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Peer mentoring to assist staff retention and wellbeing

During the piloting phase of a new initiative designed to improve wellbeing and the retention of staff within higher education institutions (HEIs), Dr Jessica Runacres and Dr Fiona Cust discuss the ethos behind their idea and the reasons for piloting it within their HEI.

Even prior to Covid-19, academic staff within HEIs have had to contend with highly demanding and stressful workloads leading to increasing rates of mental illness and poor wellbeing. The ever-increasing demands of target driven statistics, rising numbers of students from a wide range of academic/social/diverse backgrounds, and decreased staffing ratios, has an impact on staff retention and this can result in a knock-on effect of remaining staff feeling overwhelmed, overworked and undervalued.

According to the most recent statistics (Jan 2022), the most common reasons for sickness within education settings were stress, anxiety and depression (25%). These statistics have not significantly changed since May 2019, highlighting that staff sickness due to mental illness and poor wellbeing is not, primarily, due to the Covid pandemic.

A recent staff survey within Staffordshire University focused upon retention and the reduction of sickness. Ideas and feedback were sought about strategies to improve both mental wellbeing and the creation and maintenance of a positive work culture. Staff wanted to be listened to, they asked for a ‘safe space’ to be heard and protected time for this. They asked for a space to share not only their anxieties and concerns, but also their visions, values and developmental ideas. They wanted to collaborate and network with others outside of their immediate teams and departments to share ideas, create interprofessional working groups and to hear about new initiatives and projects.

This led to the creation of a safe, confidential platform being piloted utilising the value of peer support and peer mentoring. The idea is simple. Staff register on a dedicated platform as either a mentor, a mentee, or both, and provide a brief bio about themselves. Mentees can use this platform to view the profiles of available mentors, select a mentor, and arrange a one-to-one meeting. There is no involvement from other members of staff or mangers past the advertisement stage, this is a user-led intervention.

Mentoring meetings can be weekly, monthly or bi-monthly and timings are not specific. We are not prescriptive as to how mentoring should be delivered. Ideally a face-to-face interaction but technology supported interactions using emails and video calls may be preferential for some staff. Each partnership will have their own aims/objectives and geography may be a key consideration when choosing the best method of delivery. We advised that participants interact for up to one hour a week for the duration of the pilot – but this is only a guide and is not a formal requirement. Mentees are encouraged to consider mentors outside of their own team to gain a diverse and interprofessional perspective, however this is not enforced.

Those acting as a mentor can benefit from meeting new staff, providing a listening ear, sharing ideas and strategies – and perhaps assisting in creating a positive workplace culture. Staff can take on the role of both mentor and mentee if they feel able to. The added bonus of feeling listened to, but also being a listener, is something that we feel confident that many staff may embrace. The concept of being valued and feeling valuable.

The primary aim being that staff have a safe, confidential, time protected space to feel listened to, to share ideas and to be able to simply, be.

We will be keen to see if this idea is helpful to staff and we will ask for completion of a simple pre and post mentoring questionnaire, in addition to seeking ideas as to how this initiative may be improved upon.

Staff have requested a safe space, and a protected time allocation to seek support and guidance. By providing a user-led platform – with no formal outcomes or targets to be adhered to – we are hoping that this will have a beneficial effect upon both staff morale and staff retention. Evidence demonstrates that if individuals feel valued and have an opportunity to be listened to it can promote the creation of trust, strengthen working relationships and promote a positive working environment. At the very least, we have listened to initial suggestions and acted upon these by creating a mentoring platform. It is a positive start which we hope will evolve and grow organically.

About the authors: Dr Fiona Cust is an Associate Professor in Children’s Nursing and Collaborative Practice at Staffordshire University. Fiona has led a number of studies and written several publications exploring the value of peer support both within the field of healthcare and within HEIs.

Dr Jessica Runacres is a Senior Lecturer in Research Practice at Staffordshire University whose research interests focus on wellbeing within HEIs and health and social care.

This blog has been kindly repurposed from Advance HE and you can read the original here: Peer mentoring to assist staff retention and wellbeing