John Weld: How to engage staff in dental healthcare

Oral health is not a favourite topic of conversation in the workplace, with dentistry generally considered an unpleasant and feared topic, often the butt of tasteless jokes.

If you read nothing else, read this…

  • Oral health is an important aspect of general health.
  • Good dental hygiene can help to prevent tooth decay, gum disease and some cancers. 
  • An employee-friendly organisation should encourage staff to brush their teeth at work. 

Personal oral care is often neglected or is perfunctory at best. Most people know they should brush their teeth twice a day, but for many, this involves a 30-second dash around the teeth with a tired old brush with bent bristles.

Is this because of a lack of time, the pressure of the modern world, or because teeth are hidden in a dark recess where no one will notice them? Far more of our attention is taken looking after our appearance or choosing clothes. 

But oral health is an important aspect of general health, and recent research shows this link. Good dental hygiene, sensible eating and regular dental check-ups can help to prevent tooth decay, gum disease and some cancers.

Although most oral disease is preventable, the UK has the unenviable reputation of having among the worst teeth in Europe. Americans have an expression, ‘the British mouth’, which is not flattering.

Good habits reinforced at work

Looking after our teeth should start at home, but good habits can be reinforced at work. We should brush our teeth for two minutes last thing at night with toothpaste containing 1,450 parts per million of fluoride, preferably with an oscillating rotary brush. Employees should be encouraged to time themselves: two minutes is longer than they think.

Staff should also be encouraged to brush at another time during the day, perhaps in the workplace. Many of us are in too much of a hurry to do it properly in the morning and then grab a coffee and snack on the way to work.

An employee-friendly organisation should encourage staff to brush their teeth at work because of its positive effects. For example, promoting oral health in the workplace provides a valuable health benefit to both employees and employers in terms of work attendance and performance.

Good oral health can also be important when dealing with business clients: it can help make a good first impression. A good tooth-brushing routine is also important for avoiding additional, unplanned visits to the dentist and time off work.

Raising awareness

Employers can help by raising staff awareness of good dental health practices and by encouraging and facilitating employees to see a dental practitioner regularly.

Relevant workplace activities can include incorporating oral health messages into healthy-eating campaigns, encouraging tooth-brushing during the working day, providing and promoting drinking water, and taking part in national campaigns promoting oral health, such as National Smile Week.

There will be some initial expense for the employer, but benefits will accrue as employee self-esteem improves. To make a real difference, the employer could provide free toothbrushes and toothpaste, offer staff time off to visit the dentist or offer tooth-whitening to boost the organisation’s image.

Motivate employees

To motivate employees, subliminal messages using attractive, smiley faces with great teeth could embellish promotional material and websites.

Workplace lifestyles often promote unhealthy eating, particularly snacking, which can be disastrous for employees’ weight and health, both general and dental. Employers could, therefore, consider providing fresh fruit in place of vending machines selling unhealthy snacks.

Similarly, water fountains could replace fizzy drinks to help staff keep hydrated and reduce tooth decay. What is good for employees’ teeth is also good for their general health. 

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And, ultimately, a bright, healthy smile makes everyone more attractive to their colleagues. 

John Weld is clinical director at the University of Portsmouth’s Dental Academy