Benefits of mentoring programmes in occupational health

Under the close supervision of a more experienced professional, occupational health practitioners could have an opportunity to maximise their career potential. Sarah Harriss and Anne Harriss explain.

The post of a newly qualified occupational health practitioner offers a breadth of new experiences, challenges and opportunities. This is particularly the case for nurses who have made a career change and studied on a full-time specialist community public health nurse (SCPHN) degree programme. Such practitioners may not have been employed in an OH post during their studies, but have undertaken an OH placement carefully monitored by a practice teacher.

Their OH experience may have been limited to the SCPHN standards required by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). Consequently, they will lack the breadth of practice experiences of peers already employed within an OH setting, prior to undertaking their studies and subsequent SCPHN registration. The NMC endorses mentorship for pre-registration students (NMC, 2008), but does not require a period of mentorship following registration as an SCPHN. Newly qualified OH practitioners with limited OH experience may benefit from the support of a mentor while adapting to a new, evolving role.

Inexperienced professionals, when faced with challenges, may fail to recognise associated opportunities. It is often possible to change what is initially perceived as an obstacle into an exciting prospect for personal and professional growth. Unfortunately, some novice practitioners are not positioned to formulate an effective strategy to deal with challenges. Developing a relationship with a mentor can assist this process.

Mentorship is not restricted to newly qualified OH advisers. More experienced practitioners may benefit from mentorship in order to develop and hone their skills of leadership, management and facilitating their career progression into more senior positions within an OH service. This article explores the characteristics of mentoring programmes and the factors affecting their success.

An effective relationship with a mentor is supportive to the less experienced OH nurse. Large OH services may utilise a formal approach to supporting an inexperienced practitioner through a mentor-protégé relationship. Where there is no established formal relationship, the OH practitioner may explore an informal link with an experienced practitioner with whom they can explore effective solutions to enhance their practice.

Formal and informal approaches

Formal mentorship assists effective knowledge transmission from mentor to protégé promoting the development of competence (Allen, Poteet and Burroughs, 1997; Allen, Lentz and Day, 2006; Burke, 1984; Kram and Hall, 1996). Mentoring has two functions: first, providing career-related support and professional development. Sponsorship, coaching and setting challenging assignments will all provide this support. Second, mentorship enhances the professional effectiveness of the protégé (Allen, Eby, Poteet, Lentz and Lima, 2004).

quotemarksCommitment to the process of both formal and informal mentorship is crucial to their success.”

There are significant differences between formal and informal approaches to mentorship (Ragins and Cotton, 1999). Formal relationships are commonly assigned by a line manager and are usually shorter in duration than those of an informal nature. The criteria for mentor selection may result from the mentor’s position within the organisation. Formal mentors often focus upon the short-term career goals of the protégé (Murray, 1991). The main functions of such programmes from within the organisation include professional development and grooming for eventual promotion (Gibb, 1999). This is a worthwhile organisational investment, particularly as it promotes employee motivation, job performance and career progression (Wilson and Elman, 1990).

Mentoring benefits both protégé and mentor. The protégé benefits through: human capital – enhanced knowledge and skills; movement capital – increased knowledge of the internal and external labour market; and through social capital from networking opportunities. Trust, liking and respect are key in the mentoring relationship. The mentor also gains as observing and facilitating the development of a less experienced practitioner can be very satisfying. The discussions that take place between the mentor and protégé offer the opportunity for the mentor to reflect on their own practice. In short, a win-win situation.

Ragins, Cotton and Miller (2000) found that protégés placed in programmes designed to promote their careers reported significantly greater satisfaction, offering greater potential for career progression than those in programmes designed for general orientation. An important factor when designing formal programmes is agreeing guidelines for the frequency of meetings. Ragins, Cotton and Miller (2000) suggest that programmes lacking this structure are perceived by protégés as being less effective than those in which guidelines are developed and implemented.

Dedicated process

However, even the best-designed programme cannot compensate for a mentor who lacks commitment. The mere presence of a mentor does not automatically lead to positive work outcomes (Ragins, Cotton and Miller, 2000). Unfortunately, not all mentors and protégés make an allowance for the degree of commitment required to optimise the process resulting in them paying lip service to what could be a very valuable opportunity. Commitment to the process of both formal and informal mentorship is crucial to their success. Commitment has three components: the intent to persist; long-term orientation; and psychological attachment (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro and Hannon, 2002).

Formal programmes have become an increasingly popular staff development tool in many workplaces; however, formal mentoring does not seem to be as effective as informal approaches (Ragins and Cotton, 1999; Scandura and Williams, 2001; Allen, Eby and Lentz, 2006). In contrast to informal mentorships, formal programmes match mentors and protégés via a third party, often on the basis of a job-related characteristic, such as job function. However, this does not ensure compatibility between mentoring partners (Ragins and Cotton, 1999).

Protégés more involved in the selection of their mentor seem to gain greater satisfaction from the mentorship process than those having less involvement (Viator, 1999). By perceiving that they have a voice in the matching process, protégés and mentors may start to invest in the relationship prior to its official beginning and may also feel a greater motivation to maximise the relationship. In contrast, whether or not the protégé reports being a voluntary participant makes very little difference in mentoring outcomes (Allen, Eby and Lentz, 2006).

