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Features / July 2, 2024

Lifting dentistry through leadership

by Jacqueline and Bernadette Ffrench

Lifting dentistry through leadership

Jacqueline and Bernadette Ffrench discuss LIFT Ireland and how it’s promoting smile-worthy leadership from within.

Picture the scene: it is January 2024, several different auxiliary dental team members are seated around the oval table in the alumni room at Trinity College, Dublin. Yvonne Howell, course director of dental hygiene and two of her students from the Dublin Dental University Hospital, Bevin Mahon CEO and owner of Dentaltech, and Jacqueline Ffrench, business development leader from PD Ceramics Ltd are joined by Joanne Hession, founding member of Leading Ireland’s Future Together (LIFT) and Bernadette Ffrench, a retired dental hygienist and fellow LIFT Ireland facilitator. The purpose of the meeting is to facilitate the first LIFT roundtable for dentistry.

What is LIFT Ireland?

LIFT Ireland is a social enterprise initiative aimed at increasing the level of positive leadership in Ireland. As a standalone, trusted body, it can support the dental community as a collective, especially post-COVID-19. Our sector, like the medical profession, worked incredibly hard during that time. Many of us were left worn out and disconnected in various ways. 

During the meeting, Joanne passionately shared her reasons for establishing LIFT Ireland in 2018. She delivered the simple roundtable process with impact, leaving the attendees inspired to return to future roundtable sessions. 

While these roundtables have gathered momentum, there is still a clear need for awareness of how they can add a positive impact for individual dental professionals and teams collectively. It is the reason for this article, and we hope you can consider taking part in a roundtable session for dental professionals as they become available. 

LIFT roundtable initiatives meet dentistry

As twins, we have a unique relationship and have been a part of the dental workforce for over 30 years. Being part of this professional industry brought us together at many stages, working in practice together and on various projects in more recent years. 

Bernadette began her career in dental nursing in 1993 and went on to become a dental hygienist in 1995. She worked in specialist periodontal and implant practices up until medical retirement in 2019. She met the LIFT roundtable initiative in 2023. 

Jacqueline joined the dental workplace in 2004 as an administrator at dental practice level. She completed her postgraduate diploma in 2013. Moving to the dental laboratory side of dentistry in 2015, she completed her masters in leadership and strategy in 2019. In that 15-year window of joining the sector, the country had gone through the economic crisis. Supportive leadership for dentistry as a whole was a gap that we both recognised. Together, we began looking for ways to be more supportive to our community. 

In Bernadette’s words

After retiring from my clinical role due to health reasons, I felt compelled to raise awareness among my dental colleagues about the importance of self-care to potentially prevent early career retirements. 

Out of the five hygienists who graduated alongside me, only two are working and reported they did not always prioritise their workplace wellbeing. I was determined not to let this become a recurring statistic for future graduates. 

To make a difference, I knew I had to adapt and lead in a different way. So, I began educating myself further and completed the certificate in leadership for health and wellbeing in the workplace and self-management training. 

While researching for my thesis, I found Dental Protection had already gotten a snapshot of the state of play in Ireland in 2019. The innovative knowledge and tools that came from my further education was a game-changer. 

It enabled me to proactively raise awareness about the ultimate consequence of neglecting health and wellbeing. I was able to integrate health and wellbeing strategies into my former dental workplace. This happened precisely when my dental colleagues needed them most in the spring of 2021, as the country and profession grappled with the effects of COVID-19 in the workplace. 

Social media

I quickly realised in order to reach others outside of my practice with this message, I had to lead in a way I really never had to before: through social media. 

Coming from a mindset of one-to-one patient confidentiality in the clinic to the world of social media was not easy. So I began, authentically, sharing on social media what led me to want to help others in the dental profession. 

I was also proactively living MEEC (making every contact count) from when I first met the then lead for Healthy Ireland HSE at the Oral Health Promotion Research Group Conference in 2018. 

