Mentoring: providing a good induction

Is it your responsibility as a mentor to contribute to the design of an induction for your mentees, apprentices or students? A good induction can pave the way for a harmonious and productive relationship with your mentees.

As I see the induction efforts made by my daughter’s new employer, I feel reassured that they value her as a person who can make a significant contribution to the company.

Aims of induction

It really is worth thinking carefully about what you want to achieve with induction. Don’t just repeat your past experience of being inducted – there might be a better way. It would help to consider what felt like a waste of time, and what made all the difference for you as a newcomer.

Commonly, induction programmes aim to:

  • Meet and greet newcomers, ensuring they are familiar with key people in the organisation and the workplace
  • Help them find their way around the building
  • Ensure they can access the IT systems and other important information sources
  • Help newcomers to understand the organisational culture and philosophy
  • Enable newcomers to immerse themselves in brand identity
  • Convey company/organisation strategy
  • Reinforce aspects of the newcomer’s role, including health and safety
  • Make clear the learning and development opportunities
  • Signpost sources of support

You may have different priorities, depending on whether you are inducting a student or apprentice who may only be working with you for a few weeks or months, compared with a longer-term colleague.

Who should be involved in design and delivery

When you are mentoring someone pursuing a specific education programme, there can be a complex network of stakeholders. Not only the people employed in your own organisation, but also there may be education provider partners with whom you will need to collaborate. If the work involves a lot of interaction with the public, customers, or service users, it can be useful to get their input into the staff behaviours and qualities of interactions that they value most.

It really does help to think and talk things through before the first learner arrives. Perhaps some of the induction can happen in the classroom before learners join the workforce. It is important to show solidarity with the education provider. Sharing induction responsibilities in a coordinated way will instil trust. If at all possible, getting input from the learners themselves will be invaluable. What are they most concerned about? What are they most looking forward to? What do they want people to know about them?

What will the programme include?

A well-organised document can be invaluable for setting out all the aspects of the induction programme. Timetable formats are helpful when the induction activities involve meeting with individuals or participating in group activities. Be sure to plan in some ‘free’ time for flexible e-learning sessions, or private study time. The newcomer should ideally spend a substantial proportion of their time interacting face-to-face with their colleagues.

Some techniques

Involve newcomers in a group if possible – Use icebreakers in group activities – have you ever tried ‘people bingo’ for instance? http://adulted.about.com/od/Ice-Breakers-and-Games/tp/People-Bingo-Collection.htm

Shadowing key people can be helpful for understanding how people interact, observing skills, and for networking.

Try alternatives to slide presentations to achieve greater interaction. If you want to make health and safety more engaging for example, how about creating a multiple choice using scenarios? Instead of putting it all on a sheet of paper, make a card selection exercise. Each card contains one of the possible answers (right or wrong) to a question. If possible, provide 3 or 4 ‘wrong’ answers for each scenario. Your mentees could work in pairs as you narrate the scenarios. This arrangement provides ample room for stimulating discussion.

Quiz – give your mentee a handout with ten questions to answer during their first week. This might involve them finding out where certain departments are located, or getting answers to questions about who does what, or what’s on the menu in the staff canteen.

Welcome pack

I particularly like these two suggestions from mindtools.com

  • Give the new starter a checklist of what they should have been told or shown by the end of Day 1, the end of Week 1 and by the end of their first month, and who is responsible for covering this with them (HR, supervisor or mentor). This will help reduce their anxiety about “unknown unknowns”.
  • If you have a digital camera available, take photos of each team member, and other people too, and make up a sheet matching names to photos to give to new starters on their first day. Take a photo of the new starter on their first day, so you can update the sheet for the next person.

Some principles

Consider the following principles to guide you in planning the induction:

  • Involve the recruitee before they start
  • Less ‘telling’, more interaction
  • Don’t overload with information
  • Ask for feedback
  • Remember you are getting to know them as well
  • Align tone and style with the brand

Being responsive during induction

During the induction process, you may pick up some cultural differences between you and your mentee. You might notice variations in communication style, or differences in etiquette and attitudes towards co-workers or customers. It’s worth keeping an open mind if some of these attitudes or approaches clash with the way you do things or with the prevailing workplace culture. Diversity in the workplace is to be celebrated. There are, of course, certain professional expectations and standards that must shape attitudes and behaviours at work, and this is where you need to focus your guidance.

Your mentee will appreciate frequent opportunities to check in with you in the early days. They will be eager to know whether they are fitting in, or doing what is expected. Use short, informal catch-up meetings to give them feedback and answer any questions they may have. Investing your time early on should mean that your new recruit quickly becomes a valuable and loyal team member.

Making time for mentoring

Being good to yourself and your mentee

We all experience intense pressures on our time. It is difficult to achieve a work-life balance, and the working day fills up with tasks you were expecting and those you didn’t plan for. Doing a job well often takes up more time than you can afford. I know that you mentors are conscientious and don’t want to let your mentees down. This is why you might start work a little earlier, skip lunch break, stay late, or take work home. If you are not careful, however, you might be heading for burnout. In this blogpost, I offer three simple strategies for being good to yourself and your mentee.

Blocking out your diary

Of course, it’s obvious that blocking out time in your diary for you to meet with your mentee will allow you some quality time together. But, you say, I’m already rushing madly to get everything done! Well, think of the advantages. Perhaps you can delegate some of your work to make the space? Perhaps you can re-prioritise your work and force yourself to cut out the tasks, or the meetings, that are not central to your job. Having a conversation with your line manager about the importance of making time for mentoring could usher in a more assertive you. You never know, this could be the start of a period of higher job satisfaction.

Think about the advantages for your mentee. Knowing that you have blocked out time for them will help them to feel valued. Make sure you tell them how hard you have worked to make the time, and why. If you tell them about this in advance, they are more likely to prepare effectively and make sure the meeting with you is productive. In anticipation of this protected time with you, they can save up the little questions they might have bothered you with on the go, and you might discover everything works that much more smoothly. There may be some paperwork to complete, and this can be a good time to establish expectations between the two of you. Your mentee, after some dedicated one-to-one time with their mentor, should go away with lots of questions answered.

Working together

(Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Working together can be an undervalued aspect of mentoring.  Are there things your mentee can help you with? Try bouncing ideas around with them when preparing for a meeting. Ask them to proofread a report you have drafted. If you do a job that is more physical, often two pairs of hands are better than one. If you do work together on physical tasks, make the effort to explain what you are doing and why. The sooner your mentee understands what you are doing, the sooner they can develop the skills and competence themselves.

