Mentoring during the COVID-19 pandemic

Colleagues facing closed labs and enforced social distancing need a different type of support. Mentors must change their approach, says Ruth Gotian.
Headset with microphone on a blue background

Credit: Adapted from Evgeny Karandaev/Shutterstock

The coronavirus outbreak has left many of us feeling frightened, worried and overwhelmed. This is affecting people in different ways, but concerns relating to a lack of focus or productivity are not uncommon. Mentors should always provide a support system for trainees and encourage them to prioritize their health above their productivity: especially in testing times such as these. We must reimagine how we mentor in a time of closed laboratories, depleted and stressed health-care colleagues and social distancing.

Here are six tips to optimize your mentoring and lab leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic, based on my nearly three decades of experience in higher and medical education and my current role as assistant dean for mentoring at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

‘Check in’ conversations

As we all get used to working at a physical distance from each other, trainees might start to feel disconnected from personal and professional relationships. It is important to fight this physical shift by reaffirming your relationships. Make sure you check in with your trainee using e-mails, texts or video calls. You don’t need a specific agenda — just check in and chat. Give your trainee plenty of time to process their new reality.

At this time of increased video chatting, let your trainees come as they are. Professional dress is unwarranted during this time of social distancing. There might also be others in their home. Acknowledge this so that your trainee doesn’t feel awkward if a child or pet bursts into the room or interrupts your chat. Let them know you expect the possibility of there being other people and noises in the background, that this is OK and that you might have the same disruption at your end.

A different type of ‘to do’ list

Some people might feel that during this time of working from home they can learn a new computer language, write a complete manuscript from scratch or develop a new way to analyse data. That’s great, but learning new skills should be a bonus, not an expectation, during this stressful period. Perhaps suggest some non-lab activities your trainee could consider that would help their overall productivity but that would not feel all-consuming. These could include conducting a literature review; working on outlines and a background section for a manuscript; reading the articles saved for ‘when we have time’; preparing research summaries; practising talks; preparing fellowship applications; and analysing data. Focus on smaller, more-manageable tasks.

It’s impossible to be productive when one is under intense pressure and fearing for one’s safety. To help your trainees and lab members, reduce causes of stress and reinforce ways to stay safe. Suggest ways in which they might meet their basic needs while practising social distancing, such as virtual coffee hours. Consider hosting a virtual event, perhaps with a non-scientific discussion topic.

Listen, don’t fix

As in all mentoring relationships, and especially during this time of heightened stress, it is not your role to fix a trainee’s problems. Instead, acknowledge the full range of their emotions. Let them know what they are feeling is natural and acceptable.

Lower expectations

Start small and lower expectations for yourself and your trainees. COVID-19 is taking an emotional toll on everyone and might cause us to transfer our stress onto others — often in the form of poor communication and emotional reactions. Don’t demand heightened productivity from yourself or your trainees. Expecting manuscript masterpieces or flawless grant applications to be written during this time of unprecedented stress is a tall order. Instead, offer the chance to help on one of your manuscripts. Break things down into small pieces. This is a great time to collaborate.

Lead by example. Recognize that as a mentor, you are also dealing with extreme conditions, which might negatively affect your management and communication skills. Tackling big scientific projects might seem overwhelming, but finishing back-burner tasks, such as promotion and recommendation letters, might be more achievable. It will also set a strong example that you are being selective in the projects you feel you can handle.

Suggest ways to contribute to the cause

Your trainees might want to help in the fight against COVID-19, but might also be unsure about how they can contribute while their laboratory is closed. Offer alternative solutions, on both the community and scientific fronts, that they might not have considered. For example, your trainees could take to social media to combat misinformation and educate the public about the COVID-19 epidemic.

Focus on what’s important

Most importantly, remember the human and empathetic part of the mentoring relationship. Focus on what is important to the trainee at this time. Consider their safety, specifically their physical, emotional and psychological state — and prioritize helping them to improve that in your role as a mentor. As my trainee Alexendar Perez reminded me: “This situation requires human kindness and empathy. Maybe mentorship here is just realizing the humanity in each of us and being there as equals with one another through an uncertain time.”

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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