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The effective mentor and supervisor

The effective mentor and supervisor

Do you want to be a more effective mentor and supervisor? Sarah Weaver examines the evolution of mentoring and supervision, and, crucially, what it can offer us and our colleagues in today’s workplaces

Developing the role of the effective mentor has brought well-documented benefits over the centuries, and not just in healthcare. One of the most influential nurses, Florence Nightingale, promoted a form of mentoring, which focused on the importance of nurturing aspiring trainee nurses during and after the Crimean war.1

The word mentor is thought to have its origins in Homer’s Odyssey, where Mentor was a guardian and advisor.2 Widely accepted characteristics of mentors include experience, knowledge and the ability to combine the qualities of role model, coach and critical friend, all while practising ethical and holistic care. In Japanese, the word mentor translates as ‘those that give blessings’ – a phrase that mirrors Nightingale’s original ethos for the role to be pastoral, nurturing and positive.3 The mentoring relationship can promote ‘meaningful rewards for both’,4 with exchanges of knowledge, up-to-date practice and diversity of background and life experience.

The role of mentor is ever-more important

In today’s challenging and rapidly changing workplaces, a multitude of professional attributes, roles and personnel is needed to provide safe and effective nursing care. So, being a successful mentor involves wearing many hats. Consider this: ‘Mentors require various personal characteristics, attitudes, values, motivation, involvement, satisfaction, problem-solving abilities and commitment to their work.’5 For contemporary mentors, the key skills and attributes include patience, positivity, communication and listening skills, authenticity and enthusiasm. Danny Walsh, a senior lecturer in nursing and mental health at the University of Lincoln, asserts that it takes dedication and a genuine desire to promote the profession of nursing to be successful in the role of nurse mentor. This is of course especially true during a pandemic.2

How approaches have evolved

The role of the mentor is always evolving, reflecting significant changes in nurse education over the past 20 years and in the breadth and scope of practice of nurses today. The focus, however, should always be on positivity, compassion, and dedication to the role.6

While we use ‘mentor’ as an umbrella term, the NMC 2018 Standards for Registered Nurses and Standards for Student Supervision and Assessment,7 encourage us to leave the name behind, saying there has been ‘disillusionment’ with the definition and didactic (teaching, showing, doing) nature of the historic role that does not align with the modern needs of nursing and nurse education.

A ‘failure to fail’ culture – whereby a mentor might feel reluctant to fail a mentee due to a long-term relationship or even friendship that has grown between them – has now been replaced by a more robust, objective, shorter-term role and evidence-based assessment strategy.

The formal, NMC-accredited practice assessor and practice supervisor training replaces mentorship courses and are offered by universities and higher education institutes in the UK. The standards require all nurses to keep their skills up to date and to attend regular updates about the roles.

Effective mentoring and supervision

Success in mentoring and supervision depends on enthusiasm, adequate preparation, time, and organisational support. Attributes of an effective mentor include:

  • Communication skills and active listening
  • Preparation for the role: NMC practice assessor or practice supervisor
  • Desire to undertake the role
  • Reflection on skills and evaluation of feedback from students and mentees
  • Effective coaching skills
  • Kindness, genuineness and positivity
  • Effective teamworking
  • Compassionate leadership
  • Professional knowledge and experience
  • Sufficient time
  • Non-judgmental, supportive approach
  • Liaison and support from universities, organisations and employers

Safe learning spaces and transition to practice

A survey this year of 989 pre- and post-registration student nurses by Health Education England highlighted that up to 59% of the students have considered leaving their course due to feeling overwhelmed, stressed and unsupported.8 The pandemic has had a similar devastating effect on staff morale and attrition.

Mentors can promote a healthy team environment by offering an induction period, regular ‘buddy’ meetings or interviews for students and should try to set aside time for periodic review and feedback.

