Don’t Let Mentoring Wear You Out

Mentoring is undoubtedly a high-impact, high-stakes relationship. Mentors give their time, attention and resources to develop others. Usually a voluntary activity, mentoring goes beyond a person’s formal job requirements. But when a mentor is well-meaning but too burnt out to perform essential mentoring functions as a result of burnout, the result is marginal mentorship.: dysfunctional or disengaged mentoring that no longer has value.

If you continue to drain your energy to frame, no matter how good your intentions, you will eventually be unable to frame or help anyone. Here are some ways to identify and overcome mentor burnout: Know the signs and regularly assess your risk factors for burnout, and involve someone to help you identify when you are showing symptoms. Retain your mentoring efforts by finding ways to maximize your time while expanding your reach. Change your approach to make mentorship fun and energy-generating. Finally, talk openly about burnout to model self-awareness and self-care.

Mentors give their time, attention and resources to develop others. Usually a voluntary activity, mentoring goes beyond a person’s formal job requirements. Junior members of any organization seem to intuitively identify and gravitate toward the most influential mentors, and these mentors – often already busy – find that the demand for potential mentees is steadily increasing. As a result, great mentors can easily become overcommitted, overwhelmed, and ultimately less effective in their mentoring role.

The current Covid environment of canceled programming, reduced in-person meetings, misaligned hybrid schedules for mentors and mentees, the ongoing stress of catching Covid and reduced informal interactions has further impacted the dynamics of mentoring relationships. It also gave us new ways to think about mentoring. Like caregiving and teaching, mentoring suggests an ongoing relationship, a commitment that many mentors take very seriously. Despite early signs of burnout and reduced effectiveness in the role of mentor, a mentor may feel pressure to continue performing at a high level, meeting the needs of mentees without regard to their own resources.

Coined by Dr. Herb Freudenberger over 40 years ago, the term burnout is associated with behavioral signs such as exhaustion, cynicism and inefficiency. All three of these can have negative impacts on personal and professional relationships, including mentorships. Research shows that good mentors score high on measures of empathy for others and caring, making it harder for some to draw boundaries, set boundaries, and take care of themselves. This can make them more prone to burnout. Mentors can suffer from indirect distress, often carrying the burdens and anxieties of their mentees.

Mentoring is undoubtedly a high-impact, high-stakes relationship. When a mentor is well-meaning but too exhausted to perform essential mentoring functions as a result of burnout, the best outcome might involve what Belle Rose Ragins has described as fringe mentoring: dysfunctional or disengaged mentoring that doesn’t has more value. The risk of mentor burnout can be further exacerbated by the following factors:

  1. Mentors who take on too many mentees or who have demanding mentees who require extra attention, time, and vigilance are at risk of emotional exhaustion that builds up until the demands of mentorship become overwhelming. In contexts where too few executives or mid-to-senior managers are mentoring, those who take mentoring seriously are at higher risk.
  2. Mentors from underrepresented groups are particularly vulnerable as they often feel pressured to mentor most mentees from minority groups. Additionally, they often face a “cultural imposition,” the unique burden placed on minority employees to serve their organization as a token minority member of too many committees.
  3. In some professions, there is a tension between advocacy and surveillance. The mentor is responsible for guiding and sponsoring a trainee while simultaneously serving as a guardian of competence on behalf of the profession. This tension is palpable in the healthcare professions, the military, and other settings where the passage of an indispensable but poorly qualified mentee through the training pipeline can put others at risk.
  4. Mentors who don’t have time in their schedule for mentoring – often because the organization doesn’t truly value mentoring – and those with significant home care obligations are at higher risk of burnout . Women who do mentorship are likely to feel more pressed for time than men. Full-time working women spend an additional 8.5 hours per week on childcare and other household activities; they also report stronger institutional or social pressure to do more administrative work, meet the emotional needs of others, and mentor younger women.

All of these risks can lead to negative outcomes for your relationship and your mentee’s growth. For example, if a mentor feels too tired to have another conversation about their career (or feels completely exhausted and uncreative), they may become disconnected during conversations. In response, mentees may misinterpret their detachment as disinterest, apathy, or even a reflection on their own talent and potential as a mentee. Mentors also serve as poignant role models for their mentees; an exhausted mentor may not set a good example for self-care and self-awareness.

If you continue to drain your energy to frame, no matter how good your intentions, you will eventually be unable to frame or help anyone. Here are some ways to identify and overcome mentor burnout:

Know the signs and regularly assess your risk factors for burnout

Take time to reflect regularly so you can quickly identify signs of mentorship burnout. Pay attention to signals such as feeling chronically exhausted, being more cynical than usual, or showing signs of apathy. Ask trusted colleagues to help monitor your emotional bandwidth for developing relationships by asking them what they may notice, such as being habitually tired, distracted, or overwhelmed. Ask them to speak up and say something – in the spirit of caring – when you show signs of exhaustion or diminished competence. For example, invite a peer to contact you regularly and review your mentoring workload and any concerns you have about your professional relationships. Offer to do the same for them. You can also use one of the burnout assessments available online.

Keep your mentoring efforts

Stop assuming that high-quality mentoring relationships can only happen in the traditional one-on-one format. Consider mentorship models that maximize your time while expanding the reach of your mentorship. For example, create cohorts of new hires who could meet monthly with a few mentors who can offer support and guidance. They will learn from mentors and from each other. Also, consider peer-to-peer mentoring relationships: informal pairings of close peers. You can also teach others how to mentor, creating a legacy tree of mentoring. Finally, have a backup plan if you need to scale back part of your mentorship so that your mentees are cared for like you are caring for yourself.

Make mentoring fun

In The success factorNine-time NBA champion and Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he wants basketball to always be fun because it’s part of his core values. As such, he strives to make training fun and team cohesion. Go back to your “why”. Reflect on the inspiration and fulfillment that mentoring brings to your life. Mentoring is values-aligning work, and it’s deeply fulfilling – it’s not just a waste of energy, it’s an energizer. Consider reading a book or going to a conference together, creating a networking event for your mentee, or shadowing each other (or job shadowing if you’re in different organizations).

Talk about burnout

Recognize the context, its realities and the challenges. Be open and transparent about your own capacity and discuss with your mentees the (often unintended) consequences of working in a place of reduced capacity. Even if you are coaching from an empty well, this transparent and vulnerable role model can be very impactful. It helps to show your imperfections. At the same time, remember that you hold relative power in the relationship; Avoid blaming your mentee for your burnout. Apply strategic self-disclosure in the service of modeling self-awareness and self-care to help mentees learn these important skills. These honest conversations will also provide context for the mentee if you need to reduce the frequency of meetings or step away for a while. Leaders can help by acknowledging and acknowledging the efforts of mentors in the organization.

. . .

It is certainly possible to be a good mentor and avoid burnout. Prolific mentors understand that mentoring can be one of the most rewarding parts of their professional and personal lives. Mentors get a lot out of mentoring relationships. Yet we rarely talk honestly about the costs associated with mentoring.

A key to preventing burnout is being honest about the potential challenges associated with mentoring in today’s environment. Good mentors focus on the whole mentee, and they should also focus on themselves. Be clear about your emotional well-being, bandwidth, and limitations, and articulate these to your mentees and colleagues. Have follow-up systems in place, rooted in both self-awareness and transparent engagement with colleagues. In other words, know yourself and Build a constellation of close colleagues who care about you and trust you enough to give you unvarnished feedback when your mentorship acumen begins to wane.

Comments are closed.