Unmasking the daily struggles of dental nurses

Sarah Mckimm discusses her journey from dental nurse to counsellor, the daily challenges that dental nurses face and her advice to those who are struggling. 

I’m Sarah, and I’m a qualified dental nurse registered with the General Dental Council (GDC) and a counsellor qualified to degree level. I’m also a registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) and National Counselling Society (NCPS).

Over two decades ago, I embarked on my journey in the dental profession as a trainee at a small independently owned practice. Having honed my skills and acquired the necessary qualifications, I ventured into private practice with a specialisation in orthodontics, oral surgery, and endodontics. The diverse experiences gained in these fields broadened my expertise.

Despite professional growth, I circled back to my initial workplace, developing relationships with both colleagues and patients over my 20 years in practice.

In the course of my career, professional development led me to an advanced dental nurse role. As the decontamination lead, head nurse, and oral health educator, I delivered oral health sessions, imparting crucial knowledge to patients about oral health routines.

Witnessing the positive impact on oral health reinforced my commitment to excellence in patient care, marking a fulfilling chapter in my extensive and dynamic career. I continued to contribute my skills and dedication until a recent change in which I made the decision to leave dentistry to focus on progressing my counselling practice.

Becoming a counsellor

The decision to train as a counsellor derived from personal experience of therapy due to the mental health challenges I faced following an abusive relationship.

I was struggling to be the dental nurse that I prided myself on being. I was stuck in a dysregulated state through unprocessed trauma and, although I found solace and stability in my role as a dental nurse, my self-doubt, low self-esteem and anxiety impacted my professionalism and ability to perform my duties in the high-pressure fast paced environment I had always thrived in.

Recognising the importance of seeking help, I engaged in counselling, facilitated by time off from work to attend these crucial sessions. The support from my compassionate team and understanding practice manager proved to be paramount during this turbulent period. The workplace became my anchor, a constant and supportive environment amid life’s chaos.

Their empathy and encouragement were instrumental in my journey to healing, offering not just professional stability but a sense of safety and understanding. I never forgot the impact that counselling had for me. It allowed me to live again, and it was only years later that I felt confident and self-assured enough to take the leap and start my counselling studies journey.

Mental and physical demands

Dental nurses, integral to the functioning of any dental practice, face many challenges.

The physical and mental nature of the job means that dental nurses are often physically and mentally exhausted. Often dental nurses suffer with musculoskeletal pain due to the angles and positions they work in for long periods of time as well as the toll of running around the practice for patients, to decontamination, to dentists, for stock – it’s constant and wearing.

Mentally the role requires meticulous attention to detail, the ability to work under pressure, meeting the high expectations of both patients and dentists using strong interpersonal skills and empathy, all while navigating an environment of fear.

Fear comes in many forms – potentially hazardous materials, radiation, medical emergencies, compliance, staff shortages, lack of materials, phobic and anxious patients… the list goes on.

Dental nurses must also be mindful of CPD expectations, professional standards, and the threat of patient complaints. The physical and mental impact this has on the body cannot be underestimated.

Supporting dental nurses

Dental nurses are more than just dentistry, and the balance between personal and professional life is paramount. Without self-compassion and care, dentistry can physically, mentally and emotionally drain staff members, leaving them with little left to do the things they enjoy outside of work which is key to wellbeing.

The workplace can reduce demands on dental nurses with adequate staffing levels and pay, keeping stock levels up, manageable workloads, ongoing training and CPD opportunities.

Many practices have employment assistance programmes that can support staff members with a variety of issues both professional and personal through wellbeing apps or funded counselling but this needs to be communicated and brought into awareness without stigma or shame and before anyone reaches breaking point.

The dental team can support and look out for one another and notice changes with colleagues in mood or behaviour and let them know they are not alone.

Dental nurses deserve to be recognised for their contributions to practice whether it be a simple thank you or a bonus day off. A holistic support system is imperative for dental nurses which will reduce stress, decrease absences, increase motivation, and improve staff retention.

This is because they will feel valued and respected and it will allow them to navigate challenges with a more resilient mindset to consistently deliver optimal care to their patients.

Seek support

To any dental nurses that are struggling I would say seek support, whether it be reaching out to a friend, colleague, or professional.

Counselling can play a crucial role in support with personal issues, enabling nurses to be more present for their patients. Personal issues, whether related to stress, mental health, or life challenges, can significantly impact one’s ability to focus and perform effectively in a healthcare setting. Counselling provides a confidential and supportive space to discuss and process these issues, helping to develop coping mechanisms and resilience.

By addressing personal concerns through counselling, dental nurses can better manage stress, anxiety, or emotional strain, allowing them to approach their professional duties with a clear and focused mindset. This, in turn, contributes to improved patient care as nurses can provide the attention, empathy, and professionalism required in the dental setting.

The holistic wellbeing of dental nurses is interconnected with the quality of care they deliver, making counselling an essential resource to maintain a healthy balance between personal and professional aspects of their lives.

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Click here to find out more about Sarah Mckimm and her counselling sessions. 

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