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HealthAugust 19, 2020

Mentoring across the nursing profession: Lessons from the ANA

According to a 2017 article in Health Affairs, as many as 60,000 registered nurses leave the profession each year. It’s also expected that up to one million RNs will retire by the year 2030, leaving a void in knowledge, experience, and leadership that may profoundly affect patient care and outcomes.

As younger nurses enter the profession to replace older colleagues, many become disillusioned with the realities of nursing. A fast paced and unpredictable work environment, together with the physical, emotional, and mental challenges of nursing, drive many younger nurses away. And as older patient populations present with more complex medical needs, the lack of confident and skilled RNs presents a real problem.

To help combat high turnover rates, many healthcare organizations utilize mentorship programs to foster younger nurses’ professional development. But many newer nurses may not even be aware that such programs exist, or they may not realize the benefits of participation. In response to member input, the American Nurses Association (ANA) developed a virtual mentorship program, described in the American Journal of Nursing, to foster relationships between newer and more experienced nurses in the hopes that more RNs would remain in the profession.

The benefits of virtual mentorship

The typical mentor is professionally older and more experienced than the mentee, but they are usually not in a direct line of authority. While many traditional mentorship programs were conducted in person, a shift toward virtual mentorship has occurred as technology has evolved.

Virtual mentorship offers significant benefits, including the transcendence of geographical boundaries, flexible scheduling, and independence from the workplace. Participants in a mentoring relationship may use any means of technology, including social media, computers, and cell phones, to stay in regular communication.

ANA’s virtual mentorship program

In 2015, the ANA recognized that many RNs needed access to mentorship opportunities, both as mentors and as mentees. While the organization promoted mentoring initiatives before, this new program was developed as a way for mentorship to occur remotely.

As the online platform for the program was developed, the ANA gathered information from interested RNs and used the data to classify them into three career-stage categories:

  • Early-career nurses with zero to four years of experience
  • Up-and-comers who have been in the profession for five to 14 years
  • Nursing leaders who have 15 or more years of experience and who want to help advance the profession

In the first year of the program, mentors and mentees were matched by ANA staff using a specific set of data provided by the enrollees as a set of guidelines. This practice worked reasonably well but was extremely time intensive and therefore limited the number of participants in the program. For the next year, matching was accomplished via a web-based algorithm developed using information from participants. As with the first-year cohort, the three career-stage categories were used to help pair enrollees.

At first, the ANA didn’t provide any formal guidelines for developing the mentor-mentee relationship. Instead, mentors used several techniques to help the relationship progress organically. But many participants recommended that more structure be provided to enrollees in future years so that every participant could get the most benefit.

Subsequently, the ANA redesigned the program’s online platform to meet this need using formalized surveys that allowed for regular collection and analysis of information and mechanisms for ongoing feedback to help continuously improve the program. Additionally, the new platform allowed ANA staff to track mentor-mentee pairs and send timed reminders of tasks, meetings, and goals and objective updates.

Lessons learned

The first year of the program took place over a period of six months, but because of its success, the second year was expanded to cover a full eight months. The ANA notes several important lessons learned:

  • Weekly discussions hosted by leaders in online communities helped improve communication between mentors and mentees.
  • Mentees benefited greatly from a private, members-only online community which fostered direct support and learning.
  • Webinars for both mentors and mentees provided an overview of the program and crucial information on how to get the most out of the relationship and the web-based platform’s capabilities.
  • The web-based platform itself provided new avenues for communication and scheduling among enrollees, in addition to resource tools to help facilitate relationships.

Mentorship can be tremendously beneficial to the nursing workforce, especially as many experienced RNs exit the profession. Designing technologically up-to-date mentorship programs can help younger nurses develop professionally and better identify and work toward their professional goals.

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