Time for change – why it’s harder than ever to find dental nurses

Time for change – why it’s harder than ever to find dental nurses

As the recruitment crisis continues to rock dentistry, head dental nurse Hayley O’Neill considers why it is impacting the role of the dental nurse in particular. 

Unfortunately, it’s harder than ever to find and keep a good dental nurse. This is a noticeable discussion amongst dental colleagues across forums and dental media, and seems to be getting increasingly worse over the last few years.

Dental nurses are the backbone of the dental environment whether that’s in a dental practice, hospital or community setting and so the lack of nurses is putting pressure on the wider team.

There was a time when an advert for a dental nurse position would be returned with a waiting room of applicants eagerly awaiting an interview, yet now the lack of response is worrying.

So, what is behind the change and why don’t people want to be dental nurses anymore?

Low salaries

It would be silly not to start with the low salaries on offer. The average hourly rate for a dental nurse is far from acceptable, especially as many nurses are also responsible for paying their own insurance, registration and CPD.

Inflation and the cost of living is forcing nurses out of positions they have worked hard for.

Fair salary is directly linked to retention of employees due to increasing the job satisfaction and motivation to stay loyal to a fair employer.

Lack of flexibility

A second reason is that many dental nurses struggle to make the hours work when they have children due to a lack of flexibility which pushes them elsewhere.

There is a saying which goes ‘flexibility strengthens’, which could certainly be considered by employers, who could look at their staff and diaries and see if flexible working can be accommodated.

This could include a wider variety of shifts and working to a rota which involves a week of earlier starts followed by a week of later starts. Flexible working can benefit both parents and non-parents so it should be fair to avoid bias towards parents.

Flexible shifts will not work for every practice, especially small practices, so it needs to be assessed on an individual basis.

Lack of career development

Lack of career development is the next factor getting nurses down. Dental nursing is a career in itself, but often is not seen that way with nurses seeking other avenues such as hygiene or leaving the industry due to feeling like they have hit a rut.

Clearer steppingstones are needed to keep nurses focused on progressing within their nursing career. Management should understand the nurse’s pathway to progression as nurses do not always know how they can progress within their practice or other dental setting.

Promotion opportunity and incentives come into the same category and will keep nurses feeling fulfilled in their career.

Throwing trainees in at the deep end causes them to leave. I’ve lost count of the number of trainees who have told me they were missold a position in their interview and found it to not be what they were expecting.

There is a high turnover of trainees who give up in the first few months due to feeling overwhelmed and thrown in at the deep end. Trainees need clear interviews, support, and structure to their training. I have created a trainee pack which helps the trainees and the wider team to feel more confident in their first few months of practice to help solve the problem.

Some nurses feel undervalued and unappreciated, and this can lead to low morale and seeking value from other industries. Dental nurses work hard, often with long hours and should be treated with respect.

Make nurses feel valued

There are so many ways in which you can undervalue a dental nurse, and most of the time this is done without realising.

It could be not thanking them, running into their lunch break regularly, overlooking those who are always reliable or making them work in a short staffed environment which causes burn out. Making nurses feel valued again is key to keeping them in the industry.

Lack of pride or falling out of love with the practice can affect the retention of a dental nurse. A company mission statement which staff connect with is a great way to increase pride within the dental environment.

It feels nice to feel proud of the place that you work, and a shared set of values, standards and goals will help employees feel engaged and motivated. Helping nurses to feel proud to work in their practice will help with retention and also make them more likely to endorse the company to others.

A lack of feedback opportunities via both structured and informal appraisals is becoming all too common.

With many practices struggling to manage the patient list and backlog of appointments, gaps are getting filled which squeezes out the opportunity to sit and touch base with employees.

Build trust and confidence

Time needs to be made at acceptable intervals to sit and check in with nurses to see if there’s any signs of burnout which can be caught early and managed. Regular connection with staff has been proven to reduce absence by not allowing negativity to fester.

How can we turn this around? By addressing all of the above, current dental nurses will start to build trust and confidence with the industry.

There are lots of pros to dental nursing such as helping others, having a lifelong education and being able to work in a varied environment. It is certainly possible to encourage nurses to fall back in love with the job they worked hard to get a qualification for if the right changes are made quickly.

Secondly, more needs to be done to attract new dental nurses into the industry from other vocations. Advertising jobs with plenty of detail on job descriptions, offering competitive salaries and focusing on career development is of the utmost importance.

Being active on social media will also help reach wider audiences and promote your business as a great place to be.

It’s clear to me that if the industry wants to turn this around, it’s time for a change. If we all work together to improve the welfare of dental nurses, the positive change will benefit the whole business.

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