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Creating healthy workplaces: Equipped to make choices

March 1, 2005
Stress need not be a cause of burnout for the dentist. By initiating several proven workplace methods with staff, the impact on a dental practice's bottom line productivity is greater than you know.

by Don Deems, DDS, FAGD

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Last month I introduced the concept of a healthy workplace, outlining the four main categories of healthy workplace practices. This month we’ll take an in-depth at these practices and outline specific recommendations for creating a healthy dental workplace. Consider it as a starting point - or continuation - of your practice’s development toward a healthy workplace! Let’s begin with a more involved study of each of these categories. By understanding each of these areas more fully, you’ll be better equipped to make the best choices and applications for your own practice.

Employee Growth and Development: Programs that deal with workplace stress and conflict and provide easy access to psychological services

Mental health-endangering stress levels in the workplace are at an all-time high. These include excessive work loads, lack of job/career security, and poor interpersonal relationships in the work environment. In the dental office, stress often surpasses what other industries and businesses experience. Perhaps this is due to a myriad of factors, such as patient demands, chaotic schedules, close working environments, and the nature of providing dental care. Excessive stress levels in the work environ- ment cause problems such as decreased job involvement, lowered job satisfaction and performance, and increased turnover and absenteeism.

Work performance can be improved by introducing stress-reduction programs. These may include progres- sive muscle relaxation, coping skills training, and inter- personal awareness training. Results of studies using these programs showed improved performance on both psychological and job performance measures.

Despite our technological advances, work productivity in the U.S. is only fifth in the world. The major reasons cited are usually work-related stress and the economic consequences of stress. How productive are your employ- ees? You might consider their decreased productivity may be, in part, due to excessive stress in the workplace.

Additionally, employee morale and job performance can be vastly improved when there are attempts to in- crease communication, solicit input into decisions, have adequate job coverage for needed vacations and absences, and recognize the accomplishments and contributions of staff members.

Stress management does more than help with stress levels in the office; it also has been proven to reduce malpractice claims! Stress management programs might include encouraging employee feedback or having employees watch videocassette training series on understanding stress. Employee counseling programs might also be implemented to allow employees and their families to seek help for both work-related and personal problems.

Employee Involvement: Clear and candid communica-tions, a voice in decision-making for employees, a fair employee performance evaluation system, and recognition for individual and team performance

Having a fair employee performance evaluation system that gives feedback and enhances performance is one of the most productive ways to encourage employee involvement in the workplace. When given a chance, employees will generally actively voice their opinions, unless there is a perceived negative consequence for do- ing so. By involving employees in this process, there will be an increased perceived fairness of the performance appraisal process, an increased motivation to change following the performance appraisal, and a general in- crease in the satisfaction of the performance appraisal process.

Are you or your office manager/administrator do- ing MORE than introducing rules, punishments, or other control measures? If you are, congratulations! A supportive, coaching management style can enrich the workplace environment by enhancing job autonomy, improving communication, and sharing information with employees - all of which are very empowering to your employees.

And, employee perception of your practice as having a healthy psychological climate will have a major impact on employee effort and performance. Other key elements include management that is perceived as flexible and sup- portive, role clarity, freedom of self-expression, employ- ees’ perceived contribution toward your practice goals, the adequacy of recognition received from the organiza- tion, and a healthy job challenge.

Family Support: Policies that consider personal and extended family needs

A casual glance in the media often reveals publicity for companies that are the “best to work for.” One of the top reasons that these companies are chosen is for their “family-friendliness.” The vast majority of the workforce now includes employees who have significant family responsibilities, whether it’s for their children or their parents. One study revealed that 85 percent of the U.S. workforce now lives with family members. In addition, 62 percent of mothers with infants and toddlers are employed while 68 percent of mothers of preschoolers and 77 percent of mothers of school-age children are employed. And if that isn’t enough, 69 percent have elder-care responsibilities. These changing demographics will require that you strongly consider and develop workplace policies that allow for and address family-friendly workplace practices. Employees will have better attendance and stay more productive when they know that you care about their concerns over family-work balance issues. And, they’ll be more loyal.

Employees who are absent due to family issues obvi- ously cause decreased productivity. Even worse, when there is a preoccupation with child-care problems, this causes decreased concentration at work and poor work performance. Having family-friendly policies that ad- dress scheduling child care will go a long way in avoiding tardiness and missed work, as well as allow employees to have the peace of mind that their needs can be met in this area.

Finally, a lack of social support from you and the office manager about family issues is correlated with employee depression, low levels of organizational commitment, and the number of physical complaints filed.

Health and Safety: A priority placed on health and safety
As practicing dentists, we are aware of OSHA, state, and federal guidelines and mandates for having a workplace that is free of potential health dangers, as well as how we must offer protection for our employees. However, there are additional steps you can take in this area to improve the emotional health of the workplace.

