Why are dental assistants burning out?

Dr. David Ahearn, DDS, founder and president of Design Ergonomics

By Dr. David Ahearn, DDS, Founder and President of Design Ergonomics

One of my biggest worries for dental practices is dental assistant burnout. While many offices are facing a range of staffing issues, I think we’re only just beginning to feel the full depth of this particular employment threat.

Much has been spoken about the crisis in the dental hygiene workforce. Marco Vujicic, the chief economist at the American Dental Association, estimates that the hygiene workforce has diminished by 4% post-pandemic. Others put that number a good bit higher. In any case, the reality is that this represents a pretty small percentage of the total number of hygienists. I don’t mean to diminish this issue. I understand it can be devastating to smaller practices, where the loss may be the only hygienist in the office. While these are tough issues, my focus is on  growth-oriented practices who already are working with multiple hygienists. Therefore, my greater concern is dental assistant losses due to burnout.

Create systems to keep your dental staff happy and engaged. A path for advancement is key.

What Causes Burnout, and How Can We Avoid It?

There are two main reasons for assistant burnout, and as practice owners it’s our responsibility to address both.

The first is personal-satisfaction. A good number of dental assistants look to dental hygiene as the next step in their professional advancement because they perceive their career and earnings to be plateaued. However, our studies have shown that the vast majority of assistants would not choose to become dental hygienists if:

  1. They are given the opportunity to advance their skills, and
  2. They were offered continued economic growth.

The second cause of burnout revolves around the culture of the office itself. Is it a smooth, well-run organization with effective teamwork, realistic expectations, and clear systems to help the teams accomplish all the things they need to do every day? If it’s not, your best assistants – the ones smart enough to realize that there’s probably a better way to get things done – will be the ones more likely to say “enough – this isn’t for me.”

I’m going to address the culture side of things first – then tie it back to maximizing your team’s personal satisfaction.

Dental office culture is key

Let’s look at an ideal culture for assistants versus an environment that creates assistant burnout.

Ideal culture

  • Everything is where it is supposed to be and supplies are easy to find and manage
  • Instruments are easy to process, and there’s a clear system to get the doctor what he needs – every time
  • The practice constantly adopts new technologies and provide clear communication and instruction
  • The practice always runs on time – at least by the end of the shift
  • The environment is highly collaborative and all team members are held in high esteem
  • Doctors provide services with minimal remakes and adjustments
  • Skilled assistant income is comparable to that of dental hygienists (minus the differential for additional education)

Culture that leads to burnout

  • Chaos reigns
  • The staff is constantly searching for supplies that are spread across the office
  • Appointments regularly fall behind schedule
  • Patients are ornery because of delays
  • Doctors are stressed and aren’t fun to work with
  • Teammates quit or frequently call out on short notice, leaving the remaining staff shorthanded
  • Income has artificial caps that don’t reflect team contributions to the success of the practice



So the question really is: “How can I make my practice the one everyone wants to work for, and not like the one where an assisting job feels like hell on earth?” Answering this not only makes your office a fun and easy place to work – which solves the assistant burnout problem – it also creates a great practice that is efficient, productive and profitable. It is the reward in itself! So how do you make this happen?

Better Organization is the First Step to Avoiding Dental Assistant Burnout

Organize your office – it costs almost nothing, immediately saves money, and makes work easier for everyone. Creating an extremely organized environment is easiest when you can design it into the office plan right from the beginning. With the right layout and integration into the rest of the office, Sterilization and Resupply become nearly effortless. But of course, there are many dental offices that haven’t been designed from the ground up to have ideal flow. These offices will probably need to work with the spaces they have.

I have to admit that there was a time when I avoided taking on dental practice clients that fell into this 2nd group – offices that hadn’t designed with my team at Design Ergonomics. In retrospect, this was a little lazy on my part, or at least a little short-sighted. After all, my mission isn’t  just to design the best dental offices – it’s to advance and serve the dental profession. And so, I’ve changed my perspective on organizing dental offices that haven’t designed with us. With some effort and training, we can bring order to the most chaotic practices – providing owners with tremendous growth opportunity, and providing a shot at making the lives of their teams much more pleasant – especially the dental assistants. The funny thing is that many of these clients then seek our help with an expansion, a redesign, or a completely new office that can really make use of the flow and efficiency systems we install. Yes, I wish I could have worked with these clients to get their offices right the first time, but I’m thrilled to help wherever I can in this journey. I’m sorry if we didn’t get to this a long time ago.

Angie Bachman of Design Ergonomics helps a dental team get resupply organized so they can focus on the work that they love.

If these organizational pains feel familiar to you, we offer a guaranteed training program called Reboot. It’s a 2 day, hands-on workshop at your office where our team will re-orient all of your inventory, resupply, and sterilization into a simple system that can be easily maintained and is incredibly simple for anyone to use! And – it will give your dental assistants the tools and freedom to take on their own professional growth.

Keep Your Dental Assistants Happy & Engaged By Helping Them Grow

Many years ago I was staring off into space – I do a lot of that – wondering what motivates the kind of people one would want to work with. The answer, I realized, is advancement. Great people want to grow, and they won’t stick around in a place where they can’t.

Once you are organized with Reboot, your dental assistants can stop running around looking for supplies or dealing with inefficiencies, and start focusing on the work that they love – actual dental assisting! The time you save with more efficient systems provides an even bigger opportunity; you can redeploy a portion of that time to training and advancement. Remember, you’re growing, so you’re going to need more assistants and the ability to train them up quickly. For that, you need a clear vision and a detailed plan for advancement. Happy, successful teammates have a visible advancement plan that is easily understood and followed. I concluded that they need a ladder.

We’ve created training ladders for everything. Every position. Everywhere! They cover all the benchmarks and processes needed to advance. We then turned the ladders into a tool any office can use. These “HeartCharts” are visible to everyone, because smart, driven people are often motivated by recognition (and honestly, they usually have a bit of a competitive nature.) You can create your own ladders, but if you want a hand, we offer training and development programs on that as well.

So, your Assistant team now has a clear path to advance their skills and gain even more fulfillment from the work they do. But what about the economic side of things?

Even if you’re not in an EFDA state, skilled assistants are worth their weight in gold. They improve procedure time, and allow you to see more patients for increased revenues. That’s worth real compensation. And the great thing about HeartChart training ladders is that you can absolutely track and measure the skill sets of individual team members. This means, you can advance their pay without any sense of inequity because they have achieved, and you are rewarding them for that achievement. Everyone wins.

But I truly believe that Achievement – more than the money – is the great burnout preventer. Stagnation is the incendiary material that enables burn out. It’s not the cause – that is all of those other bad things that I mentioned. But stagnation creates the emotional sense of hopelessness that makes quitting the only alternative for high-quality team members. Don’t give them a reason to leave!

If you would like to discuss options to increase your dental staff retention by creating systems that make work fun and easy, please reach out to my Dental Office Training team.

Dr. David Ahearn, DDS, founder and president of Design Ergonomics
Dr. David Ahearn, DDS, Founder and President of Design Ergonomics and Ergonomic Products. To learn a little more about my journey in dentistry, and other principles you can apply to make your practice a fun, easy, and productive place to work, take a look at our This Can All Be Easierplaylist on YouTube. If you enjoy these videos, subscribe to our YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/designequiptrain. Turn on notifications to receive our latest video updates.