Jackie Ffrench looks at the experience of a dental laboratory in building a wellbeing strategy that supports its dental technicians and team, especially post-2020.
Dental technicians and clinical dental technicians make up some of the 4,000 auxiliary workers accounted for in the dental sector in Ireland, based on the information from the National Oral Health Policy 2019. This did not consider the additional staff it takes to run a dental laboratory, such as managers or administration staff.
My own introduction to a narrative of health and wellbeing being introduced in the workplace in Ireland came in 2013 when I was doing my postgraduate studies.
We got into a discussion about Intel’s ‘Health for Life’ programme, which was implemented and designed to motivate employees to improve their health. At the time, this seemed more attainable for a large company like Intel, but out of reach for SMEs in the dental sector like the dental practice I was working in at that point.
A couple of years later, the first ever workplace wellbeing day was held on 27 March 2015, supported by Ibec, Ireland’s largest business representative group. However, unless you were a member of an organisation like Ibec, this knowledge wasn’t easy to access and although promoted, it was not on our radar at the time.
Having survived the 2008 recession, cash flow in the business was our focus. Yet it was clear to me that SMEs in the dental sector should start to approach and implement wellbeing in the workplace and I was determined to see if we could bring it to our workplace.
A new plan
Entering my master’s in 2018, I could see that our workforce in the dental laboratory sector, even then, was getting older and there was so much knowledge that we could share and work with to change our sector.
As a business manager at PD Ceramics Ltd, I was aware of the difficulty over attracting new talent and skilled dental technicians to join the company and knew it would require a very different approach to how we manage our workplace in the future.
Wellbeing was a project that we needed to really focus on out of necessity. From my investigations, I understood that the health and wellbeing initiatives being delivered to larger workplaces were targeting physical activity, nutrition and mental health. We needed to budget for wellbeing in our business, but for that to happen we needed to plan for it as 2019 was ending.
Our plan in 2020 was to adapt the business to ensure that we could build-in a wellbeing approach for the team and restructure the business, but then COVID-19 struck.
Doing the MSc had helped me to understand the five pillars that organisational leaders should address in the workplace:
- Emotional wellbeing.
We needed to figure out what the next steps should be to prioritise wellbeing onsite using these pillars. To provide this in the business, we also needed to be realistic and find the time and money to make it happen.
For everyone in the dental sector, COVID-19 had left us with a forever changed landscape (in both our personal and work life) and some of the five pillars had collapsed for people, so the timing of the new Healthy Ireland Framework 2019-2025 being developed in Ireland to support wellbeing couldn’t have been better post-pandemic.
People’s focus changed as the dental sector reopened a few months into the pandemic in 2020.
Dental practices and laboratories were still dealing with the impact of COVID-19 on staffing, people continuing to get the virus or suffer from long COVID. Teams were losing employees and, financially, this impacted individuals and businesses.
Pressure on teams was heightened as we got used to a new norm of working in 2021 and 2022 and even the social aspects of living with COVID-19’s aftermath affected the emotional, social, financial and physical wellbeing of people and many businesses.
At that point, I was working one day a week at Riverpoint Specialist Dental Practice in Limerick. Dr Emily Clarke happily implemented the April 2021 Workplace Wellbeing Day with her former employee, my twin, Bernie Ffrench RDH, for her own team in the practice. It proved to be a great success and continues as an initiative in the practice today.
In October 2021, when I returned to work in the dental laboratory, I wanted to ensure that we were bringing wellbeing onsite for our team. The success of the business was essential for me, so I was looking for advice wherever possible.
How we as leaders were showcasing wellbeing during our own workday was a starting point, and this helped us investigate how the team was prioritising wellbeing. Strong role models of wellbeing were essential from what was observed in other organisations.
We analysed the structure and dynamics of the workday, pinpointing stress points during peak periods, such as prior to summer or Christmas closing, and the impact of financial year end on the accounts team. This was especially hard during the peak season of winter 2021 when our laboratory ended up supporting other laboratories who could not manage their production fully due to COVID-19 impacts on their business.
We also examined the production week, looking into how much ergonomics affected dental technicians seated a lot during the day and the effects of busy dispatch routines on the administration team etc.
By using the five pillars of wellbeing for each team member, we were able to understand our contribution as employers to the balance we could offer onsite long-term to the team and find a good way to build wellbeing into our business life necessity!
The five pillars of wellbeing
Being able to take steps to improve the financial wellbeing of our employees post-COVID was a key goal for us entering 2022. Educating team members on their financial situation and opportunities started with us looking at how we could financially meet the growth of an employee within the company with salary and career growth. Getting employees to financially contribute to the business by committing to working with the business was a two-way conversation.
How employees could start to save financially began with a move to a four-day work week for our dental technicians for cost of travel in May 2022, but equally reduces the cost of running machines one day per week in the business.