Close contact

In order to increase the likelihood of meaningful and frequent interactions within the mentoring relationship, the relationship is most effective if the two partners are close in seniority within the organisation (Kram, 1985). Protégés have reported receiving greater career mentoring from mentors within the same department, resulting from enhanced interaction opportunities (Allen, Eby and Lentz, 2006).

quotemarksProtégés more involved in the selection of their mentor seem to gain greater satisfaction from the mentorship process.”

When the mentor and protégé work in the same department, greater mentorship quality, psychosocial mentoring and career mentoring was reported (Allen, Eby and Lentz, 2006).

The mentor’s knowledge of the department may make it easier for them to provide career advice and counselling. A greater difference in seniority is not necessarily a disadvantage as this relates positively to role modelling (Allen, Eby and Lentz, 2006). Mentors in more senior positions within the management structure are well positioned to act as role models for protégés to emulate. Kram (1985, p.33) notes the importance of rank differences by affirming that “the [junior colleague] finds in the senior a particular image of who he can become”.

Formal mentoring programmes aid career, professional and personal development; however, careful consideration should be given to its purpose (eg career progression), and the importance of “fit” when matching mentors with protégés.

Opportunities for developing informal mentorship relationships can arise from membership of occupational health special interest groups. For example, members of the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners are issued with a membership list; highlighted within this list are the names of experienced practitioners prepared to provide peer support. The OH mailing list JISCMail is also a useful resource. Making a link with a fellow professional through either of these resources could develop into a successful mentoring relationship.

Sarah L Harriss is a student in MSc organisational psychology and Anne Harriss is course director, occupational health programmes at London South Bank University.


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Case study 1: Informal mentorship

Lucas was a registered nurse with qualifications and extensive experience in both occupational health and safety and occupational hygiene. On completion of an occupational health nursing degree programme he made a career move to become a lone practitioner in the construction industry without direct access to any other OH, medical or nursing professional.

Shortly after that appointment he approached a more experienced OH practitioner in order to develop an informal mentor-protégé relationship. Within a few months, on one particular day, several workers reported having been sprayed with what they thought was ground water on a construction site. One worker reported that immediately after this incident he experienced a burning sensation on his skin, which subsequently blistered.

Lucas suspected that this worker had sustained a chemical burn resulting from exposure to an unknown substance, which he believed to be a contaminant of the water with which the worker had been sprayed. The worker was given initial first-aid treatment on site and Lucas was of the opinion that other workers could be at risk; therefore, prompt action was essential. He considered the possible options that he could propose to management. Each of these involved recommending that work be suspended until any chemical contaminants of the ground water had been identified.

Lucas was concerned about the implications of these recommendations on the firm. As a matter of urgency, he discussed with his mentor how this incident should be followed up, particularly whether or not it was realistic that the project manager should stop work on a highly lucrative and very time-sensitive project. The mentor provided a sounding board for Lucas to explore the legal, ethical and practical implications of all the available options, including suspension of work, initiation of biological monitoring and referral to a specialist occupational physician experienced in toxicology.

Lucas found that the professional support and exchange of ideas with a mentor had helped him to justify clinical decision-making options. The follow-up to this incident revealed that a group of workers had been sprayed with a cocktail of toxic chemicals. Suspension of work until exposure to these contaminants could be controlled was therefore essential in order to comply with the requirements of health and safety legislation, including the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and associated Regulations.

Case study 2: Formal mentorship

Caroline had been employed as a senior OH nurse within a multinational company for 18 months and was then promoted to deputy service manager. Her employer was committed to succession planning and her annual appraisal included discussions with her line manager regarding her future contribution to the development of the service.

Caroline was confident in her occupational health practice but acknowledged that she wished to develop her leadership and management potential. Her line manager agreed to fund her to study for a masters-level leadership and management unit at a local university.

A formal mentoring programme was established; an appropriate mentor was carefully chosen – a senior manager with a breadth of leadership and coaching experience, although neither an OH professional nor employed within the same organisation.

Ground rules were agreed at their initial meeting. Both parties recognised the importance of regular, but not necessarily frequent, face-to-face meetings. Supplementary discussions were undertaken by telephone and through communication software such as email and Skype.

This relationship sometimes resulted in Caroline reflecting on difficult scenarios outside of her comfort zone and continued over a period of 18 months. Caroline found it to be supportive but challenging.

At the end of the first year, the service manager left the organisation and Caroline was promoted to that position. This promotion coincided with considerable organisational change resulting from a merger with another company. This merger was not an easy transition for many staff due to the differences in culture and norms of the two companies.

Furthermore, there were also concerns regarding the possibility of redundancies. Workplace stress resulting from these changes, particularly impending job cuts, was reflected in an increase in self-referrals to the OH service.

This formal mentorship programme helped Caroline to lead the occupational health service successfully and with confidence through a period of significant change.

Both Caroline and her mentor reported benefits from this relationship. Caroline gained enhanced leadership and management skills, while her mentor, who was not an OH practitioner, gained an appreciation of the role and function of an OH service in supporting staff during organisational change.

Although Caroline felt that she gained immeasurably from being mentored, she observed that in the early days of the relationship there were times when she would have liked to discuss challenges as they arose. However, the formality of the relationship resulted in her feeling uncomfortable contacting her mentor outside of the agreed framework. Such ad hoc contact may have been easier within an informal mentor-protégé relationship.

Caroline acknowledged that having been mentored by an experienced manager and leader supported her in her leadership role at the time of the mentorship and enhanced her future career progression. She subsequently went on to lead the OH nursing provision of an international conglomerate. Caroline’s positive experience of mentorship motivated her to mentor others.

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