Mentoring is undoubtedly a high-impact and high-stakes relationship. Mentors give their time, attention, and resources to develop others. Usually a volunteer activity, mentorship goes above and beyond a person’s formal job requirements. But when a mentor is well-intended but too depleted to deliver essential mentor functions as a consequence of burnout, the result is marginal mentoring: dysfunctional or disengaged mentoring that is no longer of value.
If you continue to deplete your energy to mentor, no matter how good your intentions, you will eventually be unable to mentor or help anyone at all. Here are some ways to identify and overcome mentor burnout: Know the signs and routinely evaluate your burnout risk factors, and involve someone to help you identify when you’re showing symptoms. Conserve your mentoring efforts by finding ways to maximize your time while broadening your reach. Change your approach to make mentoring fun and energy generating. Finally, talk about burnout openly to model self-awareness and self-care.
Mentors give their time, attention, and resources to develop others. Usually a volunteer activity, mentorship goes above and beyond a person’s formal job requirements. Junior members of any organization seem to intuitively identify and gravitate toward the most impactful mentors, and those mentors — often already quite busy — find the demand from prospective mentees steadily rising. As a consequence, great mentors can easily get overcommitted, overwhelmed, and ultimately less effective in their mentor role.
Today’s Covid environment of canceled programming, reduced in-person meetings, misaligned hybrid schedules for mentors and mentees, lingering stress of catching Covid, and reductions in informal interactions has further impacted the dynamics of mentoring relationships. It has also given us new ways to think about how to mentor. Like caregiving and teaching, mentoring suggests an ongoing relationship, a commitment that many mentors take quite seriously. Despite warning signs of exhaustion and diminished effectiveness in the mentor role, a mentor might feel pressure to continue to perform at a high level, meeting mentees’ needs without careful regard for their own resources.
Coined by Dr. Herb Freudenberger over 40 years ago, the term burnout is associated with behavioral signs including exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency. These three elements can have negative impacts on both personal and professional relationships, including mentorships. Research shows great mentors score high on measures of empathy toward others and caring, which makes it harder for some to draw boundaries, set limits, and do necessary self-care. This may cause them to be more predisposed to burnout. Mentors can suffer vicarious distress, often carrying the burdens and anxieties of their mentees.
Mentoring is undoubtedly a high-impact and high-stakes relationship. When a mentor is well-intended but too depleted to deliver essential mentor functions as a consequence of burnout, the best outcome might involve what Belle Rose Ragins described as marginal mentoring: dysfunctional or disengaged mentoring that is no longer of value. The risk of mentor burnout can be further exacerbated by the following factors:
- Mentors who take on too many mentees or have high-maintenance mentees that require extra attention, time, and vigilance are at risk for the emotional exhaustion that accrues until the demands of mentoring become overwhelming. In contexts where too few mid- to senior-level managers or executives mentor, those who do take mentorship seriously are at higher risk.
- Mentors from underrepresented groups are especially vulnerable given that they often feel a burden to mentor most of the minority group mentees. Moreover, they often contend with a “cultural taxation,” the unique burden placed on minoritized employees to serve their organization as a token minority member of too many committees.
- In some professions, there is a tension between advocacy and gatekeeping. The mentor is tasked with guiding and sponsoring a trainee while simultaneously serving as a gatekeeper for competence on behalf of the profession. This tension is palpable in health care professions, the military, and other contexts in which passing a much needed but poorly qualified mentee forward in the training pipeline may place others at risk.
- Mentors who are not allotted time in their schedules for mentorship — often because the organization fails to genuinely value mentorship — and those with significant caregiving obligations at home are at greater risk of burnout. Women who mentor are likely to feel the time pinch more than men. Women who work full time spend 8.5 additional hours per week on child care and other domestic activities; they also report more institutional or socialized pressure to perform more administrative tasks, support others’ emotional needs, and mentor more junior women.
All of these risks can lead to negative results for your relationship and your mentee’s growth. For instance, if a mentor feels too tired to have another career conversation (or feels completely depleted and uncreative), they may be disconnected during conversations. In response, mentees may misconstrue their detachment as disinterest, apathy, or even as a reflection on their own talent and potential as a mentee. Mentors serve as poignant role models for their mentees as well; a burned-out mentor may fail to offer a good example for self-care and self-awareness.
If you continue to deplete your energy to mentor, no matter how good your intentions, you will eventually be unable to mentor or help anyone at all. Here are some ways to identify and overcome mentor burnout:
Know the signs and routinely evaluate your burnout risk factors
Take time to reflect on a regular basis so you can identify the signs of mentoring burnout early. Pay attention to signals such as feeling chronically exhausted, being more cynical than usual, or showing signs of apathy. Ask trusted colleagues to help you monitor your emotional bandwidth for developmental relationships by asking about what they may be noticing, such as being habitually tired, distracted, or overwhelmed. Ask them to speak up and say something — in a spirit of carefrontation — when you display signs of exhaustion or diminished competence. For example, invite a peer to check in with you regularly and review your mentoring workload and any concerns you are having about your professional relationships. Offer to do the same for them. You can also use one of the available burnout assessments online.
Conserve your mentoring efforts
Stop assuming that high-quality mentoring relationships can only occur in the traditional one-on-one format. Consider mentoring models that maximize your time while broadening your mentoring reach. For instance, create cohorts of new hires who might meet monthly with a couple of mentors who can offer support and guidance. They will learn from the mentors and each other. Additionally, consider peer-mentoring connections: informal pairings of near-peers. You could also teach others how to mentor, thereby creating a mentoring legacy tree. Finally, have a backup plan if you need to scale back on some of your mentoring so that your mentees are cared for as you care for yourself.
Make mentoring fun
In The Success Factor, nine-time NBA champion and coach of the Golden State Warriors Steve Kerr noted that he wants basketball to always remain fun, as that is part of his core values. As such, he makes every effort to make practice fun and the team cohesive. Get back to your “why.” Lean into the inspiration and fulfillment mentoring brings to your life. Mentoring is value-alignment work, and it is deeply fulfilling — it is not just energy draining, it is energy generating. Consider reading a book or going to a conference together, creating a networking event for your mentee, or do a mutual role shadow (or a job shadow if you are in different organizations).
Talk about burnout
Acknowledge the context, its realities, and the challenges. Be open and transparent about your own capacity and discuss with your mentees the consequences (often unintended) of working from a place of reduced capacity. Even if you are mentoring from an empty well, this transparent and vulnerable role modeling can be very impactful. It’s helpful to show your imperfections. At the same time, remember that you hold relative power in the relationship; avoid making your mentee feel responsible 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 the mentee context should you need to decrease frequency of meetings or step away for a period. Leaders can help by acknowledging and recognizing the efforts of mentors in the organization.
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It is certainly possible to be a good mentor and avoid burnout. Prolific mentors understand that mentorship can be one of the most rewarding parts of their professional and personal lives. Mentors get a lot from mentoring relationships. Yet, we seldom talk honestly about the costs associated with mentoring.
A key to preventing burnout is to be honest about the potential challenges associated with mentoring in today’s environment. Great mentors focus on the whole mentee, and they should focus on their whole selves as well. Be clear about your emotional well-being, your bandwidth, and your boundaries, and articulate them to your mentees and to your colleagues. Have monitoring systems in place, rooted in both self-awareness and transparent engagement with colleagues. In other words, know thyself and construct a constellation of close colleagues who care about and trust you enough to give you unvarnished feedback when your mentoring acumen begins to ebb.