Appreciation in the Dental Workplace Part One: Retaining Staff

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“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, shall we,” Dr. Clark announced at the monthly staff meeting on that gloomy Monday morning. “I’ve been talking with my peers, and it seems it’s not just our office that is having this major staffing issue as of late. Things have just gotten worse since that blasted shutdown a couple of years ago. Hygienists are leaving for other offices, taking extended time off for health reasons, and some are just quitting the whole profession. We cannot go on this way, or I will lose my shirt!”

The last few years have proven challenging to retain quality dental staff. Specifically, there is an urgent need for hygienists. While hygienists know the reasons we leave jobs – either to go another practice, take a sabbatical to recuperate from stress or other health concerns, or leave the profession altogether – there’s so much more to it that urgently needs to be addressed. Dr. Clark and his peers cannot go on in this way. And neither can we. Let’s discuss what can be done.

Retain Valuable Dental Employees

May I be so bold as to say employers need to figure out how to retain valuable dental employees, not just how to look for new ones constantly? Could that be more of the answer? It seems simple, and it is in many ways. Discovering how to do this takes work. However, it’ll be worth it.

In his book Focus on the Good Stuff: The Power of Appreciation, Mike Robbins notes that the U.S. Department of Labor reports that 64% of Americans who leave their jobs say they do so because they don’t feel appreciated.1 That’s a significant number!

We should delve into this whole “appreciation” thing a little more. Let’s see if practice owners can start retaining hard-working dental team members before it’s too late instead of scrambling to woo new ones into quickly diminishing practices. Could a simple thing like appreciation be the answer? Let’s investigate. (Cue ominous background music here…)

Retaining valuable team members, specifically dental hygienists, for the purpose of this discussion comes with a cost. Like any profitable business, risk assessments need to take place, and a profitable ROI (return on investment) needs to be evaluated for any business endeavor to be considered. So, let’s assess if showing appreciation to dental hygienists is worth the expenditure in whatever form is needed.

Why should practice owners invest in appreciation? What is there to gain? Does risk versus reward pay off?

The Benefits of Appreciating Dental Staff

Dental hygienists are professionals who are encouraged to use the latest evidence-based research to determine scientifically proven methods for assessing and treating our patients. Using this same method, we can determine if the ROI for demonstrating appreciation in the dental workplace is financially sound for practice owners to invest in.

A Glassdoor survey found that four out of five (81%) of employees say they are “motivated to work harder when their boss shows appreciation for their work.”2 If this is the case, then it stands to reason those hygienists, statistically, who are shown greater appreciation by their practice owners, will be more productive, thereby lending to a more lucrative the dental practice.

Employee Engagement

Studies show that intrinsic motivators (i.e., positive comments, giving praise) can outweigh extrinsic motivators (i.e., monetary benefits) for employee job satisfaction and performance.3 This approach does not undermine the value of compensating employees appropriately or the value a hygienist will feel when given a deserved raise. It does, however, prove the value of appreciation in the workplace as a worthy investment.

If a dental hygienist is motivated, then what? How does that benefit the practice? Chances are the hygienist will engage with the practice more, helping it to thrive. Employee engagement has been defined as “the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.”4 Dental hygienists who are shown appreciation care about their practices, and they are most likely to invest themselves into its success.

The numerous positive benefits impacting businesses resulting from increased employee engagement include:5

  • Employees show up for work
  • Less staff turnover
  • Fewer employee accidents on the job
  • Less employee theft
  • Higher customer ratings
  • Greater productivity
  • Increased profitability

Dental employers should find that the ROI expected from investing in a higher appreciation of one’s employees is certainly worth the risk.

The Power of Appreciation from Team Members

Appreciation in the workplace is needed, and it’s proven to have an astronomical effect on the retention and engagement of the employees who receive it. We now discuss how dynamics have changed in the workplace over time, and the need for appreciation from both leaders/managers and colleagues is paramount for retention and overall happiness.

Appreciation from colleagues too? Isn’t that the manager’s job? Well, yes and no. With an emerging younger population moving into the workforce and the boomers migrating out for retirement, times have changed. This poses challenges for both generations alike, but learning to embrace change and educate ourselves on navigating these new waters is key to success. Being open-minded, knowing that change can be good if handled delicately and mindfully, is needed in today’s world to survive and thrive.

Collegial respect can also be expanded to include showing appreciation to and from all team members, regardless of “rank.” While it goes without saying that regard given to a doctor by a hygienist should be considered normal practice, it can go a very long way when this is reciprocated to the hygienist by a dentist. Sometimes this isn’t the case, and a hygienist who does not feel respected by other practice providers will be working with a bad taste in their mouth.

