Could mentoring help you break free from workplace stress? A new article in the Harvard Business Review by authors Michael Gill and Thomas Roulet suggests that the positive benefits of mentoring could help you and your career, reducing stress and increasing satisfaction
This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the Harvard Business Review.
Decades of research has demonstrated how junior employees benefit from being mentored. Guidance from senior colleagues has also been shown to enhance mentees’ job performance and satisfaction. We know far less, however, about how mentoring might benefit the mentors themselves.
We were interested in understanding how mentoring might help mentors who work in stressful occupations. Prior research has suggested that mentoring can improve the emotional health of mentees when a close, trusting relationship is established. We wondered if mentors would receive the same mental health benefits from the relationship.
A longitudinal study
Mental health is a serious and growing concern within occupations that play important social roles, such as medical professionals, firefighters and police officers and, because policing is one of the most stressful occupations, with high levels of mental health and wellbeing difficulties, we conducted a longitudinal study of a formal mentoring programme in an English police force.
The mentoring programme was rolled out in 2013 in one of the police forces in England and Wales. It was designed to support the development of junior officers by giving them a way to discuss aspirations and concerns and receive guidance.
Our study involved two parts. Firstly, we conducted a field experiment in which we compared the mental health of a treatment set of 17 mentor-mentee pairs who went through the mentoring programme to a control group of 18 pairs of senior and junior officers who did not participate in the programme. Secondly, we interviewed both the mentees and their mentors separately — 18 participants with 35 formal interviews in total. We asked mentors and mentees about their stress levels, what they liked about their job, how they coped with stress and whether their mentoring relationship helped them with this.
Our experiment results showed that people who served as mentors experienced lower levels of anxiety, and described their jobs as more meaningful, than those who did not mentor. We learned from our interviews that mentoring afforded senior officers, as well as junior officers, a venue for discussing, and reflecting on, concerns. Mentors heard their mentees’ accounts of anxiety and realised these feelings — which they also shared — were commonplace. By acknowledging that these anxieties were common, both mentees and mentors grew more comfortable in discussing them and in sharing different coping mechanisms. Mentors often found their interactions with junior colleagues therapeutic.
Many mentors we interviewed also said they found mentoring enhanced the meaningfulness of their work. Senior officers described feeling separated from the daily policing work of junior colleagues. They talked about how long-term project management, and meetings, often prevented them from doing what they described as ‘real policing.’ This meant that they were less able to see their impact on people’s lives, but they could witness more direct and immediate results by helping the junior officers they mentored.
For instance, one senior officer said, “Doing this lets you do something important for someone and see the results fairly quickly. You are helping them. They don’t always listen, but it is satisfying – more than a lot of what I have to do these days.” Another mentor noted how he helped his mentee navigate the process of taking on a new role, and saw them thrive. This achievement helped him to realise how important his daily tasks were and how they could make a difference.
Why does mentoring positively impact mentors?
Why does mentoring have this impact on mentors? We believe it offers a way to receive support that is often lacking. Despite the pressures that comes with their roles — including abuse, difficult decision-making and the risk of death — police officers tend not to seek support from other officers, including more senior colleagues. This is to avoid negative stigma associated with mental health disorders. Mentoring, therefore, offered a way to build trust within a relationship that laid a foundation for open and honest communication of sensitive topics.
While our study relied on a small sample size, and more work should be done on this subject, we believe that mentoring has the potential to support the mental health of mentors in other settings. Although the experience of being a police officer is distinct from many settings, the stigma surrounding mental health pervades many workplaces. There is also substantial evidence of effective mentoring generating trust between mentors and mentees, which supports the disclosure of personal information. As such, formal mentoring programmes provide an opportunity to encourage the discussion of difficult and sensitive topics, which often remain undisclosed, and, thereby, normalise difficult experiences of stress and anxiety.
Of course, mentoring is an investment and the benefits are not always immediate. Work commitments can get in the way and prevent regular meetings, leaving some mentors and mentees unable to establish a personal connection, limiting the effect of mentoring on mental health. The mentors in our study said that the positive effect on anxiety, and the meaningfulness of their work, was reinforced as mentoring unfolded over time, through regular meetings with their mentees. As trust grew between them, so did the opportunities for sharing aspirations. By devising career and personal plans together, and reviewing how they unfolded, the mentors and mentees’ interactions became increasingly valuable.
So, if mentoring is to help mentors, organisations need to account for the resources allocated to mentoring and allow flexibility for those mentoring relationships to grow. Those who commit to mentoring might be surprised by the multidimensional benefits this practice brings.