Mentoring during the COVID-19 pandemic | Professor Sharon Peacock
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Mentoring during the COVID-19 pandemic

professor sharon peacock - Mentoring during the Covid-19 Pandemic

Mentoring during the COVID-19 pandemic

Professor Sharon Peacock, Director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium, reflects on mentoring during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As an experienced mentor who has worked with scientists and clinicians for over a decade to achieve their career goals, I have found myself reflecting on what matters for mentees in these extraordinary times.

My conclusion is that well-being is the single most important priority. There are many ways in which we can contribute and grow whilst living through a pandemic. But people should cut themselves as much slack as they need to around conventional career goals in order to stay well and look after their mental and physical health.

The importance of mentoring programmes

Mentoring programmes for scientists and clinicians are massively important.

Done well, they can help people to make career choices that have lasting consequences for their lives. They can support people to achieve a more positive work-life balance and can help to address issues of inequality.

Mentoring traditionally pairs a younger mentee with a senior mentor who may work in the same or related field. There is also increasing use of reverse mentoring. This is where a senior person in an organisation is paired with an employee as a mentor to bridge generational gaps or support diversity-based mentoring.

Like many other colleagues, I have been committed to mentoring over the last ten years, including as part of several formal schemes and through informal arrangements. I encourage my mentees to lead the content of their sessions based on what they want to draw from it.

The mentoring relationship is meaningful, and I have often found myself discussing an extensive range of topics. This has included decisions over career opportunities; controlling volume of work by learning how to say no; looking at how to maximise impact from what we do and the choices that we make; leadership styles; building on future aspirations; maintaining a work-life balance; managing a family and work; dealing with challenging behaviour from colleagues; and handling discrimination.

But compared with this time last year, this entire activity as I used to know it has almost entirely fallen away. So, what happened?

Mentoring during COVID-19 Pandemic

So much has changed. Many scientists have faced the closure of their laboratories, which has led to complete cessation of laboratory work and output. Some scientists have redeployed into the COVID-19 pandemic response and are learning new skills, but this can be a highly stressful environment. Many scientists are now working from home. This can lead to a range of challenges, including isolation and loneliness; juggling workspace in the house with other family members; and having children at home more. Family members may also be facing redundancy and unemployment.

Clinicians are also facing unprecedented levels of stress. Those who care for COVID-19 patients have had to work in demanding physical conditions, including wearing PPE. They face psychological challenges of caring for people who are very sick and may die rapidly, and run the risk of developing COVID-19 themselves.

Clinical trainees in a range of specialties are finding that training is affected by reductions in patients who require planned surgery or other forms of treatment, much of which was interrupted for periods of time.

Uncertain Times in COVID-19 Pandemic

We are also living in very volatile and uncertain times. We are witnessing political instability, are faced with ever-increasing evidence for an environmental crisis, and rising levels of mental illness.

I find myself thinking that with important exceptions such statutory training requirements for clinicians, talking about career objectives has undergone a fundamental shift in narrative. There will be a time when medium to long term career objectives take centre stage again, but for now we need to give ourselves a break and focus on the now.

Giving people some slack and telling them not worry about their latest grant submission or publication, or what they will be doing in 5 years, takes the pressure off. Leaning into these extraordinary circumstances and encouraging our mentees to take comfort and grow in confidence based on what they are doing in their day to day is huge achievement in itself.

What matters most is helping colleagues to prioritise their health and well-being, and to reassure them that this is the right thing to do.

Some people appear to be able to manage to write a book, learn a new language, or start a new business during lockdown. But this is not the norm. Small steps in career development might be possible for some, but they may not be for others. We should reassure our mentees that it’s time to focus on their health in the broadest sense: physical, psychological, emotional, as well as the health of family and colleagues.

Looking to the future

For many people, professional development and their sense of value or self-worth can become conflated, so the lack of progression or a CV gap could have a much greater negative effect than would appear on the surface. So, if during this time, value or contribution can be articulated through other means, then the lack of publications/promotion becomes an explicable detail.

Scientific productivity and career progression will need to be seen through a new COVID-19 lens. The occurrence of ‘COVID-19 CV gaps’ including periods of unemployment, and gaps in grants and publication history are likely to become standard. This possibility should start to percolate into our thinking in anticipation of this.

There will be a relatively small pool of people who will have had significant career advancement as a result of science required during the pandemic, but not everyone will have had an equal opportunity to contribute.

There are some excellent resources available on COVID-19 career support, including from the Academy of Medical Sciences. They are very active in highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on career development and training, together with ways to mitigate this. 

Mentoring during COVID-19 pandemic means that I am learning to adapt my mentoring style and approach. I am working on my expectations to be able to better support colleagues now, as well as prepare for a future science training environment that will bear deep marks of COVID-19 for many years to come.