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Ever since the pandemic altered the way people see their jobs and lives, there has been talk of The Great Resignation, including ideas about how to counter it. The dental profession already had recruitment troubles before the pandemic. So has COVID made things worse? By Kathy Graham
There’s nothing like a pandemic to turn your mind to the things that really matter in life. It’s a big wake-up call to make changes and one area where this has been noticeably the case, is in our work. The Great Resignation is a term coined by an American psychologist to describe a huge surge of employees quitting their jobs due to COVID. While these mass resignations have been confined mainly to the US, some research suggests a similar phenomenon may unfold in Australia although the trend seems to have been delayed because of our ongoing and extended lockdowns. But data from the people management platform Employment Hero suggests 48 per cent of Australian workers are planning to look for a new job this year.
Whether this will include dental professionals is hard to say. “While DBA/AHPRA data exists regarding workforce trends, it is always a year behind what is actually happening right now, so we won’t know for a year or so any trends or patterns in terms of resignations and attrition rates,” says ADA deputy CEO Eithne Irving. But certainly he and others Bite talked to for this story were all quite adamant that thus far, there has not been any sort of significant exodus from the profession. “Quite the contrary,” says ADA president Dr Mark Hutton. “AHPRA figures across all states show a modest but steady increase in the numbers of practising dentists in the last year—roughly 100-200 a year. Our members tell us their dental practices are flat out and booked up for months typically and there is no anecdotal evidence of a reduction in dentists practising.”
This doesn’t mean COVID hasn’t exacerbated what was already a chronic staffing shortage in the profession. “COVID made it very difficult to find anyone from the back of house to front of house, to providers and practitioners,” says Dr Jeff Kho, owner of five clinics throughout SE Queensland. During COVID, he says fear of catching the virus put a lot of people off who might otherwise have applied for positions. Plus interstate and overseas travel restrictions meant even if people wanted to go for jobs, they couldn’t. Ever-changing border restrictions also “made people scared to move because of what might happen. There was a lot of uncertainty. At the height of it, we would put up ads on Seek and we would get zero applicants. That was unheard of.”
Post-pandemic, staffing problems are even worse, says Dr Ned Restom, principal dentist and managing director of 13 Smile On clinics on the Central Coast and beyond. “We’ve got a reasonably young team, so we haven’t had a lot of people resign. You still always get people changing jobs, or people leaving for personal reasons, but yeah, it’s been difficult recently with the support staff, the dental nurses and the additions to the team, partially because we’re growing rapidly as a company. We’re constantly advertising and interviewing people to increase the load.”
One theory as to why fewer people are applying for jobs is they’re anxious, suggests Dr Restom. “People thinking of getting into dentistry would probably be a little bit hesitant now, knowing that there’s an airborne virus, and we’re in a front-line high-risk profession. You’re working in the mouth. So, I don’t know whether that cautions people to hold back a little bit.” Mandatory vaccination may be another deterrent, especially given reports of resignations due to reluctance to get the jab. “A few dentists have resigned their positions as they did not agree with vaccine mandates,” confirms ADA deputy CEO Eithne Irvine, “but this has been the case across all industries and professions. Rather than resignations, we have gleaned from discussing with members that in fact there has been more of an increase in demand for dental services following lockdowns in various jurisdictions.” And it’s this surging demand for care coupled with an inability to recruit that’s causing headaches in many clinics.
“Yeah, 1000 per cent,” confirms Dr Kho. “We have found patients that we didn’t know existed. They’ve just all come out of the woodwork. Sitting in front of Zoom and having virtual meetings they see themselves and their crooked teeth and they say, ‘I better get my teeth whitened or straightened and I’m going to see a dentist.’ They’re not spending on travel, and they’re thinking, ‘What can I spend it on?’ You can’t even buy a car these days because there’s a six-month wait. So they go, ‘I may as well fix my teeth’.”
Not surprisingly, the increased workload is taking its toll on staff who were already feeling overworked and overwhelmed. Dr Kho says he manages this “with a lot of recognition and staff rewards and staff parties. The time for making your team feel valued is more important now than ever before. There’s a huge amount of work, they’re busy, they’re stressed. The last thing you want is to lose someone because if you advertise, you won’t get any applicants.” Or if you do, adds Dr Restom, because demand far exceeds supply, “it’s on their own terms. Especially in some places in Sydney where they’re having to pay exorbitant amounts of money to get staff with experience. And that’s across the profession. I’ve got colleagues everywhere around the country—in city areas, regional areas, it’s the same story.” But with the current dearth of workers, today’s employers don’t have much choice, he continues. “We have to offer incentives, be these financial, a flexible working environment, training opportunities. It’s very crucial to attract and then keep our employees interested in the job, because it’s hard work. You could do a lot of other jobs that are a lot easier than this.”