The pivotal nature of the role ensures that both mentor and mentee benefit from a bi-directional and meaningful relationship, that develops a sense of belonging within a safe learning environment.9

Successful transition to the practice environment is essential for students and novice nurses, and for those staff changing scope of practice from secondary to primary care. Anxiety, and fear of failure and of new practice environments are commonplace for nurses at every level, and these essential psychological safety needs must be met before higher-order skills, such as knowledge and success in assessments can be achieved. Professor Michael West, a senior fellow at the King’s Fund think tank, asserts that health care professionals must feel safe in their team for effective, quality, and innovative care to take place.10 The skills of a good mentor can address these anxieties and smooth the path from learning to practice.

Bringing coaching skills to supervision

Effective mentoring and compassionate leadership can reduce stress levels and promote wellbeing for staff and students, newly qualified nurses and allied health professionals. Adopting a coaching approach to clinical supervision and assessment can foster more self-directed learning, goal setting and a culture of mutual respect and civility. Coaching is the art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another.11 Deeper learning is fostered by the nurse in this role standing back and facilitating learning, rather than directing or showing.

Coaching is a non-directional approach to facilitating the learning, problem-solving and growth of a student or staff member. It enables the individual to set specific, realistic and achievable goals, discuss options and take active steps to improving aspects of their clinical knowledge, professional development and revalidation. Feedback should be regular and positive6, and given in a way that is non-judgmental, constructive and sensitive.

Communication is the key element in these relationships. The mentor/coach needs excellent active listening skills and to be comfortable with body language and verbal and non-verbal skills.

What if the relationship goes wrong?

A breakdown in a mentoring relationship can create a toxic atmosphere, harming learning environments and teamwork. A good relationship should be positive, supportive and compassionate but where this is no longer possible, the relationship should be ended by mutual agreement and a new mentor/assessor or supervisor found.

Ongoing value of the mentor role

Although the term ‘mentor’ may be outdated, the diverse activities and attributes of the nurse in the mentor role retain their value. Effective supervision and assessment, coaching and guiding, are pivotal in ensuring staff and student development and retention, and the promotion of safe, effective care. At their best, the relationship is a shared positive experience with a reciprocal exchange of knowledge and skills, and clear benefits for teams, the profession and the NHS as an organisation.

Positivity, empathy, compassionate teamwork and leadership remain as important as ever in today’s challenging workplace environments.

Sarah Weaver is a lecturer in nursing and a facilitator for general practice and the independent sector, University of Worcester


1 Fee E and Garofalo M. Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War. American Journal of Public Health. 2010;100(9):1591

2 Walsh D. The Nurse Mentor’s Handbook: Supporting Students in Clinical Practice (2nd edition) 2014. Maidenhead: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education

3 Johnson W et al. Ethics and Relational Dialectics in Mentoring Relationships. Training and Education in Professional Psychology. 2018;12(1):14-21

4 Fedele, R. Mentoring matters. Australian Nursing and Midwifery Journal. 2019;26(6):10-12

5 Pramila-Savukoski S et al. Mentors’ self-assessed competence in mentoring nursing students in clinical practice: A systematic review of quantitative studies, Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2020;29(5-6):684-705

6 Huybrecht S et al. Mentoring in nursing education: Perceived characteristics of mentors and the consequences of mentorship. Nurse Education Today 2011;31(3):274-278

7 Nursing and Midwifery Council. Standards for Student Supervision and Assessment. 2018.

8 Health Education England. The impact of Covid-19 on Students survey. 2021. bit. ly/3l3KgfF

9 McDiarmid, R. and Burkett, D. Clinical coaching: enhancing learning. Nursing New Zealand 1995;26(1): 15-17

10 West, M. Compassionate Leadership: Sustaining Wisdom, Humanity and Presence in Health and Social Care. 2021. London: Swirling Leaf Press

11 Downey, M. (2003) Effective Coaching: Lessons From the Coaches’ Coach. (2nd edition) 2003. London and New York: Texere

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