There may be times when is isn’t appropriate for mentees to join in the work alongside you, especially when the work is more skilled than they are capable of. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of learning opportunities in situations like this. Think of it as a shadowing situation and an opportunity for you to act as a role model. Your mentee can learn a huge amount about the trade or profession, and the organisation, through careful observations. They can also learn about elements of work such as prioritising and time management.

Whenever possible, ensure that the mentee doesn’t feel at a loose end, or that they are getting in the way. In a shadowing situation, you can help to maximise the learning by priming your mentee for aspects of your work to look out for. Try to make connections between the observation opportunity and any learning outcomes your mentee needs to achieve. Observation can be a powerful learning tool. Ask them what they learnt afterwards.

Have coffee or lunch together

Okay, so you generally skip coffee breaks and eat your lunch at your desk. Perhaps it’s time to be a little kinder to yourself? Being a mentor can force you to consider what kind of work ethic you want to convey. It can make you look at yourself with new eyes.

The workplace can be an inappropriate setting for discussing personal information. Spending some informal time with your mentee can help you get to know them on slightly more personal terms. Understanding something about their home and family circumstances and what they do in their spare time can help with rapport. Furthermore, creating the opportunity to talk outside the work setting can enable your mentee to open up about things that might be bothering them. Perhaps they feel uncomfortable about their relationships with certain people. Perhaps they are unsure of the general direction of their career.

A win-win situation

Making time to spend with your mentee should be a win-win situation. The chances are, your mentee will become more productive and learn with more confidence. The more of an asset they become to you, the better for the organisation. If your mentee is following an educational programme, they will give positive feedback to the education provider, and this of course, will reflect well on you. However, perhaps the biggest win for you should be in the personal satisfaction you gain from giving some of your time to a learner. Being a mentor can be life-enhancing if you give it a chance.

How will you make time to spend with your mentee?

What is mentoring?

Mentoring is a unique form of learning partnership. The gains are reciprocal, but asymmetrical – knowledge, wisdom and rewards flow in both directions, although not equally.

There are many different permutations of mentoring partnerships. An adult may mentor a child or a youth, higher and further education organisations can provide mentors for students, and employers can facilitate mentoring partnerships in the workplace. Increasingly, an array of websites facilitates mentors and mentees to link up independently to give and receive support in diverse aspects of life and work.

At the core of a mentoring relationship is a mentor’s capacity to guide, and a mentee’s need for guidance. The table below indicates the type of thing mentors can do for their mentees to support their progress.

Types of intervention in mentoring (Morton-Cooper & Palmer, 2000: 44)

PromotingProvidingFacilitating
Self-development Confidence building Creativity Fulfilment of potential Risk takingTeaching Coaching Role modelling Counselling Support Advice Sponsorship Guidance ResourcesInterpersonal relations Social relations Networking Sharing Trust

The first column succinctly summarises the challenges with which a mentee may need help: self-development, confidence building, creativity, fulfillment of potential, and risk taking. On the other side are the means by which a mentee might find their place in a complex world: developing interpersonal relations, social relations, networking, sharing, and trust. In the middle are the interventions forming a core mentor skillset: teaching, coaching, role modelling, counselling, providing support advice, sponsorship, guidance, and resources.

Learning and self-development

What this table doesn’t quite capture for me is the element of skill learning and development, although this element is probably embedded in ‘self-development’. Practical and thinking skills come to the fore in workplace and education settings. Sometimes, it might suffice to provide a teacher or instructor to support skills learning. Teachers and instructors are perfectly able to provide teaching, guidance and resources relating to skills, but they might struggle to deliver some of the other mentoring functions that demand a closer relationship with the learner.

The mentoring relationship

A central aspect of mentorship is the relationship between mentor and mentee.  One keeping the other at arm’s length is likely to result in a disappointing experience for both parties. To be effective, mentoring generally requires a two-way trusting relationship. Therefore, both mentor and mentee need to have positive expectations of the other, especially at times when they feel exposed or vulnerable. Interpersonal vulnerability emerges in situations that involve an element of risk taking, such as trying out new techniques or reflecting candidly on their feelings. Supporting people in these interpersonal risk-taking situations requires mentors to cultivate an atmosphere of psychological safety, featuring mutual respect and positive self-regard.

Who is a suitable mentor?

People who are good at their jobs do not necessarily make good mentors, although they can be excellent role models.  Observing experts and top managers can make a novice feel that such a high attainment is beyond their reach. Commentators often say that a mentoring relationship can work well if the mentor is only a small step ahead of the mentee, because their level of skill can seem more attainable and a mentee might feel less in awe of them. However, perhaps it can be more meaningful and inspirational to have a mentor who has reached a high position and who can look back on the highs and lows of their career. Furthermore, a good mentor can intelligently ‘read’ a situation, whether it be an emerging pattern of behaviours in the workplace or a sudden loss of mentee confidence, and draw on their experience and wisdom to provide guidance. ‘One size’ does not meet all needs.

Formal mentoring

When people discuss mentoring, they are usually referring to formal mentorship programmes. In formal programmes, mentors and mentees find their best possible match via a structured and supported process.  Documentation defines roles, goals, and expected outcomes. The mentoring relationship proceeds and finishes with reference to the formal documents and planned evaluations at agreed intervals. People who are willing and able to commit to a formal mentoring relationship are often in short supply.  Perhaps they are just too busy, perhaps no one has asked them, or perhaps they are not convinced they would make a good mentor. Additionally, being subject to scrutiny in these formal arrangements can feel like being too much in the spotlight for both mentor and mentee.

Informal mentoring

Mentoring relationships can also simply emerge naturally and spontaneously.  A colleague, friend, tutor or youth leader may take someone ‘under their wing’, taking a special interest in helping them onto the career ladder, to develop new skills, or to make a major life decision. People in informal mentoring relationships may not recognise themselves as mentors or mentees. The timespan of the mentoring can be limited to a couple of chance conversations during a week, or it can be life-long. Informal mentoring is more likely to feel like a friendship than the more formal type of mentoring.

Mentoring moves

Finally, how do mentors and mentees work together? They need to have conversations about the mentee’s needs and goals, and also about how the mentor can help. In a learning situation, the mentor can support the mentee to access experiences and resources that will support learning. There is a large repertoire available for mentors to support personal development, e.g. showing how things can be done, doing things together, providing information, introducing new contacts, listening, coaching, giving encouragement, and being an advocate. A mentor will also monitor their mentee’s progress. In some circumstances, the monitoring will inform assessment of competence which is sometimes added to a mentor’s role in formal situations, especially in workplace learning programmes.

