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Mentoring for doctors in difficulty

The RCOG doesn’t provide a mentorship scheme, but this page provides advice about the mentoring process specifically for doctors in difficulty.

If you feel a mentor would be useful for you, please contact your Clinical Director or Regional College Adviser for information and support in the first instance.

The RCOG Trainees’ Committee has also produced advice about mentoring for trainees.

Mentoring for doctors in difficulty

Mentoring can be useful for doctors experiencing difficulties such as personal problems, difficulties with colleagues, underperformance and so on. However, entering a mentoring relationship under these circumstances can bring challenges for both mentor and mentee.

Working with doctors in difficulty as a mentor is challenging and time-consuming work. It can also be very rewarding. Over time, nearly all doctors who are motivated and robust enough to address their difficulties find an appropriate solution.

Mentee’s preconceptions

Doctors who’ve been advised to use a mentor may be suspicious, may see the mentor as an authority figure and may think that mentorship involves being given unwelcome advice, rather than being an opportunity to broaden understanding of a difficult situation and explore ways to improve matters. The mentor needs to think carefully about how best to make contact. A brief note explaining what the mentor would aim to do, making it clear the mentee could choose an alternative mentor and offering to meet for an initial chat to break the ice, is a good starting point.

Pace of the mentoring relationship

The pace may be much slower than normal when dealing with doctors who are already in difficulty. The mentee needs time to build up trust and tell their story. The mentor may spend a long time listening and reflecting, acting as a sounding board only. Some mentees feel overwhelmed and find it hard to focus, needing to re-tell their story several times before being able to move on. It may take 3–6 sessions for the mentee to develop their understanding of the situation.

Mentee’s difficulty talking about themselves

Doctors who’ve found themselves in difficulty are often not used to talking about themselves and their difficulty, and feel they’ve been isolated and not listened to by their colleagues. They can be wary of sharing what really went on, or how they really feel. Some might be very emotional at first; others might find it hard to express their emotions. Mentees may be less skilled at realising the impact they have on others, and may find reflective practice and realistic goal setting challenging.

Mentee’s feeling of hurt

Doctors in difficulty may feel a very deep personal hurt at they way they’ve been treated. The mentor must try to get the right balance between exploring and acknowledging feelings, and helping the mentee find a positive way forward. Some mentees find it difficult to express their feelings, and think medicine doesn’t allow them to do this. The mentor must give the mentee affirmation that it’s appropriate to be angry and upset, while not leaving them in a morass of negative emotion.

Mentee’s difficulty acknowledging and addressing weakness

Some have coped for years by placing blame on circumstances or on others. They may not be ready to acknowledge their own part in events and to address their weaknesses, and may be described by others as lacking honesty. Such mentees may need several sessions to tell their story and to recognise their own emotions and behaviour. The mentor must find the balance between remaining empathetic but helping the mentee recognise their own part in the situation, which can be challenging. The mentor may require a good deal of energy to provide the mentor with enough support and affirmation to empower them to change, and to be there if things don’t go well.

Mentee looking for a quick fix

The mentoring process can be compex and difficult work. Mentees looking for a quick fix may want to give up. The mentor’s role isn’t to push the mentee further than he or she wants to go, and it can be difficult to get the balance between respecting the mentee’s position and empathetically challenging what might be a coping strategy. Having access to or knowledge of how to refer to therapeutic forms of help, such as counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy or psychotherapy, is useful.

Mentee feels nervous, overwhelmed or disempowered

Doctors who make the decision to seek a mentor may be nervous but are less often hostile. They may feel very stuck with their situation and take time to identify the key issues. Some are overwhelmed by the enormity of what they face and can’t find an appropriate first step. Some are disempowered and have been behaving as a victim rather than taking action. Even with the mentor, they may be apologetic of taking up time.

The mentor may need to spend several sessions listening, summarising and reflecting feelings before the mentee strats to have the confidence to believe there might be a way forward. Sometimes the mentee will ask what the mentor would do, wanting to hear someone else’s solution to their problem. The mentor may be much more able to take action than the stuck, disempowered mentee but, although offering a sugegstion can seem kind, it can leave the mentee feeling even less effective.

Dealing with illness

Facing illness, particularly stress-related or psychological illness, can be very challenging to doctors. Some have personal difficulties in accepting they might be ill (often psychological/stress-related illness), perhaps because their core values are about caring for others, or because taking time away from work will place more stress on their already overstretched colleagues. Others are afraid of taking action because of worries about what others will think. It’s important that such people get treatment for their illness and have the opportunity to review their situation with a consultant occupational physician.

Mentoring may be of more value in helping with a return to work, or reaching a decision to seek treatment, than during the illness itself. For some with longer-term illness, mentorship can be a useful way for the mentee to learn more about triggers for illness, and about how to manage the natural curiosity of others.

Elsewhere on the site

Advice and support for trainees
Resources for doctors on the specialty training programme in O&G
Dealing with undermining
Find out about the College's work to address undermining (bullying) in the workplace