Ideal qualities for successful nursing mentors

Ideal qualities for successful nursing mentors

Often, the best way to learn is through practical experience. However, learning through experience often requires the support of a mentor, who can ensure that you learn safely and effectively. This is especially true in healthcare settings, where mentors are vital in ensuring that students and new staff get hands-on clinical experience without jeopardizing their patients or the quality standards of their employers. Mentoring initiatives have been found to have many more advantages too, including boosting the confidence and interpersonal skills of both mentors and mentees.

Mentoring is certainly nothing new in healthcare. In fact, Florence Nightingale—considered to be the founder of modern nursing—is believed to have developed her new recruits by pairing them up with experienced nursing staff. Mentorship has become a pressing need in the modern era, as demand for new nurses is outstripping recruitment, and ways to accelerate training are sought.

The relationship between a mentor and their mentee is still a highly individual and personal one. It is based on a student or new nurse enjoying guardianship and advice during a formative period of their career. What is perhaps less appreciated is that the mentor often stands to gain a great deal from this relationship too. This includes opportunities to underpin and develop many of their own personal and professional skills, and potentially prepare for leadership roles in nursing.

The practical aspects of mentorship

There are distinct qualities that nursing mentors need to create the kind of connection with their mentees that ensures positive outcomes for them and their employers or educational institutions. However, there are highly practical aspects to this role also. For instance, a mentor needs to already have a significant amount of clinical expertise and experience. This gives both them and their mentee confidence that this relationship is going to be safe and successful. Also, to be a nurse mentor you need to be ready to add to your workload.  As we will go on to discuss, your duties may extend beyond scheduled interactions and a timetable of clinical tasks.

This leads to another of the essential requirements for being an effective nurse mentor. You need to be well organized, with good time management skills. This enables you to juggle all your priorities and be able to make yourself available to your mentee as required. That swings both ways though. If you are someone seeking a mentor—or you have been assigned one by a training body or employer—you must be willing to invest the right amount of time and effort into this relationship.

When you are expecting this kind of one-to-one help and support from a more senior healthcare professional, you will need to be prompt, reliable, and respectful in keeping to any arrangements you make. You will also need to be ready to listen and learn, though as we explore later, you should have opportunities for some free-thinking, initiative, and critical analysis too.

The role of preceptors

As it has become such a firmly established principle within healthcare that supervision from an experienced practitioner creates a fertile learning environment for more junior personnel, the process has been formalized and structured.

This is true of university qualification programs for nursing and inductions and training schemes for new recruits. There is often a strategic set of tasks and goals to enable mentees to assimilate vital information and gain practical experience while being closely monitored to uphold safe, ethical, and high-quality practice. You will sometimes see this described as preceptorship. This term refers to a period of structured transition from being newly qualified healthcare practitioners to professionals able to work independently.

As well as sometimes being referred to as a preceptor, you may also see experienced healthcare professionals who guide and support you described as a clinical instructor. However, within nursing practice, it is also still common to hear the term mentor. Mentorship could be something facilitated as part of your study program toward nursing qualifications. That includes when you opt to take an online nurse practitioner degree program, for example.

In this situation, mentorship in nursing enables remote-learning students to work with preceptors to optimize the clinical experience they gain during their time in a practice setting. Texas Woman’s University urges its students to find seasoned nurses to mentor them in a specialty or advanced practice skills, but also recommends they are compassionate and able to foster a safe educational environment. For example, those studying to become a family nurse practitioner can benefit from preceptorship as it aids them through their clinical placement, ensuring evidence-based practices are understood and actioned suitably.

Supporting professional balance

As already mentioned, there is a high demand for qualified nurses throughout the healthcare sector, leading to abundant rewards for pursuing this career path. However, one of the reasons mentors are so essential is that nursing can also be a challenging and intense career. Students and new nurses could be easily put off when they first encounter the tougher aspects.

Therefore, a prerequisite for nursing mentors is the ability to manage the expectations, work-life balance, and stress levels of your mentee. That is especially true as they prepare for their nursing examinations, or if they are anxious during their first months in clinical practice.

As psychotherapist and best-selling author Joshua Fletcher points out in his article, “Overcoming anxiety”, stress levels can rise alarmingly due to a rush of adrenaline and cortisol. The best mentors, therefore, need to offer a calming presence and must be willing to monitor their mentees for early signs of them becoming stressed and overwhelmed. This also requires a degree of flexibility and responsiveness, as the mentor may need to step in when their mentee has a crisis of confidence for example, alongside the more structured interactions they schedule.

Relatability and honesty

This point follows on from the last one, as a mentor’s ability to calmly get things into perspective is not the only personal attribute they must bring to their role. Qualified nursing professionals of all categories and disciplines have important insights they can share with students and new recruits, even if it’s simply to illustrate what is possible if they persevere and stay positive.

There is no doubt that feeling less alone, inadequate, and confused during your nursing qualification process and early career comes from chatting things through with your peers, but also your mentor. Therefore, to be an effective mentor it is vital that you are relatable, honest, and ready to share your genuine experiences and thoughts.

It helps if you have fresh memories of your own time as a student or inexperienced nurse, and you can empathize with some of the challenges modern nursing professionals face. For example, medical technology and knowledge are advancing fast, and mentors as well as students can struggle. By admitting to your struggles as a mentor, you are facilitating open and honest discussion between you and your mentees. Your previous struggles and setbacks may be different from the ones your mentees face, but knowing that it is normal to have sticking points is an invaluable insight.