Accessing the company pension scheme is another tax incentive that benefits the company and employees. This comes into law next year in Ireland also, but we have started it already.
Our choice of career is important when it comes to wellbeing and fulfilling your passions in life. Being in the wrong career affects us every day. It is well known that when you love your career, it is never hard work.
We looked at the commitment of team members to their role in the company and could see satisfaction or dissatisfaction, connection and struggles within the team and a genuine desire for career progression.
Wellbeing in our careers needs strong support from leaders also to invest in career progression or diversification to keep and grow talent in the dental sector.
I always go with my gut when it comes to encouraging regular conversations, evaluations and personal development plans for teams that support this. People will come and go, as joint values don’t always align, but we can only ever meet someone where we are personally. It is a braver move to decide to leave than stay in a career or organisation that you feel isn’t supporting your wellbeing.
We welcomed all insights from the team and wanted them to feel they were driving this change in the business.
Our laboratory team spends a large portion of the day both on the bench producing dental restorations or in front of a screen in a managerial or administrative position. These sedentary roles can affect physical wellbeing the most.
In 2022, our aim to renovate the laboratory looked at ergonomics and ways to incorporate movement into the daily tasks.
Having strong health and safety policies are necessary in every business. Little things like using the stairs to reach the office on the first floor where our premises are located helps us all on a day, but we equally have a lift onsite to support moving equipment or if anyone needs to use the lift at times within the team and for customers and patients.
Having to get up and move to use a furnace, doing certain processes etc ensures the technicians move constantly during the day. We also have a standing area in our dispatch routine, so our administration team can stretch instead of sitting at the desk all day.
Tasks are designed for us all to move at some point. We have the kitchen set-up for healthy eating options and having an area for us all as a team to sit and chat is very important.
Our team also has a healthy outlook and are gym members, mountain climbers, fishing experts, and sea swimmers for their own wellbeing. As a collective, we are always inspiring each other, especially since COVID-19.
We ran our first workplace wellbeing day in April 2023 with the expert support of Bernie Ffrench at SCCUL Sanctuary in Galway. It was a huge success, incorporating a physiotherapist-Pilates instructor, tai chi, sound bath and yoga therapies for physical wellbeing and some delicious food from local businesses and fresh air on the day.
Social connection and interactions of employees was something we saw as a vital necessity to understand, as it affected the company and the individual inside and outside of work life.
The four-day work week derived from a need for our dental technicians to find time to devote to personal and social activities that wouldn’t conflict with work.
As a work cohort, they traditionally have been under huge pressure, working extremely long hours in sedentary positions and we wanted to change that in our sector. We hope in the future that the dental sector can start to embrace this initiative too, as it has turned the tide on how productive and fulfilled our dental technicians feel in the workplace.
A simple thing like having a proper coffee machine and a kitchen area for the team to sit and have a chat on a day with each other made a huge difference. That connecting piece of checking in on each other or having a laugh about things ‘like a certain person who always managed to arrive for a birthday cake or a takeaway’ helps us all! Those are the things that keep you going.
Even within our community in the industrial estate where we are located, we started to regularly run an outdoor barbeque event and a fundraising event that connects us socially with our neighbours. This makes us all feel valued and part of growth in our local business estate also.
Organisation of the workplace and work culture has been essential post-COVID. Emotional wellbeing has been a big focus since the pandemic for our team and starting the workplace wellbeing is allowing us to give them a chance to find tools for relaxation that can benefit them long-term.
Giving the business an overhaul internally in terms of the layout of the laboratory by flooding it with natural light, bright walls and a lovely aesthetic finish creates a spacious feeling unlike dental laboratories years ago.
Being able to talk openly at team huddles allows us to have open, healthy discussions and this also affords us the opportunity to problem solve together as a team and support each other. By putting problems in perspective and supporting solutions that build a team member’s confidence etc also helps us with staff retention, training and future development of a team member.
As leaders, we also want to encourage open discussion about how dignity at work should be handled between our team and our customers and dissolve stressful situations by knowing that you can always come and talk to us privately.
Focusing on cultivating a supportive approach to strengthening these five pillars of wellbeing in the workforce starts with good leadership. By creating a fine-tuned workforce that is happy and content, we hope that this benefits not only our team members, but also our customers and ultimately their patients. It takes investment and time to bring this to life.
As a dental sector employer, we are now looking at the new Healthy Workplaces Framework 2022-2025, which gives strategic programmes and policies to support the health of workers in Ireland. There are great signposts to guide any business embarking on their wellbeing journey. We are looking to benefit from this support even more as we support wellbeing in our company.
Profitability doesn’t just come as a financial reward, it can often be seen represented by a strong and healthy workforce, that feels supported and driven in the sector. We want to leave a legacy behind that wellbeing should be part of our workforces’ strength in the dental sector. We all have a part to play in achieving that.
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