Ask Kara RDH: Is Burnout in Clinical Hygiene Normal?

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I have been doing clinical hygiene 3-4 days per week for over a year now and I’m already feeling burnt out. I work at a great office and love what I do but have noticed that patient’s attitudes make me dislike the job. It’s annoying when a patient tries to dictate care (no cold water, no ultrasonic, negative reactions about the need for X-rays and perio charting, refusing SRP treatment, etc.). I feel sometimes disrespected by my patients, and it seems as a hygienist they just view you as just ‘the person who’s supposed to clean my teeth,’ not a registered healthcare provider. I was just offered a promotion to work full-time at my job and am not sure if I should take it. I guess what I’m getting at is it normal to feel like this? And how do you deal?

Burnout in any profession, including dental hygiene, can happen. Some patients are certainly more difficult than others! Realize that many patients who are difficult are that way because of their fears, anxieties, or lack of knowledge. Regardless of the reason, it’s hard not to take it personally. Recognizing why they are acting the way they are, might make it easier for you not to take it so personally. Easier said than done, but trying to recognize why they are like they are, so you can let it go.

For the patients that question the use of the ultrasonic or the need for perio charting and radiographs, have you educated them on exactly why these things are needed? Sometimes giving patients the “why” will help them tolerate what you need to do to treat them with the best care. Explaining these things in a way that is a direct benefit to them, on a personal level, might carry some weight and stick with them. If you have already done this, yet many patients fight you at every appointment, it might be time to let the doctor know what’s going on. Sometimes the doctor stepping in and giving a quick explanation to a patient will make them more compliant. I don’t know your particular situation, but if the doctor isn’t backing you on the clinical needs of a patient, which is why the patients are acting like this, maybe the office isn’t a great fit which is leading to your burnout. I’ve heard of many hygienists starting to feel burnt out, and when they switched offices, everything changed.

There are other ways to reinvigorate your career like going to dental hygiene conferences, getting involved and volunteering. Dental hygiene conferences are also great networking opportunities that can open doors to new career pathways. Getting involved with your local ADHA component has changed some hygienists view on going to work every day and opened doors to new opportunities as well. Volunteering might help with burnout too. Generally, the patients you treat while volunteering are very thankful for what you are doing for them. Some hygienists cut their clinical days down, and that seems to help with burnout as well.

Maybe it’s time to move away from clinical work altogether, if not just take a break if it’s bringing you down. Have you thought about working for a dental company doing research, sales, or product education (lunch and learns)? Or maybe working for a dental consulting company or becoming an educator in a dental hygiene program? Here is a great list from the ADHA with other career paths beyond clinical, private practice dental hygiene:

Change is scary, but being open to new things can open doors, you just can’t be afraid to walk through them. Even if you take a break from clinical work, it doesn’t mean you can’t go back. My chiropractor was getting burnout, so he stepped away for about a year and helped his wife with her business and low and behold he’s totally ready to see patients again. This may happen to you too!

By no means are you alone in feeling burnt out, just know that there are other options for your education that you can pursue. I wish the best of luck to you!

NOW READ: Expand Your Hygiene Career by Thinking Like an Entrepreneur

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Kara Vavrosky, RDHEP
Kara Vavrosky, RDHEP, is a co-founder and the chief content officer of Today’s RDH, an independent educational publishing company for dental hygienists, encompassing articles, a podcast, virtual continuing education events, and self-study continuing education. Today’s RDH was launched in 2018 after Kara built her social media presence with her largest following on her Facebook page, Dental Hygiene with Kara RDH, which was created in 2013. An Oregon Institute of Technology graduate, Kara has a deep passion for spreading knowledge about the importance of oral health and its association with systemic health. Kara’s passion extends to helping other hygienists understand current protocols and evidence-based research – all with the goal of lifting dental hygienists and the dental hygiene profession. Kara was recognized in 2020 as one of the Top 100 Women in Media for her entrepreneurship as a co-founder of Today’s RDH. In 2022, she was recognized by the American Dental Hygienists’ Association for their Standout Seven Award in the Entrepreneur category. Kara lives in Vancouver, Washington, just outside Portland, Oregon, with her husband, Ben, and their four Chihuahuas. When she’s not working, Kara loves riding the Oregon Dunes on her quad, spoiling her Chihuahuas, and spending time with her close-knit family.