On the other hand, making it sound like you found your career to date problem-free and you rose through the ranks without a care in the world may make student nurses feel inadequate and daunted by the journey ahead of them.

Being a role model of what is possible, therefore, needs to be measured against the reality of what it took for you to get to that position as an experienced clinician. And yes, there may even be times when you laugh and cry with your mentee, as you help them to navigate some of the realities of their chosen profession with honesty and integrity.

Open to lifelong learning in nursing

The honesty referred to above, coupled with a degree of humility, can make the mentor-mentee relationship more effective and beneficial for both parties. Also, to create a fertile interaction, the preceptor or mentor needs to be ready to invest in their own learning journey. This includes getting to know their student or new nurse practitioner well enough to be responsive and empathetic. It also involves nurse mentors being open to the prospect of what they can learn from this process.

According to one study on this topic, “successful mentorship is vital to career success and satisfaction for both mentors and mentees”. The study reports that one of the best ways to foster a positive experience for both parties is if they are both ready to foster their own individual development. The mentor can fine-tune many of their personal and professional skills and insights during the time they invest in supporting a nursing student or new recruit. This includes their emotional intelligence, communication, and leadership abilities.

Showing willingness to be a mentor is also a great way to advance your own career in other ways too. It will be greatly valued by forward-thinking healthcare employers, as by mentoring new recruits you are increasing the effectiveness and engagement of healthcare staff. You are also actively building a learning culture in your organization and establishing the value of everyone in your team being empathetic and supportive of each other’s workplace needs.

Do you have promotion ambitions? There is always the possibility that becoming a mentor is your first step into a career as a nursing educator or leader. In fact, maybe you need your own mentor to help you become a better teacher while you act as a preceptor to others. After all, the American Nurse Association makes it clear that “whatever stage you’re at in your nursing career, there are benefits to being or having a nurse mentor.”

Communication and active listening

Communication is the lifeblood of the concept of preceptorship in healthcare and is undoubtedly the mentor’s skill that underpins all other essential qualities. This starts with an ability to present often-complex clinical information in a way that a more junior colleague or student nurse would be able to understand. It also involves creating scenarios and the right kind of learning environment that enable mentees to reach their own conclusions, shape their own critical thinking, and use their initiative. In other words, mentors need to know when to stay silent, and let students and new recruits use their own problem-solving skills and knowledge in a safe, supervised way. Being good at asking the right questions can also be a valuable ability. You can dig deeper into what the nursing student or new recruit understands, and the topics and tasks that most urgently need your input.

Undoubtedly one of the most important communication skills a mentor needs is active listening. This includes being ready to ask perceptive and responsive questions to measure how much mentees have gained from a practical task and any information they just received. Active listening also includes being aware of non-verbal communication, such as body language. Your mentee may say they are confident and happy to try a task, but do shaking hands and other signals suggest inner turmoil of some kind?

Adaptability and authority as a mentor

It is hoped that your experience as a mentor is so fruitful and fulfilling that you want to repeat the role with more students and new staff in the future. One of the things this will abundantly illustrate is that no one person is the same as the next. So, the best mentors in nursing need to be adaptable and responsive once they have established a good connection with their mentees.

Interestingly, you may also need to learn when to step from being an empathetic and nurturing facilitator to someone with authority. It is part of a nursing mentor or preceptor’s own developmental journey to be challenged sometimes by their mentees. They may find the student or junior staff member questions some of their own long-held beliefs and practices with a fresh perspective.

However, there will be times when a successful mentor needs to recognize that intellectual challenge is in danger of becoming resistant to established protocols and procedures. If a student or new recruit is oppositional in some way, a mentor may need to be firm and decisive with them. This is when the safety and ethical standards—and clinical experience and qualifications you have accrued—outweigh any innovation by over-enthusiastic mentees.

Leadership skills and mentors

Much of the above can be summed up by the fact that the best mentors in nursing tend to be those with well-defined leadership abilities and a desire to grow their leadership skills. Among the attributes that define leadership are some of the qualities already mentioned, such as emotional intelligence and a willingness to bring the best out of others. Leaders in nursing are also confident in their decision-making and willing to turn to colleagues and other healthcare professionals to fill in any gaps in their own knowledge or skills. They also encourage and support independent behaviors from within their team while keeping a close eye on quality, safety, and ethics, and stepping in with a firm guiding hand as required.

There will be times when you must be firm and possibly even brutally honest as a leader-mentor. This may be the only way to help your mentee reach appropriate conclusions and carry out safe tasks. The trick is to give vital feedback and constructive criticism without blame or shame. Instead, you guide the student or new recruit toward better ways of doing things, ways to fill gaps in their understanding, and a more appropriate mindset.

Personal satisfaction from mentoring

This is the last point, but a very important one. The most successful relationships between a healthcare mentor and mentee should be based on mutual trust, respect, and openness.  This can prove to be an enjoyable experience for both parties that leads to continuing contact if not friendship.

Being a mentor helps you to positively support not just your patients and colleagues, but also the next generations of nurses, by becoming a trusted confidante and sources of reassurance and support. When a survey asked nurses if they would encourage others to follow their career path, a high proportion said yes. Mentoring is clearly an excellent way of putting that into practice and helping others to discover the many advantages this profession provides.

Also, keep in mind if you are considering becoming a nursing mentor, this could be a great way to re-energize your love of nursing. After all, the best nurse mentors are often those individuals who already genuinely care about their profession, patients, and colleagues. They are the people who enter nursing because they want to make a difference in the lives of others, every day.

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