Mentoring can make considerable demands on mentors. Nevertheless, many mentors find that mentoring increases their job satisfaction, because they enjoy being able to help people develop their careers or make the best life decisions. An experience of having had a great mentor can also be a good incentive to ‘give something back’. Despite the intrinsic rewards, some may find the responsibility of mentoring and the time demands too overwhelming or even stressful. Working hard to maintain a healthy trusting relationship with a mentee can be exhausting for some, especially if it coincides with other work or life stressors.

References

Morton-Cooper, A., & Palmer, A. (2000). Mentoring, preceptorship and clinical supervision: A guide to professional roles in clinical practice (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Science.

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.

Handling personal feelings as a workplace mentor

How do you handle stress? How do you read or anticipate emotions? And what do you do about your intuitions? Perhaps difficult feelings can make you doubt yourself in some way. Over time, you may even find your sense of identity shifts. Perhaps your mentees are also changing as they learn. 

Along with this general idea of how we deal with feelings, I also want to share some insights into the role of emotion and personal experience when you judge someone’s competence at work. I’d like to help you better understand the part your conscience plays, and confront any feelings of guilt. Finally, you can consider how you and others may be hiding their feelings to portray a more acceptable ‘public face’.

Guilt and conscience

  • If you are striving for justice and objectivity, do you feel guilty about emotions running through your judgements?
  • Do you ever get a sense of guilt about feeling inconvenienced by a learner in the workplace? For example, perhaps it interferes with fast, efficient, team working?
  • Do you feel guilty when telling a learner they are failing their practice assessments?

Falling short of expectations?

Guilt is an unpleasant emotional state. It arises when there may be possible objections to your actions or intentions. For example, if you feel that the pressure of having a student working with you is becoming unpleasant and stressful, you might decide to spend less time with them, or give them ‘easy’ tasks to do that do not demand your input. You hear your conscience telling you to ‘give more’ to your student – you are letting them down. You are accountable for providing good learning opportunities, and you feel guilty about falling short.

Torn loyalties?

Guilt is also very common when mentors need to inform a mentee they are not achieving their learning outcomes. Mentors are torn between befriending and supporting learners, and telling someone they are not up to the mark. You can feel equally guilty by letting someone who lacks competence pass an assessment. Letting someone through who is not competent means you are not fulfilling your obligations to your profession and colleagues.

Objectivity versus subjectivity

A third situation that commonly makes mentors feel guilty is to allow your feelings to influence your judgements about a learner’s capabilities. Please go to the next section of this page for some discussion about this.

Handling guilt

These feelings of guilt are common. If you ever feel overcome by guilt, remind yourself of the balancing acts you are performing on a daily basis. Sometimes the priority will be to protect yourself from burnout. At other times you will have the energy to tackle your mentoring with gusto. Learners in the workplace will need to develop sensitivities to all of this as they gain more experience. Try to work out why you are feeling so guilty and put the feelings into perspective. If guilt is eating away at you, talk to someone who will listen.

Tips for managers

Mentors are often in situations that make them feel guilty. They may feel stuck ‘between a rock and a hard place’ when their daily decisions can make them feel that they are not always doing the best for their mentees, if there is conflict with maintaining a service. They can feel torn loyalties if the needs and wishes of their mentees are not aligned with other work priorities or professional demands.

It can help to keep a watching brief with this in mind.

Feelings and objectivity

  • Do you sometimes fear your judgements are not sufficiently objective?
  • Do you ever visualise family and friends as customers or clients of your mentee?

Gut feelings

There is plenty of evidence that people make decisions based on both ‘affect’ and logical reasoning. Strong feelings can signal that something needs close attention. This emotional sensitisation can be important for mentors in their decision-making. Emotional responses are also felt in a physical way. ‘Gut’ feelings are commonly felt around the stomach. These embodied instincts can generate important knowledge about a situation. It is worth paying attention to gut feelings.

Moral intuitions

In the caring professions particularly, thoughts, emotions and actions intertwine to guide standards of care and responsibility. Nurse mentors will often imagine their student caring for a close relative (e.g. their child or grandparent) to support their judgements about whether or not the student is suitable for the profession. Making moral intuitions feel more ‘real’ in this way also makes it easier to put vague feelings about a person into words.

Are feelings unprofessional?

Although it can seem very unprofessional to let your feelings infiltrate decisions, do not push them  aside completely. Of course, let the evidence speak, but also listen to your intuitions. Emotions are increasingly viewed as essential aids to moral judgements. This is despite years of inherited ‘wisdom’ about emotions being unreliable, arbitrary, and prone to bias.

Tips for managers

If you are responsible for mentors, particularly those who are ‘professional gatekeepers’, be aware of the important place of feelings and intuitions. In a world where rational decisions hold sway, take time to listen to some of the less tangible intuitions of your experienced staff.

Hidden emotions

  • Are you performing emotional labour in your work?
  • Can and should emotional labour skills be more actively taught to learners?
  • Can you read emotional labour in the learners you support?
  • Are learners hiding their insecurities?

Emotional labour

Do you ever find yourself smiling and exuding calmness in order to make someone else feel confident about your abilities, even though you are feeling panic inside? It is likely that at these times you are performing emotional labour. The key ingredients of emotional labour are that you are masking your real feelings or even changing the way you feel, so that you can have a desired emotional effect on someone else. People in public service roles are probably doing this all the time without even thinking about it.

Hiding or revealing emotional labour?

Mentors often need to perform emotional labour with colleagues, clients and learners. This emotional labour may have implications for learners, because their mentors could be hiding it. This could be deliberate or the mentor might be completely unaware they are hiding it. If this is happening, however, how do students learn how to handle difficult feelings at work? These subtle aspects of work behaviour may differ between workplaces. Learning how to handle emotions normally occurs as a gradual process of professional socialisation. This process could be enhanced if mentors share their reflections on emotionally challenging situations, revealing their authentic feelings and how they then managed them.

Learners and emotional labour

It is important to remember that students are also likely to be performing their own emotional labour with you. They might be hiding their anxiety to make themselves appear more confident and competent. They might be exaggerating their lack of confidence to receive more attention from mentors. Why not discuss emotional labour with learners? This could take place in induction conversations with students, and discussions about learning goals and opportunities. It is all part of agreeing how you will maintain a successful mentor-student partnership.

