By Jan Murray on Friday 4th October 2019
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.
The authors of the HBR study were interested in understanding how mentoring might help mentors who work in stressful occupations. Previous research has suggested that mentoring can improve the emotional health of mentees when a close, trusting relationship is established. The study's authors wondered if mentors would receive the same mental health benefits from the relationship.
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.
Secondly, they interviewed both the mentees and their mentors separately — 18 participants with 35 formal interviews in total. They 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.
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 that were 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.
While their study relied on a small sample size they believe that mentoring has the potential to support the mental health of mentors in other settings. 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 positive effects of mentoring. The mentors in the 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.
Those who commit to mentoring might be surprised by the multidimensional benefits this practice brings.