it?

Firstly, acknowledge the pressure isn’t going to go away. Dentistry is always going to be a high-pressured environment.

Therefore, what we have to do is work out firstly how much we can cope with daily or weekly in terms of the number of hours we can give. This will be dictated not only by the type of practice we’re in but also what other pressures we have outside of work.

Not everyone can work a five day week and not feel the burn. That’s okay. Be realistic.

Secondly, we have to work out where the pressure release valve is because we have to have somewhere where we can let off steam. If we can’t get the support we need at work, where else can we get it?

Clinicians need to feel confident and supported, because only then will we feel strong enough to step forwards.

1. Early intervention is key

Discussing your struggles, showing your own vulnerabilities and opening yourself is really important if you’re to figure out what’s driving your problem.

Sometimes just telling someone how you feel and hearing they’ve been through the same is enough to lighten the load. Consider mentoring or shadowing – watching another clinician work can be really empowering and can help a clinician rebalance their perspective.

2. One person’s ceiling is another person’s floor

Having a framework in place which encourages regular check-ins with peers is super important. That might be a monthly clinician meeting or a weekly catch-up.

Discussing cases with other clinicians involved in a patient’s care can really help to share some of the pressure and can encourage shared responsibility.

3. We’re not superhuman

Trying to pretend we are will land us in trouble.

Having set breaks in the working day and insisting that lunch-times are spent away from the surgery should be written into practice protocols.

If clinicians are regularly working into lunch breaks, then something in the system needs rethinking. We must have down time and we must work a reasonable number of hours.

4. Looking after ourselves physically and mentally is all part of being a good clinician

Maybe try to take a week off at least every three moths. That only equates to four weeks a year, but it’s so incredibly important to spread out that time off.

We need regular breaks away from the clinic to clear our minds, breathe and press the reset button.

Setting boundaries and sticking to them is key to preventing burnout and ensuring enthusiasm doesn’t turn to apathy.

5. Find a support group

Find a support group that fits the current stage you’re at in your career. One that is synergistic with your vision and the people you want to surround yourself with. We feed from the energy of those around us, so surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you.

If you can’t find a group – create your own. There’s nothing to stop you reaching out to other hygienists in your area and asking if they want to meet up. You might just be surprised how much uptake you get.

It’s one of the reasons we created Contemporary Hygienist and it is so important for our confidence.

6. Talk to someone who understands

Arrange a meeting with colleagues if you need to.

Use your professional societies and the mentoring services they offer. Use your indemnity – they are there to listen.

For example, Dental Protection have partnered with ICAS International to deliver a professional wellbeing service for their members. It provides access one-on-one with a licensed counsellor as part of your membership.

You could find a small face to face study group where you can talk to people in similar situations. Whatever, whoever, wherever – just talk!

7. Do an internal audit

Try to think about what areas you’re least confident in and which areas cause you the most conflict. Look out for courses that help in these areas.

Often the ones away from dentistry are a good starting point, especially if you recognise some of the problems you face stem from your own internal insecurities.

8. Limit the time you spend on social media platforms

These are often the source of much anxiety and frequently paint totally unrealistic pictures.

9. Finally, seek out your nearest Contemporary Hygienist study club

It’s a safe space to share your stories. One thing you can be absolutely sure of is, whatever you’re feeling and whatever you’re going through, there’s someone out there who’s feeling it too or has felt it in the past.

What we do is bring clinicians together by creating support groups all over the country so that we have somewhere safe to turn when we feel at our lowest and somewhere safe to shout when we achieve our wins, however big or small they might be.

Celebrating each other’s success is just as important as being there in our times of need. Supporting each other is essential so we can reduce pressure, grow together, build our clinical and professional confidence and push each other in what is often, an isolated job.


Read the previous Contemporary Hygienist column: Establishing the hygiene department as a practice cornerstone.

Follow Dentistry.co.uk on Instagram to keep up with all the latest dental news and trends.

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