As a dental hygienist at heart that meant as I interacted with my rheumatologist and pharmacist who I was supported by, I shared the importance of dental health for rheumatic diseases. The research showed that these patients had poorer oral health related quality of life (OHRQoL). I also shared the health and wellbeing for the workplace knowledge that I had with both of these healthcare workers. It is clear that dental health and general health cannot exist alone (Glick and Williams, 2021). 

I mainly shared things that would keep them well in their dental hygiene careers. It was in those early stages that I began to see and understand that almost everyone understood health well. However, leading ourselves to move from knowledge to action had some barriers – one of which was leadership itself. 

Leading Ireland’s Future Together

In one practice, one team member had a lot of leadership power, but they were not the owner, and this made me think that leadership really was not a position when it came to implementing action. So, I delved deeper into communication, leadership, and ways I could utilise these to get the message about wellbeing for dental teams that was stuck in my knowledge base out into their community. It happened organically. 

In my research, I came across an organisation called LIFT, which stands for Leading Ireland’s Future Together, set up by an Irish woman named Joanne Hession. 

Learning about LIFT and undertaking its ‘roundtable’ weekly meetings and then becoming a facilitator focused my health and wellbeing message away from trying to share knowledge about movement, healthy eating, and mental wellbeing and more towards the foundations for them that is good self-leadership. 

Leading ourselves better will allow us as individuals to take better care of ourselves in the first place. Having seen and experienced this by others in a team can lead to an ability for health and wellbeing improvements and lead to healthier relationships and workplaces (Neck and Manz, 2010). 

This pivot towards leadership, and away from workplace wellbeing looked like I was leaving health and wellbeing behind, but I was not. Rather, I was going deeper for a better future. This led to that meeting in the alumni room, facilitator on Zoom meetings with Yvonne and Bevin and completion of our first in-person ‘Dentistry Roundtable’ at PD Ceramics Ltd and writing this article.

In Jacqueline’s words

Writing this article, I want to ask you, the reader:

  • Are you a person in the dental practice or dental lab who feels genuinely connected on a personal level to your values? 
  • Do you know what they mean in a day? 
  • Do you understand them within your team dynamic? 
  • Do they guide you in life the way you want them to? 

Imagine how great it is when you have a positive leadership organisation like LIFT who are working right across our island of Ireland as a whole promoting positive leadership. Imagine how connected we can become as a society as LIFT is educating and empowering individuals from primary and secondary school, university, industry, and at government level.

At PD Ceramics Ltd, we began ‘LIFT-ing dentistry’ as a dental laboratory as our first key task of 2024 as a team. We were extremely fortunate that Bernadette began the eight-week journey of LIFT with us and dentistry to help bring this amazing initiative to the dental sector. This has allowed us all to have new tools for better leadership. 

I am not going to lie; it was a challenge in a busy dental laboratory to find time for everyone to do it. However, each time the two groups sat down we started to get to know and understand each other so much better. For me, I felt that the burden of leadership was being shared delicately between us all as individuals for the first time. We each recognised our strengths and weaknesses, with no judgement, just masses of insights and new levels of respect flowed between us. 

‘The best investment we have made’

We finished our first roundtable cycle in March 2024. We already know that this is giving us all better direction in our lives as individuals and as a team. 

How do we know that this is the best investment we have made in a very long time? For starters, it has been a powerful tool that we use within the laboratory daily. It allows for better communication and progress with our team and customers. We all understand each other so much better. We are fostering better outcomes for everyone we work with weekly. 

The blame games that once happened have disappeared. It fits wonderfully into our ‘wellbeing’ model for team growth, retention and education. We wish we had had this resource sooner for the culture in the business. Other service providers, educators and educational institutions are getting behind this for the greater good. 

Next on our list is ‘facilitator’ training within the team. We know now that if we can spread the word of the incredible value of doing ‘LIFT’ to our customers, suppliers, and the wider dental community then we are driving change for the better. LIFT’s leadership learning process is based on eight key leadership values:

  • Listening
  • Positive attitude
  • Respect 
  • Competence
  • Dedication and determination
  • Empathy and understanding
  • Accountability
  • Honesty and integrity.