Very similar to the situation mentioned above is the mutual respect that hygienists and assistants should give each other to show appreciation for the specific role each plays and how the integration of the two is integral to a positive workflow.

Yes, supervisors, managers, and leaders alike need to show appreciation to employees. However, these days employees gravitate more toward peer-to-peer solidarity. They often prefer to work in groups of at least two, and they thrive in settings that encourage authentic appreciation from team members toward one another.

There are many advantages to expanding the focus on providing the resources necessary for team members to show appreciation to one another:6

  • Peers understand the dental industry’s stress, particularly within their subset of titles and coordinating duties.
      • For example, dental hygienists understand the challenges of a difficult periodontal therapy appointment, waiting too long for a recall exam by the doctor, or dealing with difficult patients.
  • In most industries, more communication and interaction occur between colleagues than between employees and managers. While this isn’t always true in dental practices, it often is found in cases where an office manager, for example, is not/has not been a dental clinician.
  • Co-workers will often sense if another is having difficulty or needing encouragement due to their proximity of workspace.
  • Encouragement and appreciation are often sought out by an employee from a manager, but it may be more realistic to receive them from a colleague who works closer with them on a daily basis.

The benefits of peer appreciation, rather than the sole emphasis on managers to provide such, include:7,8

  • Lightens load (or perceived load) from managers to provide all the support to their team
  • Supports younger employees with peer relationships within the dental workplace
  • Promotes a proactive mindset, discouraging a victim mindset
  • Builds relational energy and accountability
  • Allows for appreciation to be applied and communicated even in the absence of a manager
  • Empowers and engages team members, impacting their desired work culture
  • Positively impacts financial results, more so than with manager-only recognition.
      • For example, an engaged employee is a happy employee who wants to see the company succeed and will contribute significantly more so as a result, which could lead to more production and, therefore, more profit for the practice.
  • Increases client satisfaction
      • For example, have you ever had a patient express gratitude for witnessing a happy work environment and feeling more taken care of as a result? Happy patients tend to refer others to the practice because they want their friends and family members to be in a healthy environment for their care.

Well, the proof is in the pudding! Looks like appreciation in the workplace by both managers and team members toward one another alike provides a substantial return on investment and may even lead to dental hygienist retention in the long run. Perhaps Dr. Clark would be open to learning what we will discuss in the next article of this series, The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Dental Workplace. We will discuss how to show appreciation to one another using individual-specific languages that speak best to one another. Now that’s where the rubber meets the road.

As Mark Zuckerberg once said, “Treat your employees right so they won’t use your internet to look for new jobs.” Wise words, Mark.

To read part two of the Appreciation in the Dental Workplace series, click here. To read part three, click here.

Before you leave, check out the Today’s RDH self-study CE courses. All courses are peer-reviewed and non-sponsored to focus solely on high-quality education. Click here now.

Listen to the Today’s RDH Dental Hygiene Podcast Below:


  1. Robbins, M. (2007). Focus on the Good Stuff: The Power of Appreciation. Jossey-Bass.
  2. Glassdoor Team. (2013, November 13). Employers to Retain Half of Their Employees Longer if Bosses Showed More Appreciation: Glassdoor Survey. Glassdoor.
  3. Luthans, F., Luthans, K.W., Hodgetts, R.M., Luthans, B.C. Positive Approach to Leadership (PAL) Implications for Today’s Organizations. Journal of Leadership Studies. 2001; 8(2): 3-20.
  4. Kruse, K. (2012). Employee Engagement 2.0: How to Motivate Your Team for High Performance. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
  5. Wagner, R., Harter, J.K. (2006). 12: The Elements of Great Managing. Gallup Press.
  6. Chapman, G., White, P., (2019). The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People. Northfield Publishing.
  7. Vorhauser-Smith, S. (2013, August 14). How the Best Places to Work are Nailing Employee Engagement. Forbes.
  8. Darling, J.R., Keeffe, M.J., Ross, J.K. Entrepreneurial Leadership Strategies and Values: Keys to Operational Excellence. Journal of Small Business & Entrepreneurship. 2007; 20(1): 41-54.
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Corina Hartley, RDH
Corina Hartley, RDH, is a Canadian Durham College graduate from the province of Ontario. Practicing dental hygiene since 2006, she has experienced the challenges of commuting to big cities, working in remote areas, and temping at various offices with differing ethnic backgrounds. While her family will always be her first love, the dental world is certainly the field she is passionate about, and writing about it brings her immense joy. Corina has a unique ability to relax the most phobic patient and calm an irate one with a smile, an understanding attitude, and a special sense of humor. She enjoys really getting to the heart of the matter with everything she does in life, and this is demonstrated by her witty writing abilities. Corina’s biggest desire is to share life with as many people as possible through close-up experiences, storytelling, and simply just being present.