Cultivating Mentor Well-Being – A Conversation with Dr. Amy Anderson

Dr. Amy Anderson is an Assistant Professor in the College of Education and Department of Educational Psychology at the University of North Texas. Dr. Anderson and her colleagues recently published a study identifying predictors of psychological well-being among mentors in Big Brothers Big Sisters. Assistant Editor Saniya Soni spoke with Dr. Anderson about the study and how mentoring programs can use these findings to better support their mentors. 

Saniya: The focus on adult mentors’ psychological well-being within the context of youth mentoring programs is intriguing. What initially sparked your interest in exploring this often-overlooked dimension of mentorship?

Dr. Anderson: I’ve spent the last few years studying mentor training. Through these research partnerships, I became interested in exploring what adults take away from youth mentoring and how adults are changing alongside their mentees. Mentees have assets and experiences that they share with adults, and these learnings may influence adults’ lives. I was drawn to psychological well-being (PWB) specifically because it’s a multidimensional concept that includes aspects that we might expect mentoring to influence, such as a sense of purpose or positive relations with others. It’s also an important construct because of its connection to other health outcomes in adulthood.

Saniya: Your findings shed light on the significant roles of match length and program supervision quality in influencing volunteer mentors’ psychological well-being. What potential factors or mechanisms do you think might contribute to these findings for mentor outcomes?

Dr. Anderson: Based on past research, we selected match length as the first splitting variable in our decision tree. We saw this as a close proxy for ‘how much’ of the mentoring experience mentors were getting, where more/less mentoring might be associated with PWB when there is an expectation to mentor for 12 months. We also examined residual PWB, or mentor PWB at 15 months from the start of the mentoring, after accounting for their baseline PWB (which accounted for a large portion of PWB at follow-up).

Among mentors residual PWB at follow-up, differences in match length and perceptions of match support distinguished mentors from one another. For example, a group 170 mentors with the highest residual PWB had matches longer than 4.5 months and relatively better views that their program supervision was a safe base for support.  Perhaps feeling like you have a collaborative program staff to discuss mentoring with is related to mentors feeling heard and confident in their abilities later in the relationship, as well as having another positive relationship in one’s life. Overall, when considering how mentors may be influenced by mentoring, these findings illustrate that it may not only be about the youth mentoring relationship, but also interactions with program staff and the organization at large.

Saniya: Another key finding from this study highlights the impact of premature match ending on mentors. Mentors who experienced matches shorter than 4.5 months reported lower levels of psychological well-being. Why might those first few months be crucial, both for the mentoring relationship, and also for mentors’ well-being?

Dr. Anderson: One group of 25 mentors (6% of the sample) with early closed matches (<4.5 months) and more negative views of the structure of supervision reported relatively worse PWB. It’s possible that this is related to mentors feeling let down by a relationship and volunteer commitment ending early when they thought it would last 12 months. It also highlights how in the early months volunteer mentors may be in a vulnerable space needing consistent, organized support. The early phase of the mentoring relationship can be awkward and fragile. From a mentor’s point of view, they might also be new to an unfamiliar organization or working with youth, generally. Feeling like program support is organized might be important for mentor well-being in this uncertain time of establishing routines and expectations with their mentee.  If they perceive things to be disorganized both organizationally and in the newness of a match, perhaps mentors will attribute it to their own mastery and relational capacity, which make up one’s PWB. 

 Saniya: Finally, you and your colleagues emphasize the potential benefits of tailored supervision and support, especially during the early stages of mentoring relationships, to prevent premature match termination and promote positive outcomes for mentors. In light of these findings, what would you suggest to organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters in order to adapt their mentor training and support systems to effectively address the challenges faced by mentors in these critical initial phases?

Dr. Anderson: Tailored support could help manage mentors’ expectations as they navigate a new mentoring relationship and adjust to volunteering, generally. In community-based program models like Big Brothers Big Sisters, mentors may enter with aspirations of making a difference in their community or fulfilling a sense of purpose. During this time, they may also be adjusting to tasks like fitting creative and low-cost match activities into their schedule and communicating with an unfamiliar family and program staff. It could be useful to normalize the many hats that mentors wear and the feelings that come with the trial-and-error of finding a rhythm in a new mentoring relationship. Balancing personal motivations and the tasks of community-based mentoring that may be connected to well-being might help promote match duration and mentor outcomes.