Benefiting dentistry

Dentistry is not the only sector of healthcare that has wellbeing and workforce issues. The Irish Institute of Pharmacy (IIOP) reports similar work-related issues to dentistry. The Workforce Intelligence Report from the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (PSI) found:

  • 93% reported job stress as a common feature of their role 
  • 57% noted that they had experienced
    burnout in their role
  • 57% of community respondents and 78% of hospital respondents did not believe that they were sufficiently staffed and had leadership opportunities. 

To support staff in customer facing services, the IIOP began a pilot programme in March 2024 in partnership with LIFT. It will then be evaluated, and the learnings will be used to inform future planning for leadership development.

In 2019, Dental Protection undertook a survey of its members in Ireland. This found that one in three had considered leaving the profession. While 44% of dentists did not feel that their personal wellbeing was a priority of the practice owner/manager. A further 50% found it difficult to take a short break, more than a third started their working day feeling tired and 83% would come into work when they were not feeling well.  

These views from the frontline highlighted the burnout cycle that individuals were experiencing. It was supported by Maslach and Leiter (1999) who assessed employees’ interaction with people at work. Values were one of six areas in a framework, including community, workload, control, reward, and fairness. All six are interrelated and if any of these issues remain unsolved, they are precursors to burnout.

So, pre-COVID-19, our sector was raising concerns around these matters. Then 2020 took things to a new level. 

Values and community

Values and community are something that need for more connection in every workplace (Maslach and Leiter, 1999). Post-COVID-19, workforce sustainability is a global issue and highlighted why our profession needs to be resilient for the future. 

The insights from the most recent (2023) IDA report, Providing Dental Care in Ireland: A Workforce Crisis, give us a better indication that our clinical workforce is in trouble. Ranging from a lack of investment in dental schools for decades or foundation training options for mentoring experiences and Ireland being bottom of the quintile of OECD countries in 2016 with 45 dentists per 100,000 population.

If these fundamentals are not being met, how can our ‘values and community’ get a place or dedicated time in education? With this knowledge, we wanted to find a positive way to contribute. Could dentistry also use this or a similar framework to support the focus of the oral health policy Smile Agus Sláinte, which is aiming to provide three dental care packages through local dentists ranging from: preventive, routine primary care and complex care support services for vulnerable people provided by community oral healthcare services; advanced oral healthcare centres for secondary/tertiary care. 


Prevention at primary oral healthcare level is essential for children aged under 16 years. ‘Action 41: of this is to put in place a leadership structure to support the implementation of the three strategic strands’ (Department of Health, 2019).

The new oral health policy is much needed, but ‘successful reform will require strong political will and collaboration with dental leadership to provide advocacy at national level’ (McAuliffe et al, 2022).

The FDI Vision 2030 report promotes the inclusion of our profession and urges dental professionals to actively participate in all initiatives aimed at enhancing health outcomes for everyone. To build a resilient workforce pillar requires support through educational activities necessary to cultivate a responsive and resilient profession (Glick and Williams, 2021). 

These reports highlight key concerns and requirements to support teams in patient-facing roles, just like dentistry. They advocate that success for a sustainable workforce in healthcare systems require investment in education, alongside leadership in dental and political support. 


In summary, as your colleagues in the dental sector, we have already felt the power of LIFT Ireland’s contribution. Research supports the idea that self-leadership plays a significant role in promoting healthy workplaces by empowering employees to take control of their own development, manage stress effectively, and contribute positively to team dynamics. 

Investment in education is recommended in all reports and a pilot programme with LIFT Ireland in dentistry should be considered. This can play a critical role for our futures in dentistry and for policy makers to support the dental community sector better as a collective with a new leadership voice with LIFT’s support. 

The future is in all our hands! Join a LIFT roundtable for dental professionals and let us collectively bring positive changes to our industry. Feel smile worthy from within as a self-leader in your world too.

For the references that accompany this article, email 

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