Retaining good staff can be a struggle for any business owner—but tweaking how you operate and what you offer can pay off, writes Rachel Smith
Ask dentists who have been in business for decades and chances are they will remember, nostalgically, the good old days when they had a nurse and a receptionist who were with them from the start. These days? Many report it can seem like a revolving door of new staff members every six months.
“I think it’s an industry with a high turnover because a lot of people who apply to be dental nurses are younger and assume the job will involve just sitting in a room with a dentist all day. They perhaps underestimate the amount of learning they have to do,” says Rumi Shah, marketing manager at Melbourne Dentistry. “They also want more work/life balance.”
Another factor is that there are more women than ever in the profession—figures from the Dental Workforce 2012 report suggest the proportion of female dentists in Australia is at 37 per cent, if not higher—and this feminisation of the dental workforce is bringing a desire for more flexibility and different ways of working.
Dr Fern White from Beacon Cove Dental Group in Melbourne, who runs an all-female practice herself, agrees: “Dentistry is unique for females particularly. We can work part-time, we can do things at our own pace and work flexi-hours—and it’s the same thing for practice managers and staff.”
Defining a flexible workforce
Of course, dentists want to attract the best staff who will do their job and help keep the business running efficiently—but the increasing challenge business owners have is how to make sure those staff members stick around.
Training a nurse from the ground up is time-consuming, so it is in your best interests to keep them happy and to help them avoid burnout, believes Dr Aodhan Docherty from About Smiles Dental in Sydney.
“Finding good people to come and work for you [long-term] is primarily down to the bottom dollar, but providing my staff with incentives and a balance helps keep them motivated and creates a positive working environment.”
Dr Docherty is big on listening to staff and individualising working hours depending on their needs. “So one might have to leave early to pick up her kids; another can’t work weekends. You have to be adaptable. Plus, hours can be long in dentistry so we’re looking into doing half-day shifts where one person might work from 7am to 2pm, then the other person might come on at 2pm and maybe work till 8pm. It gives the staff a morning or an afternoon to go to the gym or the beach so they don’t get too drained.”
Dr Docherty offers his staff other perks, too. “I’ll do their Invisalign treatment at cost, they have free teeth whitening and I look after their dental care at no cost or their partner’s at a discount. I’ll also take them all out for lunch regularly.”
Providing extra training and encouraging staff to study so they can perform X-rays, extra-oral photographs, or take impressions for study models, is also a way of ensuring the job is more interesting than “passing instruments all day”, he adds.
Creating a dream workplace
Dr Fern White, a trained yoga and meditation teacher on the side, has used her clinic as a “playing ground” to pursue her passions—a radical move that has paid off, she says, with staff who look forward to coming to work.
“We used to have something I called ‘The Five Minutes’ each morning and now we’ve extended it to 15 minutes—and the staff come in early to do it because they love it,” she explains.
“That 15 minutes might consist of a mini yoga class, a meditation or mindfulness class, or making affirmations. I try and look after my staff from a stress point of view; I’ve paid for them to do fitness or yoga classes. If they want to do courses on personal development, I‘ll assist them financially as well. I also organise lots of dinners the surgery pays for so the staff can socialise and get to know one another outside of work.”
“Staff retention isn’t just good for you—it’s important for your patients to see the same people they know every time they come in.”—Dr Aodhan Docherty, About Smiles Dental, Sydney
Dr White is philosophical about high staff turnover, believing it is a reality of dentistry these days. “The key is keeping your staff happy, but it’s not just about dollar signs. I’m blessed to have some core staff who’ve been with me since I opened the practice, and of course I look after and reward them. But I [also] encourage growth in my staff. My practice coordinator is studying to be a kinesiologist, for example, and one of my nurses is studying counselling.”
In addition, Dr White’s staff work flexi-hours which she lets them negotiate themselves rather than consult her. “We’ve created an environment where the staff are integrated with each other and help one another. I also instil a sense of trust; they know I have their back, and I celebrate their successes.”
My practice, your practice
Helping your staff feel invested in the workplace is equally important, notes Rumi Shah. “It’s not just enough to say ‘we want you to think of this as your practice’ if the culture doesn’t reflect that or the expectations are abnormally high.
“I think this culture trickles down from the top. Once, at a large clinic I worked at, I saw a staff member who was sick and needed to go home be told by a superior, ‘Are you sure? Can’t you just pop a painkiller?’ She was in tears.
“At Melbourne Dentistry, the dentist and the nurse—both women—have worked together for 20 years, which is rare these days. You can see why it works, though; there’s a culture of respect.”
Dr White agrees that staff who feel supported are at the core of any successful practice. “For example, when we hire new staff everyone is involved. Because it’s not just me they’re working with; they’re working with the whole team.”
Treating staff as equals also helps patients feel more comfortable with them and want to build relationships with them, believes Dr Docherty. “And don’t forget, your staff are at the front line; they talk to patients on the phone, they greet them in the waiting room and make them feel at ease. Staff retention isn’t just good for you—it’s important for your patients to see the same people they know every time they come in.”