Most of us are aware that having fitness programs in the workplace will reduce absenteeism due to illness. Most dental offices employ only a small number of employees. Thus, implementing a bona fide fitness program is not usually a reality. However, offering benefits for employees for being members of health clubs, for example, is another way to support employee wellness. This, in turn, supports their feelings about - and commitment to - your dental practice.

Additionally, workplaces that prepare for potential medical emergencies and disasters comfort employees and emotionally prepare and support them during these times. Having medical emergency protocols, supplies, CPR training, and equipment such as an automatic external defibrillator and portable oxygen tanks will not only help you in times of emergency, but also give employees the confidence that patient needs - and potentially staff needs - can be met appropriately.

Specific healthy workplace practices
Most strategies to improve the emotional health of the workplace don’t have to include more benefits, more money, or bonuses. You probably already know that money is not the primary reason people work. Yes, money is a necessity, and probably few of us would work if we didn’t get paid for it. Many successful dentists know that what motivates employees is not necessarily more money or benefits; it’s actually intangibles, such as contributing to the community, trust, and being a part of a successful business.

Besides what has been previously mentioned, consider these low-cost strategies to improve the emotional health of the workplace:

Improved communication and dialogue
Employees want and need communication from you. Em- ployees who “stay in the dark” about your business plan, how they can contribute more effectively, and how your business is doing, won’t be loyal, productive, or effective.

Stress reduction programs/training
Stress is the major cause of burnout in our profession, and employees feel it, too. Look for other professionals, books, programs, courses, and CDs that give specific steps for reducing stress. It’ll pay big dividends for every- one: employees, patients, and YOU.

Increased interaction and feedback from employees
I often get asked in workshops, “How can I get staff focused on their job and not on creating problems?” I suggest you hold quarterly growth conferences and annual performance reviews with each staff member. The most important part - and the one most often overlooked - is to solicit their feedback and input in each of these processes. That’s the part that will help make the workplace so healthy.

As the practice owner/administrator, sitting down with each staff member to “touch base” and get a feel for how things are going for that employee is simple and effective. You don’t have to solve their problems; just be a good listener, and be open to their suggestions, ideas, and concerns, or areas in which they’re struggling or not enjoying. Your interest in them will do wonders, and your practice will benefit.

Encouraging employee input about role clarity, freedom of self-expression, and contributing to the practice
My two rules of hiring are (1) The person must have the capacity to be a “10” in the position, and (2) I have to be 100 percent committed to the person’s success. If both are true and you’ve hired the individual, release the person’s spirit in the workplace! Your support for an employee’s ideas will be highly valued by the employee, and your practice will benefit in ways you may not have imagined.

Recognizing employees for excellence - regularly and in front of peers
It’s one thing to bring an employee into your office to tell them “thanks for a job well done” … and it’s another to praise them in front of their peers! Make honest, sincere thanks a regular part of every meeting, and look for occa- sions to praise employees in front of patients, too. If you have an office newsletter, highlight one or more employ- ees, giving them the spotlight for their strengths, talents, and skills. Simple things, like tickets to the movies or a gift card to a local coffeehouse, can sweeten the praise even further. Remember, though, to use gifts sparingly!

Creating a “wellness plan” to reimburse employees for costs associated with activities to be healthier
In these days of double-digit rising health-care costs, be committed to employee health and wellness. Employees will appreciate your concern, and you’ll appreciate their being healthy because they won’t miss work! Offering a “wellness plan” in which employees are reimbursed for health-related activities is a nice benefit that they’ll appreciate.

Brainstorming ideas with employees about how the business can become more “family-friendly”
Another question I often get asked is, “How can I know what my staff really wants?” Simply ask staff members! They’ll tell you. It doesn’t mean you have to act on every idea or wish, but it will give you valuable information as you manage the business. How your practice can become more “family-friendly” is quickly becoming more and more important in today’s workplace. Don’t lose valuable staff members over a very manageable topic like this one.

Developing and reviewing a protocol for handling medical emergencies in the office
Do you have a plan for a medical emergency in your office? As the number of patients who are on multiple medications and who also have significant health-care problems increases, so does the likelihood that one of them (or a staff member) will have a medical emergency. Be prepared! Having a healthy workplace means also being able to respond to emergencies and disasters in a manner that is reassuring and responsible. This will go far in helping your workplace be healthy, not to mention avoiding a medical emergency lawsuit.

In next month’s article, I’ll give you my Top 10 recom- mendations for creating a healthy dental workplace.

Dr. Don Deems, known as The Dentist’s Coach, is in private dental and coaching practices in Little Rock, Ark. A published author, workshop and seminar leader, Dr. Deems is a professionally trained personal and business coach. Recognized as one of the 2004 Leaders in Continuing Education, Dr. Deems is the first dentist in the U.S. to be awarded honors for his healthy workplace practices. He can be reached toll-free at (866) 663-990, via email at [email protected], or through his Web site at

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