A little help from my friends

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mentoringYoung veterinary graduates can seem bright-eyed at the start of their careers—but while they are highly educated and ready to make their mark, they’ll need mentoring to kick off the next stage of their working lives. By Sue Nelson

To succeed as a health professional in the modern world requires many skills that simply aren’t taught. As well as business acumen and a level of economic pragmatism, graduates need a range of ‘soft’ skills to help them manage their patients, their colleagues and an often-demanding workload. They might be having trouble coming to terms with difficult early clinical decisions they have had to make. They often need to talk to someone who has done all this before—and perhaps learnt the hard way. Universities and employers are recognising the importance of transferring the wisdom and experience of mentors to students and young graduates through programs that assist in pairing them up. These older vets—who usually have to have a minimum of three years in the workforce—can provide invaluable professional advice and support, model some of these ‘soft’ skills for graduates and provide companionship through some of the tough times. “The practical nature of veterinary practice means it is very difficult for veterinary colleges around Australia to impart all the skills necessary for practice,” says Dr Brian McErlean, a retired veterinarian and AVA Benevolent Fund Trustee who has just completed two years as the coordinator of the OneLife suicide prevention program in Western Australia. The OneLife program dovetailed into the Graduate Support Scheme, which was established in the mid-’90s in response to high numbers of graduates with depression, and had mentoring at its heart. “It provided resources and education for the whole profession in WA,” says Dr McErlean. “In essence it was created to educate veterinarians about mental health and in particular depression. It alerted mentors and mentees to the early signs of trouble; social withdrawal, disconnection and substance abuse. It has encouraged all veterinarians to gate-keep each other since early intervention is vital when so many are surrounded by lethal substances.”

But mentors are not just there for crisis situations. They can provide career coaching—helping graduates to make choices about specialisation, internships and residences and research. “The mentor can encourage the mentee to solve their own problems using rational approaches and goal setting,” Dr McErlean says. “The mentor can direct an inexperienced graduate to help—be it professional or psychological.” A mentor is perhaps best placed to be a sounding board because he or she is not a relative, nor a peer, nor a colleague—all of whom may be too close to the action. A mentor has the relevant expertise, but also perhaps the relevant distance from the graduate’s own problems and can offer confidential support. “While the universities are very strong on knowledge, they vary in the enormously challenging area of providing practical skills,” Dr McErlean says. “New graduates need a very supportive environment to get off to a good start and not all practices can provide this.”

The mentoring program at the University of Sydney has been running since 2009. Program director David Foote says the program is introduced at a time in the students’ lives—their final year—where there are challenges and uncertainties. “We thought that many could benefit from the assistance and guidance of a mentor at that time,” says Foote. The program will soon be extended to new graduates, allowing them to take the mentoring relationship into the workplace. Foote says that about half of the mentor relationships formed during the program continue informally, well into the students’ careers. There is a range of topics mentors can help with—from discussing treatments and clinical issues to debriefing following difficult cases; nutting out ethical quandaries and philosophical questions to planning career pathways and even griping about poor workplace conditions.

There are some key preconditions to making the relationship work. Confidentiality must be maintained by both parties at all times, especially during clinical discussions. Mutual trust and respect is also necessary for the relationship to blossom—for example, turning up to appointments on time and responding to emails promptly. As with any new relationship, the parties take time to get to know each other and to build a rapport. Foote attributes the success of the University of Sydney’s program to the initial training and guidance given to both parties to establish the personal and professional bond. In the rare circumstances where a mentor and a mentee don’t seem to click (about five in 50 matches or 10 per cent), it is Foote’s role to step in and mediate, and do what he can to get the relationship back on track. In very rare circumstances a new match may need to be made. “A good mentor is an individual, a friend, a teacher, a confidant and a role model to another individual,” says Dr McErlean. “The roles may overlap. Mentors have to learn to listen and not cast judgement. Confidentiality and trust are paramount to the relationship. “Graduates with great communication, coping and resilience skills may have less requirement for a mentor than one without these abilities,” he continues. “But circumstances can change quickly with the sudden death of a patient or the threat of a board or litigation case arising.” “There are a range of benefits to the mentees including help and guidance with their personal and professional development,” says Foote. “Even those who are capable and well adjusted and have few ‘needs’ always say that just knowing that there is someone there—a unique help who is not a relative or friend—provides them with a sense of comfort.”

“I went through university in the days before mentoring,” says Melbourne-based vet, Dr Tim White. “I understand that medical faculties have undergone considerable debate over time constraints for teaching technical skills versus soft communication, coping and career planning.” The extreme is whether you want a vet who can hold your hand but not treat the patient versus the vet that can treat the pet but is abrupt, rude and possibly burnt out. “I was a mentor for two graduates. One has gone on to an internship and possible specialisation; the other went into research,” says Dr White. “Some mentors may be very helpful. There is evidence to suggest that support for medical graduates is effective between peers and I found that the good relationships with my classmates were very helpful when I graduated.” Dr White believes more support needs to be provided to mid- and late-career veterinarians. “Veterinary knowledge is rapidly expanding and it can be a challenge to keep up to date, particularly for geographically isolated regions,” he says. “Also with the surplus of veterinarians in Australia, there is an increasing need for advice on careers and entering new fields.” Brian McErlean agrees: “The mentoring program only operates for new graduates at present, but there is a school of thought that every veterinarian should have a mentor for life. There is nothing to stop any veterinarian finding their own mentor.”

“Mentors receive ‘the reward of altruism’, which is a very powerful thing,” says Foote. “Helping another person for nothing can have a profoundly beneficial effect on the mood of the helper in addition to adding a layer of meaning and purpose to their life. In an often high-pressure profession, this relationship can create a good psychological outcome for both parties.”

Interested in becoming a mentor? Both the AVA (WA division) and the Intern Mentoring Program at the University of Sydney are interested in hearing from you.

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