Retaining Your Dental Staff Through the Great Resignation

An illustration of a group dental practice

The Great Resignation has reached dentistry — especially as hygienists choose not to return to the profession. In fact, a study co-authored by the American Dental Hygienists’ Association and the American Dental Association found that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a contraction of about 3.75% of all hygienists, representing a loss of approximately 7,500 hygienists nationwide.

The result is a scramble for qualified staff. The ADA’s Health Policy Institute reported that as of July, 74% of private practice dentists say that it is now “extremely challenging” to recruit qualified dental hygienists, and another 19% say it is “very challenging.” Similarly, 84% of dentists say it is extremely or very challenging to recruit dental assistants.

That’s why it’s essential that owner dentists take steps to retain their most valuable resource: long-tenured, knowledgeable staff who have built trust with patients.

Why hygienists are leaving the workforce

When dental practices closed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many staff were sent home. Even as practices began reopening, many of the 98% of practicing dental hygienists who are female found themselves juggling childcare challenges. Dental work has no “remote” option, and dental schedules inherently lack the flexibility to pivot when a child has to stay home unexpectedly due to a COVID exposure.

As a result, many hygienists began to exit the profession entirely. An August 2021 study found that 74% of hygienists not working had left the profession for voluntary reasons. Of those, 37% say they decided to retire.

Some of the remaining hygienists are leveraging the shortage to find jobs closer to home or negotiate for greater flexibility, higher pay, or better benefits. As of June 2022, 79.9% of practice owners had raised pay for their dental hygienists within the past year — with 18.1% reporting increasing wages by 10% or more.

However, even as workers look for greener pastures, 52% of those voluntarily leaving a job said that their manager could have “done something” to keep them.

Dentists who want to retain their staff should begin to think differently about how they work with and reward their most valuable contributors. After all, when a hygienist leaves, dentists need to continue to provide the care and will do it themselves or ask an associate to perform periodontal procedures, which limits their time for more complex (and lucrative) treatments.

When one hygienist leaves, many owners simply dust off their old “help wanted” ad. That’s not enough in today’s increasingly competitive market — especially since dentistry can’t offer “work from home” as a perk.

If you own a practice, here are some proactive steps you can take to retain your staff.

1. Hire smart, not fast

The best way to retain staff starts long before their first day: finding the right person for the practice rather than the first available person. After all, dentistry is all about relationships.

When I hired hygienists and staff for my own practice, I paid close attention to how a prospective hire would fit in and support me, the rest of the staff, and the patients. Specific skills can be trained, so it’s more important to find a person with the right personality, a strong work ethic, and similar expectations about the role.

Skills can be trained, so it's more important to find the right person for your team.

To identify this right person, make sure your interview is a two-way conversation. Describe how the office runs, then ask how that meshes with the prospective employee’s experience, preferences, and expectations. Listen closely, especially if they are coming from a practice much larger or smaller than yours.

Look at a typical week’s schedule together and discuss:

  • How the staff works together
  • What hygienists handle and what is delegated to assistants
  • Whether the hygienist will work from a dedicated operatory or float between several
  • The typical pace
  • How vacations and time off are covered 

It’s better to wait a few extra weeks for the right person who will fit in rather than hire the wrong person and need to launch another hiring process six months later.

2. Reevaluate compensation and benefits

When was the last time you evaluated how your pay and benefits stack up? The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics cites 2020’s median hygienist pay as $77,090 per year, or $37.06 per hour. The average dental assistant earned $41,180 annually, or$19.80 an hour. While this varies greatly by state, it gives you a starting point. Talk to fellow owners in your area to see how you compare. And remember that as many industries raise their wages or offer more flexibility, you may need to compete beyond dentistry. I’ve heard many stories of personable dental staff taking their skills to customer service-type roles that they can do from home.

While you’re at it, take a look at the benefits you offer. If you can’t afford to increase salaries, consider more time off, a CE allowance, or greater flexibility. Think about profit sharing, as it ties the practice’s success to the staff's pocketbook. Talk to your staff to see what’s important to them.

3. Build career satisfaction through regular coaching conversations

More money only goes so far if your staff are miserable. Help staff see how vital they are to the practice’s success and help them define (and pursue) a career path that reminds them why they chose dentistry in the first place.

Have an honest conversation with each staff member about their goals. This is especially vital if you have just purchased the practice: make an effort to get to know your new team! For example:

  • What do they want to learn? 
  • Would they like more autonomy or more mentorship? 
  • Do they want to manage junior staff or take a larger role in the business? 
  • Does an assistant want help becoming a hygienist, or is a hygienist considering dental school? 

At the end of each discussion, set a few concrete action items (with target dates) like seeking CE or making a schedule change. Revisit these conversations periodically to check in, celebrate progress, and problem-solve.

See: How to Become a Team Leader

4. Do “little things” that add up

Make sure you show your appreciation for your staff’s hard work. Even little things can make a difference, such as treats, unexpected extra PTO, staff dinners, or office competitions with prizes. Recognize birthdays or work anniversaries. If you’re just entering the practice, strive to build some team spirit.

And don’t overlook the power of acknowledging your staff. A handwritten note or genuine thanks when someone goes above and beyond can be very rewarding. Be sure you pass along any praise or compliments from patients. Share these publicly, whether during a team meeting or on your practice’s social media, to further acknowledge staff efforts.

Fundamentally, ensure you are always treating staff fairly and with respect.

5. Help your staff balance their other commitments

Yes, a dental office needs to be open at set hours. But when was the last time you examined how well your schedule meshes with your staff’s off-the-clock needs?

Ask staff what their ideal schedule would look like. You may be surprised to learn that one team member wishes they could attend their child’s activity on Wednesday afternoons or volunteer on Friday mornings. One person might prefer to work four longer days while another team member wouldn’t mind picking up an extra half day each week. Look for simple changes or swaps.

If you’re new to the practice and considering extending or changing the hours, discuss it with your staff first to get their buy-in. Avoid springing changes on them that will affect their work-life balance.

And wherever possible, try to offer some flexibility when “life happens.”

Retain your staff to preserve access-to-care

While the hygienist shortage poses serious challenges to dentistry, closing practices hurts communities and patients who most need care.

That’s why we at ADA Practice Transitions (ADAPT) help match would-be buyers with long-time owners who are ready to sell. We also match owners with like-minded associates. Along the way, we provide coaching to help set dentists — and staff — up for lasting success. While we focus on matching dentists, we know that dental staff at all levels are essential to keeping practices thriving and serving patients long after the Great Resignation has eased.