Could mentoring help reduce workplace stress?

By Jan Murray
Managing workplace stress with mentoring

Last updated

An article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that the positive benefits of mentoring could help reduce stress and increase satisfaction.

Decades of research has demonstrated how mentoring junior employees is beneficial to them. Evidence has also shown that the wisdom of more experienced colleagues can elevate the work performance and contentment of those they mentor. Yet, our understanding remains limited about the potential advantages that mentoring could bring to the mentors themselves.

The researchers behind the HBR study aimed to delve into how mentors in high-stress professions might benefit from mentoring. Earlier studies have indicated that mentoring can bolster the emotional well-being of mentees, especially when a deep, trust-filled relationship is forged. The authors of the study were curious to see if the same psychological advantages could be reaped by the mentors through this relationship.

How the study was conducted

Mental well-being is a grave and escalating issue in professions that have significant societal impact, including healthcare providers, firefighters, and law enforcement officers. Policing, being one of the most stress-inducing professions with a high prevalence of mental health and wellness challenges, was the focus of the authors' study. They implemented a formal mentorship program within a police department in England to further examine this concern.

The mentorship program was initiated in 2013 within a law enforcement department in England and Wales. Its purpose was to foster the growth of less experienced officers by providing a platform for them to express their goals and worries, and to receive counsel.

The study was in two parts

Initially, they executed a field experiment where they evaluated the mental health of a group consisting of 17 pairs of mentors and mentees who participated in the mentorship program. This group was compared to a control set of 18 senior and junior officer pairs who were not involved in the program.

In the second phase, the researchers conducted separate interviews with both the mentees and mentors — encompassing 18 individuals and a total of 35 formal interviews. They queried the mentors and mentees regarding their stress levels, aspects of their job they enjoyed, their stress management strategies, and if the mentoring relationship had contributed to their stress handling abilities.

The study's findings

The findings from the experiment revealed that individuals who took on the role of mentors reported lower instances of anxiety and perceived their roles as more meaningful compared to those not involved in mentorship. Interviews further indicated that the mentoring platform provided both senior and junior officers an opportunity to discuss and ponder their concerns.

Mentors, upon hearing their mentees' expressions of anxiety, recognised these emotions, which they too experienced, as prevalent. Recognising these worries as widespread allowed both mentees and mentors to feel more at ease discussing them and in exchanging various stress management strategies. Mentors frequently found their engagements with junior co-workers to be therapeutic.

Numerous mentors interviewed also expressed that mentoring amplified the significance of their roles. Senior officers felt a sense of disconnect from the daily policing activities of their junior counterparts. They discussed how their involvement in long-term project administration and meetings often barred them from performing what they termed as 'actual policing.' This often made them feel less impactful on people's lives, yet, through mentoring their junior colleagues, they could observe more direct and immediate outcomes.

For example, one senior officer stated, "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 highlighted his role in guiding his mentee through the transition to a new position, and observed them flourish. This accomplishment prompted him to understand the importance of his daily duties and their potential to effect change.

Why does mentoring so often positively impact mentors?

What accounts for this significant effect of mentoring on mentors? The authors think that it provides an avenue for obtaining support that is frequently missing. Given the stresses inherent to their roles — encompassing maltreatment, challenging decisions, and potential mortal danger — police officers typically shy away from seeking assistance from fellow officers, including those at higher ranks. This is primarily to evade the adverse stigma linked with mental health conditions. Thus, mentoring served as a means to create trust within a relationship, which laid the groundwork for frank and open discussions around sensitive subjects.

Despite their research being based on a limited participant pool, they maintain that mentoring could potentially bolster the mental health of mentors in diverse contexts. Formal mentoring schemes offer a platform to promote conversations surrounding tough and sensitive matters, which are typically kept under wraps, thus normalising challenging experiences related to stress and anxiety.

Indeed, mentoring demands dedication and the advantages might not be evident instantly. Professional obligations can sometimes interfere, preventing regular meetings, which might leave some mentor-mentee pairs struggling to form a personal bond, thereby reducing the positive impacts of mentoring. The mentors in this study indicated that the beneficial effects on anxiety and their job's meaningfulness were reinforced as the mentoring relationship progressed over time, through regular interactions with their mentees. As the bond of trust strengthened, opportunities for sharing aspirations increased. By collaboratively developing career and personal goals, and reflecting on their execution, the exchanges between the mentors and mentees grew in value.

Those who really commit to the mentoring process often find the diverse rewards this practice offers to be quite remarkable.

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