Tips for managers

Emotional labour can be draining. It could help to arrange intermittent informal get-togethers where staff can have frank conversations about how they are managing their feelings in front of clients, colleagues and learners.

Learning in the workplace

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Learning ‘how to’ do a job is far from straightforward. How can you help people make sense of information and learn from experiences? People learn partly by making sense of information and experiences, and partly by repeating skilled manoeuvres. This involves actively thinking about things as well as actually doing the work.

If you want to develop physical skills, you need to practise repeatedly. These are skills that involve dexterity, strength, and coordination. Anyone who has ever learnt to swim, play badminton (or other sport), drive, or play a musical instrument will know the importance of practice. Computing skills can be included here, if you are learning to use a keyboard or generally find your way around. 

Learning badminton skills

Thinking and reasoning skills can be less obvious. Professional thinking and reasoning is complex. You may need to think logically, but you are also influenced by feelings and intuitions. You can’t usually ‘see’ professional thinking. However, when you discuss things with colleagues and reflect on conversations, you can notice it.

There are many theories of learning. Even if you are familiar with some of them, helping others to learn is hardly ever a smooth experience. I’m going to introduce you to three big ideas:  knowledge brokering’, ‘letting learn’, and ‘visible or invisible learning’. I have found these helpful for understanding why learning is sometimes difficult.

Knowledge brokering

Do you make your knowledge accessible to learners by:

  • taking the perspective of a learner who may be feeling overwhelmed?
  • simplifying your language for novices?
  • translating a complex picture into something easier to understand?
  • anticipating time management and work prioritisation issues?
  • encouraging learners to consider the relationship between their practice and the wider context?

If so, you are acting as a knowledge broker!

Being a knowledge broker 1: paying attention

In an unfamiliar situation, a person becomes unusually aware of their surroundings. Perhaps you can remember your first day in your current place of work. You noticed everything all at once: the equipment, people and practices. When you are accustomed to a workplace, you know what to pay attention to. Everything else stays in the background. A newcomer is still making sense of everything. They might need to ‘unlearn’ aspects of the equipment or building layout they were familiar with in a previous location. Furthermore, they may not readily understand the jargon or the euphemisms used by your team. Your mentee may not be able to take seemingly routine things for granted.

As a mentor, you can build on this transitional state. Draw attention to the connections and meanings in your everyday work.

Being a knowledge broker 2: re-assembling knowledge

Knowledge brokering involves ‘de-assembling’ and ‘re-assembling’ knowledge. For example, a nurse taking a student on a doctors’ round ‘de-assembles’ the scenario to support learning. She may do this by drawing attention to small piece of the whole situation: the nurse’s responsibilities. The nurse can then re-assemble her knowledge for the benefit of the student.  Therefore, she might link knowledge of the nurse’s role in a doctor’s round to aspects of a patient’s condition that she and the student had noticed earlier. Now, the student should be able to grasp the essential communicative role a nurse must play. Taking part in a doctor’s round involves a performance between the various actors. Nurses must take an active role in passing on relevant information about patients. 

It can be hard to relate theory to work situations. Because of this, you may find learners saying they haven’t been taught particular theoretical knowledge in the classroom even if they have already covered it. Engaging with information in ‘the classroom’ (or e-learning module) is not the same as knowing something in practice.

So… be patient with learners who claim ‘no prior knowledge’ of basic theory.

Being a knowledge broker 3: tacit knowledge

Expert practice can often rely on an intuitive grasp of situations. People don’t always take time out to consider all the evidence logically. In fact, there isn’t time for this in a fast-moving situation. How do you, therefore, describe the process so that a mentee can learn what you do? Practice also involves tacit, embodied knowledge, which you may also find difficult to describe or explain. These tensions between explicit and tacit knowledge are not easily resolved. But allowing a learner to watch and observe you at work, or work alongside you, can help.

So… don’t underestimate the use of role models, or ‘working together’ as a way to make tacit knowledge more accessible to students.

You can create further opportunities for learning by noticing the ‘patterns’ in your work environment. Notice how you make sense of things and share this with the learner. This reflects processes of ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ that make professional thinking visible.

Tips for managers

Mentor preparation programmes should enable mentors to explore their attitudes to, and experience of, workplace learning. Consider whether you can help to create learning situations where people can make mistakes safely.

Letting learn

  • Have you observed clear differences between learners who immerse themselves in the practice and those who appear not to?
  • Has a relationship with a learner ever felt dysfunctional?

Some learners apply themselves enthusiastically to the work, whereas others find it hard to adjust to learning situations outside the classroom. Encountering an inappropriate learner attitude, or feeling at a loss about how to help someone learn, can be problematic and distressing. So, what should you do about it?

Letting learn 1: engage and adjust

First, accept that the differences between productive and less productive workplace relationships can be subtle.  A small adjustment on both sides could make a big difference.

Learners need to engage with their mentors to understand how they can best work together. You may need to take the lead on managing and supporting the relationship.

Letting learn 2: learners taking responsibility

Also, remember that learners must take responsibility for their own learning. This can involve:

  • Finding out about the practice area in advance
  • Discussing with their mentor how they can work as partners in learning
  • Adopting an appropriate professional attitude along with a suitable enquiring and inquisitive approach
  • Being receptive to the pace and rhythms of the work
  • Being equipped to notice everyday and expert practice
  • Being receptive to the intuitions and feedback of others

Discuss one or two of these approaches to learning with your mentee – it could offer you an opening for improving their involvement with the work. If you are feeling stressed because a learner you are working with appears disinterested, find someone to talk to in confidence.

Tips for managers

Stay alert to signs of strain in workplace relationships where learners are involved. Offer support to mentors/buddies.

It is helpful to foster productive relationships with your education and training provider. Agree on mechanisms for learners to obtain information in advance and arrange informal visits if possible, before they start work.

Ensure your employees have thought about and documented the learning opportunities in your organisation. Make sure these opportunities are compatible with the programmes of learning you are supporting.

Visible or invisible learning

  • A learner might look as though they know what they are doing, but how deep does it go?
  • Have you ever made an unprecedented effort to help someone learn something they find difficult, and did it work?
  • How can you tell how much knowledge is ‘sticking’ with a learner?

Learning is not always immediately visible in someone’s performance, but that doesn’t mean no learning is happening. It can take time for ideas and experiences to come together and begin to make sense to a learner. How can you reassure yourself that your efforts are paying off?i

Making learning visible 1: the internal and external

Learning involves internal processes. Learners motivate themselves, remember, sense things, feel, reason, and imagine. As a mentor, you may not see any of this ‘internal’ activity. You are more likely to see the tangible products of learning such as skill performance, reflective writing, or someone offering a rationale for their practice.

