An article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) has suggested the positive benefits of mentoring could help both you and your career, by reducing stress and increasing satisfaction.

Decades of research has demonstrated how junior employees benefit from being mentored. Guidance from senior colleagues has also been shown to enhance mentees’ job performance and satisfaction. We know far less, however, about how mentoring might benefit the mentors themselves. But those who commit to mentoring might be surprised by the multidimensional benefits it can bring. The authors of the HBR study were interested in understanding how mentoring might help mentors who work in stressful occupations. Prior research has suggested that mentoring can improve the emotional health of mentees when a close, trusting relationship is established. The authors wondered if mentors would receive the same mental health benefits from the relationship.

The study

Mental health is a serious and growing concern within occupations that play important social roles, such as medical professionals, firefighters and police officers. As policing is one of the most stressful occupations, with high levels of mental health and wellbeing issues amongst staff, the authors conducted a study of a formal mentoring programme in an English police force.

The mentoring programme was first rolled out in 2013. It was designed to support the development of junior officers by giving them a way to discuss aspirations and concerns and receive guidance.

The study involved two parts

Firstly, the researchers compared the mental health of a treatment set of 17 mentor-mentee pairs who went through the mentoring programme to a control group of 18 pairs of senior and junior officers who did not participate in the programme.

Secondly, they interviewed both the mentees and their mentors separately — this consisted of 18 participants, with 35 formal interviews in total. Mentors and mentees were asked about their stress levels, what they liked about their job, how they coped with stress and whether their mentoring relationship helped them with this.

The findings

The experiment results showed that people who served as mentors experienced lower levels of anxiety and described their jobs as more meaningful, than those who did not mentor. The researchers learned from their interviews that mentoring afforded both senior officers, as well as junior officers, a space for discussing, and reflecting on, concerns.

Mentors heard their mentees’ accounts of anxiety and realised these feelings — which they also shared — were commonplace. By acknowledging that these anxieties were common, both mentees and mentors grew more comfortable in discussing them and in sharing different coping mechanisms. Mentors often found their interactions with junior colleagues therapeutic.

Many mentors that were interviewed also said they found mentoring enhanced the meaningfulness of their work. Senior officers described routinely feeling separated from the daily policing work of junior colleagues. They talked about how long-term project management and a daily series of meetings to attend often prevented them from doing what they described as ‘real policing.’ This meant that they were less able to see their impact on people’s lives, but they could witness the more direct and immediate results of policing by helping the junior officers they mentored.

For instance, one senior officer said, “Doing this lets you do something important for someone and see the results fairly quickly. You are helping them. They don’t always listen, but it is satisfying – more satisfying than a lot of what I have to do these days.”

Another mentor noted how he helped his mentee navigate the process of taking on a new role, and saw them thrive in that role. This achievement helped him to realise how important his own daily tasks were and how they could make a difference.

Why does mentoring positively impact mentors?

Why does mentoring have this impact on mentors? The study authors believed it offers a way to receive support that is often lacking. Despite the pressures that comes with their roles — including being subject to abuse, having to undertake difficult decision-making and even the risk of death — police officers tend not to seek support from other officers, including more senior colleagues, so as to avoid the negative stigma associated with mental health disorders. Mentoring, therefore, offered a way to build trust within a relationship that laid a foundation for open and honest communication of sensitive topics.

While the study relied on a small sample size, the authors believed mentoring has the potential to support the mental health of mentors in other settings. Formal mentoring programmes provide an opportunity to encourage the discussion of difficult and sensitive topics, which often remain undisclosed, and, thereby, normalise difficult experiences of stress and anxiety.

Of course, mentoring is an investment and the benefits are not always immediate. Work commitments can get in the way and prevent regular meetings, leaving some mentors and mentees unable to establish a personal connection and therefore limiting the positive effects of mentoring. The mentors in the study said that the positive effect on anxiety, and the meaningfulness of their work, was reinforced as mentoring unfolded over time, through regular meetings with their mentees. As trust grew between them, so did the opportunities for sharing aspirations. By devising career and personal plans together, and reviewing how they unfolded, the mentors and mentees’ interactions became increasingly valuable.