Mentoring: Looking after yourself

Are learners a source of energy and inspiration, or are you in a spiral of fatigue?

The Launderesses 1884 Edouard Manet (1832-1883 French) Musee du Louvre, Paris, France

Working with newcomers and helping them to learn can be highly satisfying. Many people would say that learners add vibrancy to a workforce and help people to keep up to date. There can be nothing so stagnant as a workplace lacking in new blood.

Nevertheless, mentoring and supervising take time and energy. Perhaps instead of taking a coffee break you help a learner to fill in a part of their portfolio of evidence. Perhaps you need to find time in your day for meeting with a representative from the education provider. Perhaps your student is quite anxious about making mistakes and demands a lot of your attention. And what if you have a ‘high-confidence, low-competence’ student who you don’t feel you can entirely trust? These time and energy demands are all legitimate and important.

I’ve brought together a few useful ways of thinking about the pressures and rewards of mentoring. Below, I discuss concepts of self-regulation, stress and trust in the workplace learning context. ‘Professional will’ is an invaluable personal resource that can help carry you through the challenges.

Professional will in mentoring

Are mentees a stimulus and source of inspiration that carries you forward as a mentor?

How do you manage if the opposite happens?

Professional will is one of your personal resources as a mentor. It can involve:

  • energy
  • mastery
  • concentration
  • determination
  • persistence
  • initiative
  • organisation
  • caring

When learners inspire you, the professional will is easily supported and sustained.

However, you may find that not all learners provide you with sufficient inspiration. In these cases, you may need to ask for additional support and inspiration from elsewhere in the organisation.

What managers need to know

Employers and managers need to be prepared to facilitate an atmosphere that values, inspires and supports mentors.

Self-regulation

  • Do you sometimes sacrifice your own needs for food or recuperation, in order to complete tasks or maintain work relationships?
  • Do you sometimes find yourself actively regulating your emotions and behaviour when you are heavily pressed, directly challenged by learners or colleagues, or frustrated by lack of personal time?

 The need for restraint in a given situation is linked with the idea of self-regulation. An associated idea, which has become very popular, is emotional labour. Emotional labour worked its way into professional discourses following the publication in 1983 of Arlie Hochschild’s seminal work ‘The managed heart’. Fundamentally, emotional labour is a social act that involves regulating one’s feelings and emotion display in order to induce the desired feelings in others.

Those situations that require you to exercise self-control in remaining respectful and professionally poised – appearing outwardly serene and confident, can easily lead to fatigue. This partly because acts of self-regulation and emotional labour require you to expend psychological resources (e.g. self-esteem, optimism, as well as the ability to self-regulate), which may lead to exhaustion, burnout or counterproductive behaviour.         

Opportunities for recovery, including sufficient rest, are important, and even short breaks in the working day can help you to recover these depleted resources.

What managers need to know

Ensure there are sufficient opportunities for your mentors to take breaks during a working day.

Mentors may need some respite from mentoring over the longer term.

Mentors may need additional provision for emotional support during challenging periods.

Stress

  • Does your mentee’s livelihood depend on them achieving goals or outcomes under your supervision?
  • Are there professional body requirements for the standard of your mentorship practice?
  • Is it difficult or time-consuming to obtain all the information you need about a mentee a) in order to support them to meet their objectives or b) to judge or assess the quality of their work?
  • Do mentoring responsibilities threaten your ability to complete work in acceptable timescales, or make you feel emotionally exhausted?

The high stakes often attached to mentoring and the additional demands of working with fragments of time and information seem to emphasise a mentors’ susceptibility to work-related stress.

Job demands, such as physical workload and time pressure can initiate a spiral of energy loss that makes it increasingly difficult to engage productively in work.

Such exposure to stress and the accompanying fatigue can clearly create situations where you need to seek support in your workplace.

What managers need to know

Be aware of any pressures associated with professional regulation to which your mentors may be subject.

Ask whether your mentors are finding it difficult to obtain all the necessary information about their mentees or their learning and assessment needs to be effective.

Offer a sympathetic ear if a mentor appears to be challenged by job demands.

Trust

  • Do you ever feel personally vulnerable when working closely alongside a learner?
  • Do you ever feel protective towards your customers or service users

Trust is a fundamental feature of professional life, and is also inherently fragile. Mentors are acutely sensitive to events that could jeopardise service user/customer trust, since any breakdown could threaten the basis of your practice.

The complex web of relationships in which mentors exist appears to multiply the risk. This is because leaners as third parties can pass on information that may (albeit unwittingly) misrepresent the mentor’s actual practice.

Reflect on your feelings in relation to your professional relationships, and confide in trusted colleagues about your vulnerabilities.

Organisations can actively promote psychological safety in teams through ‘servant leadership’ behaviour (being openly supportive towards individuals, minimising conflict, and nurturing individuals’ potential and a sense of community).

What managers need to know

Managers also need to recognise the skills, attributes, commitment and vulnerability of mentors. Such open recognition, along with paying attention to mentors’ well-being, has the additional potential to strengthen mentoring practice.

Author: Anthea

I enjoy writing about the intersection between people and the natural world. I also feel compelled to delve into human behaviour - philosophically and practically. With a background in further and higher education, plant science and healthcare, I like to apply my expertise in workplace learning, distance learning and e-learning. Mix it all up, and see what comes out!

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