Most workers will admit to experiencing stress at times in their jobs as a result of a variety of factors, including work overload. In fact, there are an abundance of studies and surveys that find that workplace pressures are the leading source of stress and burnout for American workers.

A 2011 American Psychological Association survey found that 36 percent of workers reported experiencing work stress regularly and a National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) study suggested 40 percent of workers described their jobs as “very or extremely stressful.”

A significant form of stress is burnout, where workers become emotionally and physically exhausted, so much so that it is difficult to perform a job.

“More and more employers are recognizing that employees feel they are being pushed to their limits and that steps need to be taken to promote their physical and social well-being,” said Lebena Varghese, a doctoral candidate at Northern Illinois University.

“One way of helping individuals vulnerable to burnout is providing them mentors,” she added.  A mentor is someone who has experience within the organization, usually higher up within the organization and who can provide work and social support.

“Stress and burnout can be manifested in several different ways and there is no single answer for preventing stress at work. Nevertheless, it is possible to offer guidelines on the process of stress prevention in organizations,” she said.

Research Finds Mentors Can Reduce Stress

Varghese and colleagues conducted research on the impact of mentoring on those employees who are likely to experience symptoms of severe stress as a result of work overload and feeling incapable of handling assignments, unclear job expectations, poor job fit and lack of social support.

“We also wanted to examine the relationship between mentoring and burnout among employees who may experience negative emotions such as anger, anxiety and sadness within the workplace. These individuals tend to construe their environment as threatening and demanding and feel powerless to handle these challenges. Psychologists refer to these personality dimensions as trait neuroticism,” she said.

“We think mentoring, either formal or informal, can be particularly effective in offsetting vulnerability to stress and burnout for individuals who score higher on this trait,” she said, cautioning that the presence of a mentor does not necessarily guarantee a stress free work environment.

Based upon the study, Varghese is advocating that greater attention be given to personality factors and traits in mentor-mentee relationships so that the mentorship can be more effective and successful.

 The study of 325 working adults found that the presence of a mentor may mitigate personal barriers that may lead to stress and burnout. In fact, those individuals who were mentored were more likely to have lower levels of burnout.

“Mentors can be a buffer for those individuals who may be experiencing levels of stress and burnout,” Varghese said.

Types of Mentoring

There are two types of mentoring – informal and formal – and both can be beneficial to workers. Informal mentors are more likely to provide social support, said Varghese.

“It could be one employee just approaching another, who might need some support or assistance in adjusting to the firm and the position,” she said.

 Formal mentoring is more structured and focuses on career development where employees are matched with more experienced employees.

Formal mentoring, where the organization assigns a mentor, can go wrong when there is a lack of fit between the people assigned to be in a mentoring relationship. To be effective, there needs to be some evaluation of what the mentees needs are and then match that person with a mentor best equipped to help. “This is not always done,” Varghese noted.  

For example, a single mom struggling to find balance between work and family could be paired with a mentor who also is a single mom and can draw upon her experiences to provide guidance and help the mentee to attain a balance.

The research found that individuals exhibiting trait neuroticism who received formal mentoring experienced lower levels of burnout. The findings were not as strong for informal mentoring in reducing burnout.  

“This study illustrates that mentoring can serve as a crucial intervention which can reduce the intensity with which individuals with vulnerable personality traits react towards stress and the adverse consequences of job burnout,” said Varghese.

In addition when part of a formal mentoring program they are likely to experience lower levels of emotional and cognitive fatigue and gain a greater sense of confidence and self-efficacy and lessen their intentions to leave the organization, engage in counterproductive behaviors such as absenteeism, Varghese noted.