These internal processes and visible products of learning combine, resulting in personal transformations. This deeper learning journey can take place over weeks, months or years. There could be a ‘eureka moment’ at any time. Witnessing a ‘eureka moment’ can be exciting and rewarding!

To find out about their learning, ask your mentees to explain the efforts they are making. Ask them to reveal the outcomes of their learning. Try questioning students about their theoretical and practical knowledge. Sometimes, asking them to formally present and demonstrate their knowledge can reveal different aspects of their learning. You can also learn by observing their practice and asking them about it.

Making learning visible 2: effort versus output

Your mentee’s achievements may not correlate with your mentoring effort. Your formal brief may be to help your mentee achieve certain learning outcomes, but your mentee may be on a different path. Perhaps, for some reason, they are stuck in a certain place. Perhaps they have a personal mountain to climb at this point. If you recognise this situation, make sure you contact the education provider about it so that goals can be modified.

Tips for managers

If your employees are supporting learners, and especially if they need to assess their progress, ask them periodically what the challenges are. Make sure there are good links with the education provider.

Confidence/Competence

Confidence and competence are very different qualities. Despite this, many mentors can feel ‘tripped up’ at some point in their careers by learners who are very confident but lack competence. At the opposite extreme, you may find learners who are very competent and knowledgeable but lack the confidence to work unsupervised or try out new things.

Flight simulator. Pilots during training in a Boeing 777 aircraft simulator. Credit: SAMUEL ASHFIELD/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Universal Images Group

How can you tell the difference between confidence and competence?

Novices are unlikely to be highly competent, although they may have transferable skills, especially if they already have experience in a related work role. If a learner comes to you with some relevant experience, you may find it difficult at the start to determine their capabilities and skill level.

What is confidence in a learner?

A confident learner in the workplace is likely to be eager to work and make critical decisions without supervision. They are also likely to have high self esteem, and evaluate themselves highly and positively.

What is competence in a learner?

A learner in the workplace who is highly competent can be observed carrying out work to a high standard. They can also provide a sound rationale for their decisions, based on appropriate values, attitudes, theory and situational awareness.

How can you support a learner to develop confidence and competence?

Consider four combinations of high/low competence and high/low confidence, as shown in the grid. I’ll describe some characteristics of learners in each category and follow with some useful ‘mentoring moves’ in each case.

1: Learner with low confidence, low competence

Low confidence and competence could easily apply to a complete novice, in which case you would expect them to hang back and let you take the lead. Over time, you would expect the learner to make progress towards greater confidence and competence. If progress seems to be taking too long, you may decide to push the learner a little harder or discuss the situation with the education provider.

Learner characteristics

You might notice these kinds of behaviours or characteristics:

  • Reluctant to carry out work or make decisions without supervision
  • Low self-esteem, perhaps making self-deprecating comparisons with peers
  • Does not attempt, or only observes, many tasks; or significant flaws can be observed in standard of work
  • Unable to provide a sound rationale for decisions (rationale may be misguided or absent)

Mentoring moves

Here are some suggestions for how you could help:

  • Create or seek out low-risk situations for a novice to practise new skills
  • Give corrective feedback on work, and praise or reinforce good elements of practice
  • Signpost sources of information that will support learners’ rationales for their practice
  • Invite the learner to voice any concerns
  • Help the learner to stand back a little and view their abilities in a wider context. This could involve telling them how long other people have taken to develop their expertise, or how you felt when you first started in a new workplace or a new role.

2: Learner with low confidence, high competence

Some people are naturally cautious, and this might show up as low confidence, even when they have developed competence. Also, a highly competent learner could lose their confidence following a very bruising experience. If they are hanging back from getting stuck into challenging tasks, this may hinder their learning and you may be unable to judge their full abilities and potential.

Learner characteristics

You might notice these kinds of behaviours or characteristics:

  • Reluctant to carry out work or make decisions without supervision
  • Low self esteem, perhaps making self-deprecating comparisons with peers
  • Can be observed carrying out work to a high standard
  • Provides a sound rationale for decisions, based on appropriate values, attitudes, theory and situational awarenes

Mentoring moves

Here are some suggestions for how you could help:

  • Give praise and positive feedback on work that is of high standard
  • Invite the learner to voice any concerns
  • Encourage the learner to take on unsupervised tasks in small incremental stages
  • Encourage and support critical reflection on practice

3: Learner with high confidence, low competence

If a learner’s self-evaluation is overly optimistic, it can temporarily mask a low competence. Over-confident individuals might take on tasks above their capabilities without the proper supervision. This could be a dangerous situation in sensitive work environments such as health and social care, building sites, working with powerful machinery, and so on.

Learner characteristics

You might notice these kinds of behaviours or characteristics:

  • Eager to work and make critical decisions unsupervised
  • High self esteem, positive self-evaluation
  • Significant flaws can be observed in standard of work
  • Unable to provide a sound rationale for decisions (rationale may be misguided or absent)

Hre are some suggestions for how you could help:

  • Create or seek out low-risk situations for the learner to practise new skills
  • Give constructive feedback on work, and praise or reinforce good elements of practice
  • Signpost sources of information that will support practice rationales
  • Firmly control the learner’s scope to practise unsupervised
  • Encourage the learner to develop critical self-awareness

Developing critical self-awareness

How do you encourage the development of critical self-awareness?

Encourage your mentee to assess their own progress since entering the workplace, or to provide evidence of their knowledge. Make it clear to them, if appropriate, how this differs from the outcomes they are working towards. If there are several learners in your workplace, consider setting up sessions for joint reflections on practice. You could also set mentees exercises in explaining to others how to carry out a particular skill. If you feel confident to manage this, you could also consider asking peers to assess each other.

4: Learner with high confidence, high competence

A learner who is both highly confident and highly competent can be a pleasure to work with. You will need to remind yourself that this is nevertheless a person who is in your workplace to learn and develop. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking there is no more you can teach them. Even if they have very good work skills, they could still learn more about how to become an independent lifelong learner.

