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“I'm an underappreciated dental hygienist”

Despite many dental hygienists finding the job itself rewarding, there are plenty of practicing RDHs who feel underappreciated and undervalued at work. According to other sites, only 44% of dental hygienists are satisfied with the money they earn and just 38% are happy with their overall employee benefits.

This equates to over half of all dental hygienists being unsatisfied with their career choice. Kayley Hackett, a registered dental hygienist for a private practice in Houston, is one of them. To help understand the problems RDHs face and what dental practice owners can do about them, we asked her some questions to get to the bottom of the issue.

Kayley, why did you get into dental hygiene?

I first decided I wanted to be a dental hygienist because I wanted to help people. I’ve always been a caring person and I knew that becoming an RDH was one way of making a real difference in people’s lives. 

I’m a major people-person, so I knew I wanted a career where I’d be directly interacting with and helping others on a daily basis. Providing patients with oral care, then giving them advice so they can maintain their bright white smiles at home, seemed like the perfect choice for me.

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Who do you feel doesn’t appreciate you?

I’ve had past experiences where neither the dentist nor the patients have appreciated me like they should. Sometimes I feel like the only people who truly appreciate me are the other RDHs and RDAs.

Some days aren’t as bad as others. But there have been some days where I just wanted to take off my mask and leave because I was made to feel like I was contributing so little.

Thankfully, this isn’t always the case. I’ve worked in several different practices for different dentists and with different teams. Everyone has their bad days, but some people are just downright grumpy.

I’ve worked for some newly qualified dentists who have been super excited and happy to open their practice, while others have been really sharp with me because they’re stressed at their heavy workload. I’ve also worked with some dentists who were just a few months from retirement. Some were happy their golden years were on the horizon, while others were just fed up and couldn’t wait to get the last months over with. 

How long have you felt like this?

I haven’t always felt like my skills and talents weren’t appreciated. I was really happy in my job the first couple of years after I graduated. But over the years, my spirit and patience have been worn away.

I’ll have been working as an RDH for ten years next month and I’m finally reaching the point where I’ve had enough. I’m worried it’s just going to carry on the longer I stay in the job.

Why do you feel under appreciated?

Neither the dentist nor many patients understand how much work goes into becoming a registered dental hygienist. They think it’s a simple job that anyone can do straight out of school, but it isn’t. It takes years of education and training to become an RDH. And even after a hygienist gets their license, there’s still ongoing training they have to do to keep it. 

I’m also expected to take on many more tasks than my job description states. Dental practices are often short staffed and dentists are happy to take on extra appointments, even if it means overbooking schedules. Instead of the practice owner hiring extra workers, dental hygienists are forced to work long hours and do multiple jobs.

I’ve done everything from make patient appointments to cleaning bathrooms while working as a dental hygienist — two jobs which are definitely not my responsibility. If the dentist simply hired extra staff, even just part-time help on a temporary basis, I wouldn’t feel so exhausted and burned out. 

One of the big issues I face is being made to feel guilty about taking vacation time or sick leave. Being an RDH is mentally and physically exhausting. We put in the hours, so we deserve our vacation time. But whenever I ask for a week or even a few days off, the dentist makes me feel like I’m being unreasonable. I’ve even cancelled vacations because he’s put up so much of a fuss.

Vacations are one thing, but sick leave is another. Dental hygienists work very closely with patients and if we’re sick, it’s important we stay home so we don’t spread our germs to others. Being made to feel guilty for staying home so others don’t contract my sickness is ridiculous.

I also haven’t had a raise in years. I understand running a dental practice is expensive. But RDHs provide an essential service to dentists and we should be compensated appropriately. Especially during scary times like these when many of us are putting our lives at risk to treat people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I do my best to stay on top of the latest advancements in dentistry and continue my education to keep my license, but I’ve been earning the same hourly wage for years now. I know some other hygienists who work for themselves and they get to decide how much they earn. That sounds like a far off dream for me.

How to be more appreciated as a dental hygienist

Kayley isn’t alone. There are dental hygienists all over the country who feel the same way. If Kayley’s story sounds familiar, here are some things you can do as a hygienist to make others value and appreciate you more.

Learn to say no

There’s being a team member and then there’s being taken advantage of. Many RDHs are asked to take on additional responsibilities that should be delegated to other members of staff. Stand up for yourself and refuse when you know something isn’t right. Whether it’s extreme extra hours or jobs that you shouldn’t be doing, say no to whatever you’re uncomfortable with.

Talk to your boss

Everyone makes mistakes and everyone has bad days. If you’re not seeing eye to eye with the dentist, talk to them and try to work it out. A great way to start is by discussing your feelings with colleagues you trust.

If the dentist is treating everyone the same way, there’s a good chance others in the practice feel just like you do. After you’ve had time to understand each other, you’ll be able to confront your boss about the situation in a meeting together. The practice owner is more likely to listen to you if you all stick together.

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Go freelance

If being an employee in a dental practice isn’t working out for you, leave your position and become an independent contractor. When you work for yourself, you’re in charge of your own career and you’re in control. If you don’t get along well with a dentist, you don’t have to return to that practice ever again after your temp contract ends if you don’t want to.

Know your worth

Almost everyone feels underappreciated at some point in their working career. But that doesn’t mean you have to grin and bear it. Being an RDH is an important job and you should feel appreciated. If you don’t, maybe it’s time to get out there and discover your true worth. 

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