When Lebena Varghese arrived at Northern Illinois University as a doctoral candidate in 2013, she received a message from her program director asking what she was looking for in an academic mentor.
Male or female? Someone a year ahead of her in the psychology program? Or perhaps someone with more experience?
Did she prefer a mentor in social psychology or one who shared her own specialty of industrial-organizational psychology?
Now, Varghese is mentoring a student who recently transferred from clinical to the industrial-organizational side, and she finds her role is mainly providing reassurance that her mentee isn’t behind as a result of switching from one focus area to another.
Such emotional support is a key to good mentoring and helps employees — or even graduate students with heavy research workloads — reduce stress and burnout, Varghese said.
She and three colleagues at NIU conducted a study that found mentoring is especially effective for individuals vulnerable to severe stress because they don’t feel capable of handling some job tasks or feel overwhelmed in the job environment.
For those people, whose personalities may include “trait neuroticism” characteristics such as powerlessness, anxiety and sadness, there’s a greater chance of job burnout, Varghese said.
“When a mentor is present, that positive relationship gave those individuals a boost,” she said in a phone interview from the NIU campus.
The study, conducted in spring 2014, included responses from 325 individuals who participated on MTurk, a crowdsourcing tool on Amazon.com. About 62 percent of those surveyed were male, 74 percent were white, and their ages ranged from 18-73.
Stress and burnout in the workplace have been well documented, so Varghese and her colleagues wanted to determine how mentoring might help alleviate those conditions. Mentorship, she said, “is basically having people there that guide you in the right path and are constantly there in your realm.”
Formal mentoring programs can help employees at-risk of stress and burnout obtain more confidence and feel more engaged in the organization, Varghese said. Such mentoring is common among Fortune 500 companies and usually involves matching employees based on career aspirations or interests.
Among the businesses that have made a big push for formal mentoring, she said, are financial institutions, including investment banker Goldman Sachs which has a special mentoring program for women re-entering the workforce.
While much informal mentoring occurs spontaneously between employees or colleagues, that version is not as effective in lowering job burnout, the study found. That’s because informal interactions focus on social support and aren’t structured, scheduled meetings that focus on career development.
One of the major benefits of mentoring programs is that they don’t cost much to implement, Varghese said.
“It’s a very lean intervention. Sometimes a business may need a consultant to help put a program together, but they don’t need a lot of investment.”