Peer mentoring to support staff well-being: lessons from a pilot
A peer mentoring scheme designed to support staff well-being is being piloted at Staffordshire University. Fiona Cust and Jessica Runacres share lessons on how the initiative has been developed
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A crisis of well-being among university staff
Long before Covid-19, academic staff within higher education had to contend with demanding and stressful workloads leading to rising rates of mental illness and poor well-being. The increasing demands of target-driven statistics, rising numbers of students with a wide range of academic, social and diverse backgrounds and decreasing staff ratios, have led to an exodus of highly valued and experienced staff. The knock-on effect is that remaining staff feel overwhelmed, undervalued and overworked.
The most common reason for staff sickness within education was stress, anxiety and depression, making up 25 per cent, according to the statistics from January 2022. These statistics have not significantly changed since May 2019, highlighting that staff sickness owing to mental illness and poor well-being is not, primarily, due to the pandemic.
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To seek out ideas and feedback on strategies to improve mental well-being and foster a positive working culture, a recent staff survey was carried out. The survey focused upon the retention of staff and the reduction of sickness.
Staff wanted to be listened to, they asked for a “safe space” to be heard, protected time to share their anxieties and concerns but equally their visions, values and developmental ideas. They wanted to collaborate with others outside of their immediate teams and departments.
A peer mentoring solution
This has led to the creation and piloting of a safe, confidential platform that enables peer support and peer mentoring. The idea is simple. Staff register as a mentor, a mentee or both, and provide a brief biography about themselves. Those seeking a mentee can select a mentor and arrange a one-to-one meeting. These meetings can be weekly, monthly or bi-monthly and timings are not specific. The primary aim is that staff have a safe, confidential, time-protected space to feel listened to, to share ideas and to be able to simply be.
This is not intended to replace any form of professional mentoring but to be an accessible, confidential space for staff to connect with their colleagues on an informal, ad hoc basis.
From the brief bio provided, staff can seek mentors from a similar field of work as them, or from a particular community such as BAME or LGBTQ+. New staff may want to seek out more experienced staff or, alternatively, new starters like themselves. It is entirely their choice and dependent upon what they are looking for from the relationship.
The mentor is limited to having a maximum of two mentees so that they are not overwhelmed with requests or have a huge increase in their workload. The platform has been created to support, not to add stresses. The dual role of mentor and mentee means that you can have a role guiding but equally “being supported” too. Some staff will prefer just one role.
Overcoming barriers and concerns
We needed to encourage staff to join. Staff initially felt that it was another “thing” that would add to their workload, to consume more of their already very tightly packed agendas. We liaised with senior managers and ensured that this was time protected and incorporated formally into workload planning schedules.
It was agreed an hour a week was acceptable – or two hours every couple of weeks. Time enough to step away from computers, get a coffee and offload a little. The motivation being that this may help staff to debrief, to collaborate, to destress a little and feel listened to. Ideas may be shared, initiatives created – or, possibly more important, time to just be.
Staff required reassurance that it was confidential and that there was no written report or log of any conversations had.
We launched the platform in October 2022. It has been a slow burn, but we now have a number of staff registered as either both mentor and mentee, or just one role. Staff have registered from a variety of disciplines and from all levels of seniority.
We have recirculated the joining link several times – as a gentle reminder – and each time a few more staff register. We have shared information with staff if we see them around campus. It is received with enthusiasm and positivity.
We have simplified how to join and provided comprehensive, step-by-step guidance as to how to do this. The link is user friendly.
A response to staff feedback
Staff had requested a safe space to be heard, to share ideas, to be creative or to simply offload and debrief. This platform ticks all these boxes. It is embryonic but, as confidence grows, we hope that it will become a widely used, helpful resource for staff with the primary focus being to improve, in some way, mental health and well-being across the institution. Watch this space.
Fiona Cust is associate professor and Jessica Runacres is a senior lecturer in the School of Health, Science and Wellbeing at Staffordshire University.
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