How Mentorship Can Help Healthcare Workers Cope with High-Stress Work Environments

Healthcare workers routinely see life at its most difficult. This weighs on everyone but can be particularly difficult for new hires to reconcile. They spent years in the classroom. They know their stuff. But now, as they walk into the hospital with a freshly laminated staff badge, they are experiencing the physical and emotional reality of having someone’s life in their hands for the first time.

It’s heavy stuff.

It’s also a responsibility that can have a corrosive effect on some people. Workplace relationships can’t completely eliminate the pressures of the healthcare industry, but they can help new employees learn the ropes through someone who has been in their exact position before and made it out the other side.

In this article, we cover how mentorship programs can help healthcare workers cope with high-stress work environments.

Defining Mentorship

A mentorship relationship does not need to be formally mandated. It can just be two people who like to take their break together and discuss the job— or, when feelings mandate it— anything but the job. Yet, many hospitals are now deliberately pairing new hires with experienced healthcare workers.

The hope is that these partnerships will help rookies learn the ropes faster, not just from an operational perspective but also emotionally and mentally. Healthcare work is something you can only understand if you’ve been through it. Many people may not have others in their social network who can relate to the unique challenges.

Getting people together through mentorship programs can make it easier to navigate the tumultuous first months on the job. Almost half of all nurses move on to something else after two years. Not only is this turnover rate destructive for the hospital, but it also endangers the communities that they serve. Below, we highlight how mentorships can help curve that problem.

Patient Deaths

An hour before New Hire’s shift ends, it happens. Their first patient death. The patient’s name was Michael. He was friendly, a quality notable on a floor of particularly different patients for this shift. He asked New Hire about their family. New Hire liked this.

New Hire tried, along with a team of others, to revive Michael, but of course, they did not. And now, the shift is over. New Hire is in their care, radio tuned to the same bland station they listened to twelve hours earlier on the way to work. They are going home to dinner with the family. New Hire’s spouse made lasagna.

It’s a difficult transition from becoming the person who failed to save Michael— even through no fault of one’s own—to the person who sits down to dinner with their kids. This is a struggle that most healthcare workers can relate to, but it’s also something that you can’t learn in school.

Mentorship programs can’t take the sting out of patient deaths, but they can serve as a valuable emotional resource. New hires will benefit simply from knowing someone who can relate to their challenges.

Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue happens when a healthcare worker simply feels emotionally burnt out at work. They still care about their patients on an intellectual level, but they can’t necessarily make the emotional connection with their work that they used to.

Basically, it’s a state of emotional numbness, one that can follow the healthcare worker into their everyday life. This disconnect is often very frightening for healthcare workers the first time that they experience it. Compassion may well have been what brought them to the job in the first place. What kind of healthcare workers are they if they can no longer feel it?

Compassion fatigue is not a permanent experience. It is, however, a challenging one. Having a mentor who can relate to the experience can help the new hire feel less alone, and perhaps even equip them with the skills they need to get over the emotional hump.

Logistical Stress

Not every problem that healthcare workers face is traumatic. In fact, the logistical stress of the job is driving just as many people away as the traumatic stress. While identifying all of the stressors that healthcare workers face on the job would be its own article, here are a few things weighing heavily on the minds of many healthcare workers.

• Long shifts: Nurses are particularly famous for their long shifts. Nurses are scheduled in twelve-hour blocks, which is challenging in its own right, but only more so when you factor in the logistics. They have their commute. Getting ready, signing out. All totaled, one nursing shift can easily consume fourteen hours of their day. Multiply that by three to four times a week and life can get pretty difficult. And of course, nurses are hardly the only ones working hard. Doctors also often work 60-80 hour weeks.

• Staffing shortages: We mentioned earlier that about half of all nurses quit within the first couple of years on the job. Well, that’s not doing much for the hospital’s ability to keep a floor staffed. And while staffing issues continue, a greater level of stress is put on the people who have remained on the job.

These logistical issues don’t have an easy solution. Some hospitals are working harder to schedule their staff in a way that is more conducive to their mental and emotional health. However, progress is slow going, particularly as they also struggle to staff their hospitals.

Mentorship programs can’t do much to fix these problems. However, it can make a big difference in a new hire’s life simply to have a sympathetic ear.

Leadership Potential

Mentorship programs can also help to bring out the leadership potential in new hires. Healthcare networks are always looking to identify employees who may eventually assume a leadership role. However, the day-to-day grind can make it difficult to identify this potential externally.

Mentorship programs can serve as a good way to not only identify early leadership potential but also foster it in new hires. As the senior employee gets to know the new worker, they can vet them for leadership potential, and also help connect them with opportunities for advancement should they decide that they want that.

Andrew Deen