Learner characteristics

You might notice these kinds of behaviours or characteristics:

  • Eager to work and make critical decisions unsupervised
  • High self esteem, positive self-evaluation
  • Can be observed carrying out work to a high standard
  • Provides a sound rationale for decisions, based on appropriate values, attitudes, theory and situational awareness

Mentoring moves

Here are some suggestions for how you could help:

  • Give praise and positive feedback on work that is of high standard
  • Create or seek out situations to further challenge the learner
  • Encourage critical reflection on practice

If they appear very independent, make sure you engage them in conversations that will allow them space for critical reflection. They will still have learning needs and will need your help to develop their practice further. It is important to realise this, as it can be difficult to know how else you can help a very independent learner.

Stretching the practice of a highly competent learner

Try giving additional responsibilities:

  • leading a small project
  • helping less able staff or students
  • preparing a poster for the workplace or public area
  • attending meetings with key people in the organisation
  • conducting a literature review

Gloves that are meant for wearing

I have to admit, I’m obsessed with gloves. I don’t leave the house without a pair, I have a drawer by the bed dedicated to them, and they can be found scattered all around our home. The washing line regularly sports a glove or two… or eight… or twelve.

It all started with a GP consultation for hand eczema, in which the doctor suggested that cotton gloves would be useful to protect my hands when they were very sore. I immediately had visions of a pair of cotton gloves I thought I’d seen on the shelf in the local Boots store. I went off confidently to equip myself. After an extended search of the shelves, I eventually purchased two pairs of cotton gloves – one to wear, and one to wash. Each pair of gloves came in a little cardboard box. The gloves were wide and baggy, and did not cover my wrists. If I wore them underneath washing up gloves, they would end up stuck inside the outer gloves when I removed them. Once a glove became wet, it was useless. Two pairs weren’t enough, of course, and I could see it would become expensive to buy gloves one pair at a time.

The search for cotton gloves

I decided that cotton gloves could be helpful if only I could find some that covered my wrists and fitted better. Surely that wasn’t too difficult? After all, there must be thousands of people like me who need to wear cotton gloves to protect their hands.  I tried every shop in town that had the faintest chance of selling gloves of any kind. I failed dismally. At that point, I turned to the internet. After many hours of research, my first online purchase was a batch of 10 ‘cotton fourchette’ gloves at 50p each, similar to the ones in this image:

cotton gloves
Cotton gloves, one turned inside out

They were fine, sort of. My sore hands made me increasingly reliant on the gloves. I wore them for driving, shopping, handling most objects, and using my computer. It was okay, but they slipped around on my hands when driving and quickly became grubby when doing anything. It was very challenging to get my credit card out of my purse; touchscreens on ATMs, for example, were impossible to use. My ability to type with any accuracy took a nosedive. I could remove my gloves, of course, when using a touch screen or handling cards, but then I was exposing my sore fingers to painful experiences, and leaving a trail of Vaseline.

Then, one terrible morning, the day of a really important meeting I was chairing, I got up to find that two of my fingers were weeping sticky tissue fluid. In my panic to get to work, I donned a pair of cotton gloves and found a pair of cycling gloves that were meant to be given as a present the previous Christmas. My fingers were so sore and drippy there was no way I could actually touch anything, even with the cotton gloves. I squeezed on a cycling glove over the worst hand and, feeling protected, I drove to work. At home at the end of the day, I was still wearing the cycling glove on the badly affected hand. Fluid had soaked through into a large damp patch. I eased off the outer glove and discovered that the cotton glove was completely stuck to my fingers. Even worse, loose threads from the seams were embedded in my raw flesh. After that day, I always wore my cotton gloves inside out.

Wearing cotton gloves is never a good look, unless you are a museum curator. Worse still, is cotton gloves with the seams hanging out. Nevertheless, I championed this look for about two years at work. For a  while, I tried cotton stockinette gloves, after buying a pack of 24. However, they turned out to be uncomfortable, especially because where the edges were sewn together they were less stretchy and tended to dig in. Once my fingers began poking through the ends, I gladly ditched each glove.

Outer layers are important too

There followed a frenzy of internet glove shopping: pure silk liner gloves, cycle gloves, hockey gloves, assembly grip gloves, leather gloves. I needed a soft absorbent surface next to my skin and a tough outer layer that would allow me to feel protected while generally negotiating the wider world. Preferably, the outer layer would also provide sufficient grip and dexterity to allow me to handle money and cards without removing them and risking the aggravation to my skin caused by constant whisking on and off. It was also helpful if the outer glove was resistant to rain. Going out in the rain wearing cotton gloves is, frankly, absurd.

For wet work in the kitchen, decorating and some gardening jobs (and being allergic to rubber), I purchased several boxes of vinyl gloves from a company that mainly sells to business.  Buying in bulk was much cheaper than  picking up the small packages available in supermarkets. I learnt that powder free is best, as long as I wear them over a liner. The downside of disposable vinyl gloves is that they are easily nicked and split when chopping or peeling vegetables. Also, be prepared for onions and potatoes to fly our of your hands at any moment! Any waterproof glove causes a build-up of moisture against the skin, so it’s best to limit wear to short periods.

Vinyl glove worn over a Skinnies glove
Vinyl glove worn over a Skinnies glove for wet work

I was starting to feel better equipped with the outer layers. However, I was increasingly disillusioned with the cotton gloves. Even if they were long enough to cover wrists, in practice they rode or curled up. As soon as they became damp (e.g. when gardening), they held the moisture against my skin. I was also desperate to find gloves without seams. Not much to ask, surely? As the eczema had settled on my fingertips, I needed to solve the problem of typing, and seams hanging out hampered me greatly. Also, at night the outward facing seams were very good for scratching and damaging all the other itchy skin. And wouldn’t it be good if I could use touchscreens with my gloves on!

Using touchscreens

Hours … and days of internet research later, I received an assortment of packages through the post. The photos below of just a few of the gloves show the outcome of months of hard wear!

I was particularly excited by two of my acquisitions, which would make it possible for me to use a touchscreen. First up, Thermocool seamless gloves with silver filament. They were amazing to use with a touchscreen, except that on occasions with my smartphone I couldn’t achieve quite enough precision. With wear, the silver filaments began fluffing up, which further reduced their effectiveness. As the gloves wore further, the tiny silver threads began to irritate the sensitive skin on my fingers.

Well-worn Thermocool gloves
Well-worn Thermocool gloves with silver filament

The second pair of gloves I could use with a touchscreen were these coffee-coloured ones, which had stitching on the thumbs and first fingers that did, indeed, allow me to work with touchscreens. They were a cotton and modal blend, and very soft. I wore them all summer to keep the sun off and enable me to touch and handle things. The seams were relatively unobtrusive.

