I recently wrote an article to bust the myths about dental assistants leaving the profession as a result of COVID-19. Many people have read it and I have received many emails. The emails ranged from congratulating me for speaking out about the issue to exasperation that I hadn’t done more to help. It seems that this subject is quite emotional and deserves to be explored further.
I created a one-question poll for Facebook and shared it on several dental assisting pages to get a good idea of what is at the heart of the problem. The responses didn’t surprise me, but the comments are where you poured your heart out.
I asked, “What would make you leave the profession?
The number one answer was lack of pay and benefits with 221 votes. Disrespect for everything we do came in second with 168 votes. Wearing additional personal protective equipment during COVID-19 received 33 votes, which surprised me. I thought there would be more. And finally, professional promotion received 16 votes.
In your comments you mentioned pain, exhaustion, long hours and burnout. Our profession has never been ergonomically correct. As hard as we try to sit up straight and balance our movement and inactivity, our profession has us everywhere. Just the positions we can put ourselves in to see what our dentists are doing in the oral cavity can be a cross between Cirque du Soleil and a high-wire balancing act!
Our days are, to say the least, unpredictable. The schedule may change every 20 minutes. We need to take care of ourselves and do what we can not to destroy our bodies in the name of dentistry. When you’re young, you don’t think too much about physical exertion. But as we age, all the wrong ways we sit and stand take their toll. With long days and poor ergonomics, we can get exhausted quickly and compromise our health. Stretch! Wear supportive shoes! Do what you can to sit straight and sit properly! It really will make a huge difference in your day, your life and your career!
What else did you want to discuss?
Speaking of burnout, there’s been a lot of talk about all the extra PPE we now have to wear all day. Some of you are so exhausted that you become weak and dizzy and collapse and pass out. Many of them put their masks on when you walk through the door and don’t take them off until they leave. That alone will cost you dearly. N95 respirators are meant to be worn when aerosols are generated, so when you’re not sitting in a chair, take that thing off! You need to breathe! Depriving yourself of oxygen when it’s not necessary will make your long days even longer. If you can, step in and relieve your teammates. Check them to make sure they are okay. They will reciprocate you.
Respect, something dental assistants feel they receive little from, was voted number two. Wearing the extra PPE, standing on our heads, working long hours and doing what seems like everything in the back office is wearing us down. Sometimes a simple “Thank you”, “I appreciate you”, or a pat on the back can go a long way in reinforcing appreciation for all that we do. Thank your teammates for all they do every day. Start each day with a grateful attitude, even when it’s tough, and you can help create an atmosphere you want to be in. It’s really contagious!
Of course, the number one answer was salary. Many of you feel that you are not paid enough for all that is required of you, and rightly so. Much is expected of us. Our doctors need us, our patients need us and our teammates need us. And now we’re required to wear PPE and look like NASA astronauts and always smile. It’s not just the salary, but the benefits matter too. Things like paid time off, vacation pay, and sick leave are perks that many dental assistants don’t have.
Other benefits that make a big difference are paid uniforms, health insurance, a pension plan, and free dental care for employees and their families. (I’m always very surprised when a dentist doesn’t offer this.) If any of these things are important to you, negotiate them. During a job interview, remember that you are not only there to be interviewed, you are also there to interview them. To ask questions. Make a list and if they don’t offer any of these benefits, ask for them. If they won’t budge, make sure the salary, hours worked, and practice location work for you.
If you’re going to take a review with your current employer and a raise doesn’t seem possible, try asking for more paid time off or vacation pay. And then there is the salary itself. It’s so hard to know what to ask, whether it’s in an interview or with a current employer. Make a list of everything you do, and I mean everything you do. Take the time to make your list because I promise you that if you go in armed with this and sell yourself, you have a good chance of succeeding.
Career advancement is a concern for some of you, and to them I say, the sky is the limit! You are only slowed down by your own imagination. There are so many avenues you can create once you have a solid background in dentistry.
I don’t have all the answers on how to get the things you want, but I do know this: each of us has to take what we have and make the best of it. No one steps in your shoes. Nobody does what you do every day. So take care of yourself, physically and mentally. Work hard, but make sure you get paid for it. If you are not appreciated where you are, there are other places that will want you. Do not leave the profession; leave a toxic environment. Remove negativity from your life and smile more!
You are incredible! Always remember this!
Tija Hunter, CDA, EFDA, CDIA, CDSO, CDSH, MADAA, is a member and current vice president of the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA), where she holds the honor of Masters. Tija is the editor of Dental assisting compendium and contributes to Dental economy magazine. She is director of the Dental Careers Institute, a dental assisting and dental continuing education program, and author of seven continuing education courses. She is an international speaker and multi-state certified nitrous oxide trainer. She can be contacted at email@example.com.