Supporting the challenges we all face in our career: how mentoring can help

Matt Driver, Lead faculty for RCPCH mentoring skills courses and peer support webinars, explores the role of skilled, trained mentors in supporting doctors throughout their careers.

After more than a decade in medicine, my friend Amir was delighted to tell me he had been selected for his first consultant job. His delight was quickly tempered by the realisation that he was now responsible for the development and performance of a big team of people. That decade of learning had prepared him to be an excellent doctor. But now he felt totally unprepared for what turned out to be a leadership role.

As time went on, Amir found that he faced a whole range of challenges for which his experience and knowledge as a doctor could not provide ready answers. Telling and advice just did not work.

At this point I suggested he have a look at mentoring, an approach supported by the RCPCH..

But, what is mentoring?

The mentor’s role is not to advise, but to listen and draw out the mentee’s innate resourcefulness

Mentoring has had something of a chequered career. Junior staff in many sectors used to be assigned an older colleague as their ‘mentor’. This person would most commonly advise and pontificate, but would have no training, and often few skills, in this process. So there was much dissatisfaction with the notion of ‘mentoring’ and while it sometimes worked well, very often people avoided it.

Today though, mentoring is very different. The modern mentor is a skilled and trained colleague who provides support on a wide range of challenges. The mentor’s role is not to advise, but to listen and draw out the mentee’s innate resourcefulness. They build a respectful and more equal relationship allowing the mentee to bring their own agenda and take time out for quality thinking.

Why there's a need

Many doctors, from medical school upwards, tell me they have very good teaching, they are professionally assessed and if things go wrong there are resources (like psychotherapy) available to support them. What they often don’t have is confidential, skilled support to think through those challenges we all face: career choices, getting to grips with a promotion or a new job, finding the right balance between work and home life, looking after themselves or being as organised as they would like.

The danger is that things get worse and that normal challenges become serious problems. Sometimes people can end up anxious and stressed, or even leave medicine. And by the way, this doesn’t just happen to doctors – the same things happen in education, in sport and in business. A supportive ear earlier on could prevent this.

A vital resource in the workplace

The cost of losing one trained and experienced doctor is enormous; the cost of mentoring training is relatively tiny.

Mentoring – when delivered by trained mentors with a positive, confidential attitude can have a wide range of positive benefits. It can increase workplace satisfaction, engagement and intention to remain. It can head off stress and other problems before they become hard to manage. Crucially, mentoring can impact self-efficacy (a person’s belief in their own capability), an established predictor of high performance.

Some people point to the fact that mentoring skills training costs money – and decent training does cost. But anecdotal evidence suggests mentoring supports doctors in their decision to remain in medicine at points when they were seriously considering leaving. The cost of losing one trained and experienced doctor from the NHS is enormous; the cost of mentoring training is relatively tiny.

And, the more astute business managers I meet within the NHS tell me that their investment in mentoring is a no-brainer.