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Mentors Who Mitigate

11/18/2015-

by Clif Boutelle, SIOP Public Relations

Study Finds Mentoring Programs Are Useful at Preventing Employee Burnout

Most workers will admit to experiencing stress at times in their job, often the result of a variety of factors, including work overload. In fact, there are an abundance of studies and surveys finding that workplace pressures are the leading source of stress and burnout for American workers.

A recent study may offer help in fighting employee stress. One SIOP member’s study of 325 working adults found that the presence of a mentor may mitigate personal barriers that lead to stress and burnout—especially among those who exhibit high levels of neuroticism—and that those individuals who were mentored were more likely to have lower levels of burnout.

“More and more employers are recognizing that employees feel they are being pushed to their limits and that steps need to be taken to promote their physical and social well-being,” said Lebena Varghese, the doctoral candidate at Northern Illinois University who lead the study.

A 2011 American Psychological Association survey found that 36% of employees reported experiencing work stress regularly, and in a National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) study, 40% of workers described their jobs as “very or extremely stressful.”

Burnout is a significant form of stress where workers become emotionally and physically exhausted, so much so that it is difficult to perform a job.

“Stress and burnout can be manifested in several different ways, and there is no single answer for preventing stress at work,” Varghese said. “Nevertheless, it is possible to offer guidelines on the process of stress prevention in organizations. One way of helping individuals vulnerable to burnout is providing them mentors.”

A mentor is someone who has experience within the organization, usually higher up within the organization, and who can provide work and social support. There are two types of mentoring—informal and formal—and both can be beneficial to workers. Informal mentors are more likely to provide social support.

“It could be one employee just approaching another, who might need some support or assistance in adjusting to the firm and the position,” Varghese said.

Formal mentoring is more structured, where employees are matched with more experienced employees, and focuses on career development.

In the study, Varghese and colleagues researched the impact of mentoring on those employees who are likely to experience symptoms of severe stress as a result of work overload. These were the employees likely to experience feeling incapable of handling assignments, unclear job expectations, poor job fit, and lack of social support.

“We wanted to examine the relationship between mentoring and burnout among employees who may experience negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and sadness within the workplace,” she said. “These individuals tend to construe their environment as threatening and demanding, and feel powerless to handle these challenges. Psychologists refer to these personality dimensions as trait neuroticism.”

The research found that individuals exhibiting traits neuroticism who received formal mentoring experienced lower levels of burnout. In addition, when part of a formal mentoring program, these employees are likely to experience lower levels of emotional and cognitive fatigue; gain a greater sense of confidence and self-efficacy; and lessen their intentions to leave the organization or engage in counterproductive behaviors such as absenteeism, Varghese noted.

The findings were not as strong for informal mentoring in reducing burnout. 

“This study illustrates that mentoring can serve as a crucial intervention, which can reduce the intensity with which individuals with vulnerable personality traits react toward stress and the adverse consequences of job burnout,” Varghese said.

Based upon the study, Varghese is advocating that greater attention be given to personality factors and traits in mentor–mentee relationships so that the mentorship can be more effective and successful.

“Mentors can be a buffer for those individuals who may be experiencing levels of stress and burnout,” Varghese said. “We think mentoring, either formal or informal, can be particularly effective in offsetting vulnerability to stress and burnout for individuals who score higher on this trait.”

However, she cautioned that the presence of a mentor does not necessarily guarantee a stress-free work environment.

Formal mentoring can go wrong when there is a lack of fit between the people assigned to be in a mentoring relationship. To be effective, there needs to be some evaluation of what the mentees needs are and then matching that person with a mentor best equipped to help. For example, a single mom struggling to find balance between work and family could be paired with a mentor who also is a single mom and can draw upon her experiences to provide guidance and help the mentee to attain a balance.

“This is not always done,” Varghese said. 

Contact: Lebena Varghese at 407-915-9098 or email at lebena.varghese1@niu.edu