‘Leave It at the Door’: Controlling Emotions in the Dental Workplace

© moodboard / Adobe Stock

Over the years, I have heard many different cliches and suggestions about the appropriateness of carrying our personal lives through the doors of the dental hygienist’s workplace. It has been said that to “bring matters of the heart” to work is considered unprofessional. We should find a way to “check it at the door” and resist all temptation to allow emotion to creep its way into work life.  Sure, it may sound easy to perform some sort of ritual or activity to the “leave it at the back door,” but what about the reality of life’s circumstances that make it difficult to smile through the tears or worry?

The emotional labor it takes to get through a workday as a dental hygienist is taxing. Emotional labor is the work of modifying one’s behavior in front of patients in order to be perceived as professional, competent, and compassionate.1 For dental hygienists, that behavior is multifaceted. We must appear skilled, knowledgeable, talkative, happy, have a “put-together” appearance, interested in the patient’s personal life, and energetic, all while looking darn good doing it. Pile a heap of personal life on top of that, and we are primed for burnout and exhaustion.

Does Your Dental Family Stand True?

Life can dish out anything from an early morning argument with a partner, a best friend delivering terrible news of a diagnosis, and a million scenarios in between. Some circumstances can be easily tucked away in our minds to deal with later, but others seem too overwhelming to make it through even our favorite 7 a.m. patient.

Since most people spend more waking hours at work than at home, it would seem reasonable to call on coworkers for support through a challenging time. Some offices even tout, “We are family here.” When the rubber hits the road, do they behave like the family you always wish you had or your crazy aunt that writes you in and out of her will?

Kelly S. Zentner, MA, a licensed professional counselor-supervisor, says that we are all multidimensional, much like a Rubik’s Cube. When we are working on “one side of ourselves,” the other “sides” get shuffled. It is important to focus on all of the sides and the bigger picture of the overall person.

When dealing with a personal issue, Zentner says to acknowledge the stressor. “You do not have to go around telling everyone your problems, but you can verbalize that you received upsetting news and may not be yourself that day.”2 This sets the tone for the day and does not leave coworkers guessing what is wrong.

Depending on the type of relationship you have with colleagues, you may also ask for what you need for the day. “I need some space today.” “I could use some help turning my op between patients so I can go take a few breaths.” “Can someone stay with me for a few minutes after work today because I need to talk?” Those around us do not know how to support us unless we tell them.

Hit a Coping Skill

Zentner says to be honest with yourself and those in your everyday world. If they push for more information and you are not comfortable with sharing, it is okay to draw a boundary and explain that you are not ready to talk about it. She offers a few coping skills that may allow you to begin to process the problem and start fresh the next day. Zenter recommends finding ways to express the feelings when not at work. This may look like punching a pillow, screaming, hitting a basket of golf balls, or going for a hard run.

She says this allows your body to push through the feelings while you are processing the issue. “Our society teaches us to ignore feelings, and that is so wrong! We have to go through them! When we do, they don’t last as long, and they can become more manageable.”

Research has shown that when stress is displaced on an inanimate object, through physical activity, in a supportive relationship, or spiritual setting, stress hormones can be greatly reduced.3 By having outlets to relieve tension, such as mentioned above by Zenter, we can begin to prime ourselves for better tolerance of distress during difficult times.

Options to ‘Stuffing Pain’

Our emotional states are a part of who we are. We must go through negative emotions to process them and get to the other side of the pain. As health care professionals, we are sometimes called to “stuff that pain” in order to engage in the emotional labor that is required to serve our patients.  This can provoke negative feelings associated with not being congruent with your true self and make for a really long and stressful day.

Here are a few steps to consider when struggling with life during work hours:

Emotional culture of the practice:  Have open conversations as a team about what is acceptable behavior. Get a clear understanding of what is expected of team members if they need emotional support from others. Agree on boundaries and volunteer how you are available for others in need. If the management of the practice does not welcome such conversations, build your own team family. Find at least one other person in the office that you can trust. Form your own small support circle that is well-defined with boundaries and mutual agreements.

Compartmentalization: Compartmentalization is known as a defense mechanism, and, when used mindlessly or excessively, it can lead to unhealthy avoidant behaviors. When used intentionally, it can be called on temporarily in a healthy way to manage the day. Sometimes in moments of crisis, we have to put our feelings in a compartment with the intention to address them later. During a busy day of patients, this may be required to survive the emotional labor of the patient load. Give yourself permission to set it aside and make a silent promise that you will nurture those needs at the end of the day.

Ground, Feel, Breathe: When we are in an emotional crisis, and the “show must go on,” there is power in getting present and breathing. Here is how it works:

  1. Ground ─ Feel your feet on the floor. Get heavy in your body. Check into your physical self and pay attention to what your body feels like.
  2. Feel ─ Take a few seconds to notice and honor what you feel. Do not try to judge or analyze it; just feel it.
  3. Breathe ─ Find a simple and short breathing technique that will settle your sympathetic nervous system. My favorite is belly breathing three seconds in and five seconds out. I gently let my belly rise with air for three seconds and then let it fall for five seconds. The most important part of this exercise is that the breaths are always into the belly (not the chest) and the exhale is longer than the inhale. This can help you gain control of your heart rate and respiratory rate. The best part of this simple exercise is that it is free, and no one has to know you are doing it.

Life can often throw us curveballs. When we least expect it, we can be hit square in the face with trauma, stress, and crisis. Finding a balance between the energy we expel in patient care and caring for ourselves can feel overwhelming some days. Stop and think through what you need, ask for what you need, and practice self-care. Some things are impossible to “leave at the door” and require extra effort or care to carry through the day. After all, we are all human.

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 pure education. Click here now.

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


  1. Mohsin, F.Z., Ayub, N. General Emotional Labor Scale: Development and Establishing Psychometric Properties. Business Review Original Paper. 2020; 15(1): 83-96.
  2. Kelly S. Zentner, MA, LPC-S, Personal interview, April 2021.
  3. Sapolsky, R., 2010. Stress and Your Body: Course Guidebook. The Great Courses. Chantilly, Va.
Previous articleResearchers Find Groundbreaking Connection between Oral Bacteria and Stroke
Next article8 Tips for Conquering the National Dental Hygiene Board Exam
Kandice Swarthout, RDH, LPC
Kandice Swarthout, RDH, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Dental Hygienist. She is a full-time dental hygiene educator in Texas, where she teaches community dentistry and research. Kandice is the owner of Inspired Education & Wellness, where she is a speaker, writer, and private practice therapist. Her unique blend of clinical expertise in both dental hygiene and mental health equips her to assist fellow healthcare professionals in recognizing not only their patients’ needs but also their own, fostering deeper connections with the healthcare community. Kandice’s dedication extends to her role as an approved provider for Texas Health and Human Services, specializing in human trafficking training for healthcare providers. Additionally, Kandice brings a touch of fun and camaraderie to the dental community as the co-owner of Muffins & Mimosas Dental Study Club. She offers engaging, in-person dental continuing education that creates a warm and welcoming environment for friends and colleagues to come together to learn. Read her articles in Today’s RDH column, Mental Health Spotlight. Contact Kandice through her website at www.kandiceswarthout.com or on social media @The Counselor Hygienist.