Avoiding Burnout: Navigating the Mental Health Toll Among Dental Hygienists

By Jess Giebel, professional education manage, OraPharma

Dental hygienists often act as the first line of defense in addressing oral care issues, providing patients with education, and flagging problems like cavities or periodontitis—the latter being the number one cause of adult tooth loss in the U.S. Taking a closer look at overall health is critical to catching and treating periodontitis early and properly.

Though they serve as the day-to-day support for patients in the management of oral health, many think the role of dental hygienists is focused only on cleaning teeth (itself an important part of oral health); in reality, the role of a dental hygienist is much more comprehensive. As the industry has shifted over the last couple of decades, gone are the days of merely getting a patient in, cleaning their teeth, and getting them out.

Today’s dental hygienist role has evolved to looking closely at overall health to assess and diagnose correctly is of utmost importance, ensuring that teeth are preserved and that patients are getting the best healthcare possible. Considering that oral care is important to everyone’s health – from the young to the old, the steady stream of patients never ceases. Consequently, dental hygienists are not immune to burnout.

The COVID-19 Toll

Yet, like many professions across the health care industry, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to mental health challenges and burnout for many dental hygienists. In fact, a 2020 survey published in the Journal of Dental Hygiene found that 8% of dental hygienists left the workforce since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, a 2019 survey of dental hygienists found that 43% cited not feeling valued or respected as a primary reason they would seek a new job within the next year. Addressing burnout and providing additional support is key to retaining dental hygienists within the profession.

One important way to make sure that dental hygienists are supported is simple—by making sure they are heard, valued, and respected. When looking at different resources that a practice offers, what’s important to one may differ from another, but ultimately these three values are essential across the board. Seeing patients back-to-back, being on your feet all day, and working to assess oral health issues can be exhausting.

Ensuring that practice owners are supporting their staff by prioritizing work/life balance, giving enough breaks, and providing professional and personal support is monumental during this time. Not getting enough support at your practice? The American Dental Association (ADA) offers many resources to help with physical and mental wellness, including videos, articles and podcasts on topics such as stress reduction and navigating anxiety.

Looking Out for Our Dental Hygienists

It’s important that we make sure dental hygienists are not ignored when it comes to burnout, and it’s critical their concerns are addressed so they can practice with a mind cleared of stress. A dental hygienist is a key first defense against periodontitis, which may also cause or worsen other inflammatory diseases. Unfortunately, it is associated with serious systemic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. This is why it is so important to address as soon as possible, to avoid a chronic, lifelong disease.

While there are several factors that may increase risk of periodontal disease, such as poor nutrition, poor oral hygiene, and heart disease, going to the dentist regularly and undergoing screening will help identify if one is at risk. Additionally, providing patient education resources is also beneficial to continuing conversations around oral health.

Getting Treated

To successfully treat and manage periodontitis, there must be productive and effective teamwork and communication between the patient, dental hygienist and dentist. Not only does the dental hygienist need to have the necessary clinical skills, but they also must be able to effectively communicate with, educate and motivate patients to ensure successful treatment.

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