Looking after yourself

Are learners a source of energy and inspiration, or are you in a spiral of fatigue? 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. A workplace lacking in new blood soon becomes stagnant.

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. Maybe you need to find time in your day to meet with a representative from the education provider. Perhaps your student is anxious about making mistakes and demands a lot of your attention. And what if you have a ‘high-confidence, low-competence’ student who you feel you can't entirely trust? These time and energy demands are all legitimate and important.

Looking after yourself

I’ve brought together a few useful ways of thinking about the pressures and rewards of mentoring. To support you to look after yourself, I discuss ideas around self-regulation, stress and trust in the workplace. ‘Professional will’ is an invaluable personal resource that can help carry you through the challenges.

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 notice you are regulating your emotions and behaviour when you are heavily pressed? This might be when learners or colleagues challenge you directly. Or you might feel frustrated by lack of personal time.
Maintaining professional poise
The idea of self-regulation is linked with the need for restraint. If you continuously need to restrain yourself at work, you can easily become fatigued.  Perhaps you are trying to remain respectful and professionally poised. Perhaps you want to appear serene and confident. Emotional labour is an associated idea, which has become very popular recently. Increasingly, professionals are discussing emotional labour. It started with the publication in 1983 of Arlie Hochschild’s book ‘The managed heart’. Emotional labour is a social act that involves regulating one’s feelings and displays of emotion in order to induce the desired feelings in others
Fatigue and recovery
Fatigue occurs partly because acts of self-regulation and emotional labour require you to expend psychological resources. Examples of psychological resources are self-esteem, optimism, as well as the ability to self-regulate. Unchecked, self-regulation can lead to exhaustion, burnout or counterproductive behaviour. Opportunities for recovery, including sufficient rest, are important. Even short breaks in the working day can help you to recover these depleted resources. Put yourself first some of the time.
Tips for managers

Ensure there are sufficient opportunities for your mentors (and other staff too) 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 requirements for the standard of your mentoring?
  • 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?
High stakes
There are often high stakes attached to mentoring. Many apprentices and students are following courses for entry to a profession. If they fail their work assessments or achieve low grades, it may directly affect their future employment and earnings. Also, your mentoring practice is likely to be open to scrutiny.
Job demands

It can take much effort to building a complete picture of a learner. The information you need might appear in fragments, over time, by consistently working with a student. Also, you might need to look in several different places to locate the records you need access to. Other people who can give you information may be difficult to contact. Fragmented information can emphasise a mentors’ susceptibility to work-related stress. Also, job demands such as physical workload and time pressures can initiate a spiral of energy loss, making it increasingly difficult to engage productively in work.

Stress and fatigue can clearly create situations where you need to seek support in your workplace.

Tips for managers

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 either their mentees or their learning and assessment needs.

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 when you are mentoring?
Trust
Trust is everywhere in professional life. Trust is also fragile. When trust is broken, it can be difficult to repair. Mentors are often acutely sensitive to events that could jeopardise the trust of their clients or service users. Any trust breakdown could threaten the basis of your practice or business.
A web of relationships
Mentors usually operate in a complex web of relationships. Professional networks appear to multiply the risk where trust is concerned. This is because learners as third parties can pass on information that may (albeit unwittingly) misrepresent the mentor’s actual practice. This risk can sometimes make mentors feel professionally vulnerable. Reflect on your feelings in relation to your professional relationships. Confide in trusted colleagues about your vulnerabilities.
Psychological safety
Organisations can actively promote psychological safety in teams through ‘servant leadership’ behaviour. Servant leadership includes being openly supportive towards individuals, minimising conflict, and nurturing individuals’ potential and a sense of community.
Tips for managers

It helps if managers 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.

Consider how you might promote psychological safety in your organisation.

Professional will

  • 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
Professional will is an important personal resource for you as a mentor. It can involve:
  • energy
  • mastery
  • concentration
  • determination
  • persistence
  • initiative
  • organisation
  • caring
Feeling inspired?
When learners inspire you, your 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 or from the education provider. Many mentors, when they feel at a low ebb, will tap into their past experience. They'll reminisce about their reasons for choosing their job or profession. They'll remind themselves of deeply held values, the skills they have developed, and their motivation for passing these on.
Tips for managers

Employers and managers need to be prepared to facilitate an atmosphere that values, inspires and supports mentors. Take an active interest and make time to talk to mentors about their work. Try celebrating the work of your mentors in staff newsletters or through mentor awards.

Further reading

See also Ron Barnett's presentation 'Willing to be a Professional' Download presentation. Ron's conference page 2009

 

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