Touchscreen-enabled Summer gloves
Touchscreen-enabled Summer gloves

Moisture wicking

Moisture wicking fabrics minus seams is something I now consider essential for a base layer, although there is very little choice when purchasing gloves without seams. Moisture wicking occurs when moisture is drawn away from the skin via capillary action. A useful feature of many synthetic fibres and fabrics designed for wicking is that they tend not to cling to the skin or feel soggy, as cotton does. Cotton can absorb a lot of water, but the water tends to remain held against the skin. This can be  bad news for eczema sufferers like me whose eczema is triggered or worsened by soggy skin. I wish dermatologists weren’t quite so evangelic about cotton.

My current situation is that I have discovered Skinnies gloves, and favour them for being seamless and having good moisture wicking performance. If I wear them underneath my gardening gloves, for instance, my hands stay noticeably drier for longer, when compared with cotton. Skinnies are made of 86% viscose, 11% nylon and 3% elastane. They cover my wrists well. I can tuck my sleeves into them if I am gardening and want to keep irritants and the sun off my arms. They are sufficiently unobtrusive to wear for typing for a short periods, although not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I can’t use a touchscreen when wearing them, but do now own a touchscreen stylus pen.

'Skinnies' gloves
‘Skinnies’ gloves

When out and about, my other mainstay is Foxgloves. These are great for rummaging around in a handbag, removing cash and cards from my purse, and doing most things normal people take for granted in their everyday lives. Made from Supplex® nylon and elastane, they last and last, and wash well. Designed by a gardener who had hand eczema they are sturdy and keep a lot of particles and the sun off the skin. At the same time, they are soft and breathable. The seams are bearable most of the time, and when my fingers are particularly sore, I wear my Foxgloves over the top of Skinnies. I have a black pair, which comes in useful for funerals and other formal occasions. I really couldn’t function without my Foxgloves.

Foxgloves
Foxgloves

I have travelled a long and difficult journey in my efforts to live with often debilitating hand eczema. I would like dermatologists to wake up to the fact that there is a range of novel fabrics available as alternatives to cotton. Cotton is not the answer to everything.

 

Histamine – the enemy within for allergy sufferers

IMG_20170619_074520313

You probably know someone who suffers from allergies that result in hayfever, asthma or urticaria. It could be you. The recent heatwave in the UK has caused huge discomfort for many such allergy sufferers. A period of rain allowing lush grass growth followed by the heat has given rise to a perfect storm of airborne pollen. Antihistamines are the main pharmaceutical remedy for allergies, and I imagine they are flying off the supermarket shelves as I write. Cetirizine, Loratadine, and Acrivastine are types of antihistamine readily available in the UK.

But have you ever wondered why ‘anti-histamines’? Why is histamine such bad news for allergy sufferers, and why do our bodies produce it if it wreaks such havoc? Well, actually, our bodies need histamine for normal functioning. Histamine plays an essential role in protecting the skin, airways and digestive tract from invaders such as parasites, bacteria and viruses. It also acts as a chemical messenger in the brain, helping to keep us alert. Additionally, histamine helps to stimulate the release of stomach acid. Histamine’s role in fighting the invasion of harmful organisms and initiating tissue responses to damage is what affects so many allergy sufferers.

Photo of airboorne grass pollen
Airborne grass pollen

Mediator of protection and healing

If you cut your finger or inhale a virus into your air passages, your body needs to supply extra blood to those areas to bring in the necessary ‘weapons’ and healing substances. Release of histamine, which is stored in ‘mast cells’ in the skin and mucous membranes, makes the tiny blood vessels dilate, allowing more blood into the area. The walls of the tiniest blood vessels, the capillaries, become more permeable to allow protective white blood cells and fluid to pass into the tissues. They become ‘leaky’. This leakiness means that tissues swell with extra fluid and blood cells. In the skin, this appears as swelling and redness. In the airways, there is congestion and watery mucus appears. Itching and sneezing can occur from stimulation of nerve endings.

Histamine molecule
Histamine is a small molecule made of three nitrogen, five carbon and nine hydrogen atoms.

Harmless substances taken for pathogens

When someone has an allergic reaction, their body interprets harmless substances such as pollen as being pathogenic. At some point in the past, their immune system has become sensitised. The hygiene hypothesis proposes that children in the developed world have insufficient exposure to a wide range of harmful organisms, and a relatively ‘idle’ immune system targets harmless substances instead. Allergic reactions are most closely aligned with the mechanisms for fighting parasitic invasions, in which there is a massive release of histamine in the affected tissues.

In allergic individuals, then, histamine feels like the enemy within. The itching, soreness, sneezing, coughing and wheezing evoked by histamine release cause extensive misery, and in extreme cases an allergic reaction can be fatal.

Anaphylaxis

In extreme cases, histamine release can be deadly. If you have a severe allergy to wasp or bee stings, certain medications, or foods, for example, it may cause anaphylaxis. Overwhelming levels of histamine are released into many parts of the body within a very short time. Skin breaks out in urticaria, the mouth and throat swell, airways constrict. Rapid leakage of fluid from the capillaries into these body tissues can cause a fall in blood pressure, leading to fainting. All these effects combine into anaphylactic shock, which is life threatening. The main lifesaver is an injection of adrenaline, which counteracts the most damaging effects of histamine. You may be interested in this informative video featuring Anaphylaxis Campaign Professor John Warner OBE:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlMYStReFL8

Mast cells

A discussion of hayfever feels quite mundane after contemplating anaphylaxis! It is worth taking a closer look at the mast cells before a final thought about antihistamines. Mast cells are made receptive to allergens (which act as antigens – something that triggers an immune response) by antibodies attaching themselves to the cell. Once triggered, the mast cell releases histamine into the surrounding tissues. Most of the time, this is a local response in the air passages or a certain place on the skin. In anaphylaxis, mast cells are triggered on a large scale.

A diagram of a mast cell
A mast cell releasing histamine (diagrammatic)

The blood-brain barrier

You remember I mentioned that histamine acts on the brain to help us stay alert? Presumably, then, antihistamines interfere with this? I remember as a child feeling privileged that my GP took the trouble to explain to me why the antihistamines I was taking made me feel sleepy. Luckily, for those hayfever sufferers nowadays who drive or operate machinery or are doing exams and so on, pharmacologists have developed modern antihistamines to minimise the effects on the brain. They have taken advantage of something known as the ‘blood-brain barrier’, identified in 1913. Modern antihistamines are barely able to pass from the blood into the brain through the blood-brain barrier, and therefore have almost negligible effects on a person’s wakefulness.

It’s quite a simple idea to grasp, although very complicated in detail, and still the subject of intense research. In short, the blood-brain barrier is a unique physical and chemical structure in the body that keeps the majority of the substances carried by the blood out of the brain. It will allow, for example, glucose, oxygen, amino acids, hormones and anaesthetics to pass through, but not antibodies, toxins and bacteria. Although alcohol can be considered a toxin, it is small enough to slip through the blood-brain barrier. If scientists could prevent alcohol passing into our brains, I wonder if this would increase or decrease our consumption?

I wish all you allergy suffers some respite from the sneezing, itching and wheezing this summer!

Photo of grass
A grass head laden with pollen

What kind of bread should you eat?

A sceptical approach to commonly held attitudes and beliefs

I took part in a fascinating discussion at a conference a few weeks ago. The conference theme was ‘What shall we eat?’ with the parallel theme ‘how shall we grow our food?’ The speakers were excellent. One of the workshops I attended was exploring attitudes towards food, in relation to production methods.

During the workshop, the facilitators handed around two bread samples from a white sliced loaf and an artisan loaf. The overwhelming consensus was that the artisan bread was healthier – a ‘no brainer’ as far as healthy food choices are concerned. Who with any sense would choose a white ‘factory’ bread over the artisan option? It got me thinking about people’s values regarding food. What drives our choices?

artisan-bread
Spoilt for choice

These are some of the attitudes shared in the workshop:

Artisan bread is more filling and satisfying/ more nutritious / better for the environment/ supporting small producers/ contains natural chemical-free ingredients

I felt increasingly uncomfortable. How much choice do most people really have? For me, these attitudes smacked of food snobbery. (TV presenter Greg Wallace gives his own take on food snobbery.) Do ‘natural’ food campaigners sometimes lose sight of the overwhelming social and financial issues that restrict food and lifestyle choices? But more importantly, is artisan bread really that much better for us?

Is artisan bread more nutritious?

As a result of this discomfort, I feel compelled to check out the bread facts. To what extent is artisan bread healthier than mass-produced sliced white bread? Let’s start with the nutritional content for protein, carbohydrate fat, energy and dietary fibre. In the cold light of day, there is actually very little difference in the macronutrient content of white bread and artisan bread.

bread-nutrients
Figures derived from http://badges.myfitnesspal.com/food/calories/93175308 and https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/composition-of-foods-integrated-dataset-cofid

So, what about the micronutrients? A scan of a range of sources reveals that the differences in the levels of thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, iron and calcium are negligible, although they might be slightly lower in white bread.

Is artisan bread easier to digest?

In my investigation of bread and health, I found an article by Jamie Oliver.  In it, he states that ‘Artisan bread is actually easier to digest, because the enzymes have had time to begin breaking down the gluten in the flour while fermenting’. This is  news to me, and I want to find out more about the breakdown of gluten in the bread-making process. And what about the claim about this making the bread more easily digestible? I need to find out!

It’s quite hard to get beyond the rhetoric about gluten. If you believe the vast majority of web chatter, gluten is a very bad thing indeed. I accept that evidence is building of adverse human responses to gluten. There are plenty of science-based articles pointing to the dangers of gluten. Despite referencing their sources, even here there seems to be some misinterpretation of the science, and I’m looking for the bare facts.

I feel a bit more comfortable with the standard of this article written by Jake New, as it draws directly from original science and doesn’t make over-inflated health claims. Jake explains how the gluten proteins can be incompletely broken down. Some people develop an inflammatory response to the resulting polypeptides (partially digested proteins). I’m still no further in discovering whether the preparation method really does makes the gluten in one bread easier to digest than another. What a pity Jamie Oliver did not give a reference for this claim! The only way I know to resolve this is to read the scientific papers, and particularly any systematic reviews of the research on gluten and health.

According to a systematic review by Smith et al (2015), about half the protein in wheat comprises gluten. Importantly, the authors stated that research into gluten digestion is conducted using test tubes. It is not particularly straightforward to extrapolate these findings into what actually happens inside your stomach and intestines. This aside, in their experiments, they found that baking markedly reduced the digestibility of the gluten proteins, compared with flour. They also found that the gluten proteins in bread are hardly broken down at all by the stomach enzyme pepsin, but that the enzymes normally present in the small intestine were effective in digesting gluten.

I cannot find anything discussing the baking method with respect to gluten digestibility, although I do feel more knowledgeable about gluten composition and digestion.

This New Zealand site created by the Baking Industry Research Trust explains a number of useful facts about bread and gluten. It confirms what I thought – that fermentation involves the breakdown of starches to produce the gas carbon dioxide and alcohol. I have found no sources explaining how fermentation might break down gluten. It explains that the proteins gliadin and glutenin combine during the bread-making process to form gluten, which does not otherwise exist in this form. According to another source,  the fermentation process also produces lactic and acetic acids, which add to the flavour.

To summarise, this is what I have discovered so far:

Wheat does not contain gluten – it contains two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, that combine during the bread-making process to form gluten.

The part of gluten that causes allergic responses and intolerance is gliadin, after the gluten has been partially digested into glutenin and gliadin.

The gluten in bread is much more difficult for human digestive enzymes to break down than the separate proteins found in flour. This seems to happen in the duodenum rather than in the stomach.

In artisan baking, the gluten undergoes repeated, slow cycles of stretching and relaxing, during which time the starches and sugars in the flour ferment into carbon dioxide, alcohol, and lactic and acetic acids. The liquid by-products contribute to the tastiness of artisan breads. It isn’t clear where the claims about the gluten becoming more digestible originate from.

Does artisan bread contain fewer harmful chemicals?

The UK Flour Advisory Bureau provides a helpful guide to the additives commonly made to flour. For bread, they might augment the enzymes that are already naturally present. To improve the texture and structure, they add Vitamin C and sometimes the amino acid cysteine (which is a necessary component of our body proteins and can be made by our livers). All flours except wholegrain are also fortified with B vitamins and calcium. And so far, I’m not worried about the chemicals in mass produced bread.

But what about pesticides? This is a complex topic and one to put aside for a follow-up blog article!

What kind of bread will I eat?

I have reassured myself that as far as nutrition is concerned, the type of bread I choose makes little difference. It’s far more important to consider diet as a whole. There will be times when I want to splash out on an artisan bread as a treat, and also when I want to support my local breadmakers. What bread choices do you make and why?