Nurse Mentors Guide New Hires Toward Retention

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For more information about N3, visit the AMSN Web site or e-mail Reeves at ReevesK@uthscsa.edu.

By Kelly Phillips, feature writer

The first year as a new nurse can be such a trying time that the worker may quit in frustration. That’s where nurse mentors can step in to help set the young nurse on a path to a long-term career.

“Mentoring to me is having someone help guide you through the ups and downs of what happens in nursing, especially in that first year,” said Kathleen Reeves, MSN, RNC, clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and a clinical nurse specialist at Methodist Healthcare System.

Reeves is the director of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses’ mentoring program, known as Nurses Nurturing Nurses or N3. It pairs new nurses at facilities across the country with more experienced nurses working in another department.

The program was aimed at finding a way to combat the high rate of turnover during a new graduate’s first year on the job, especially in the medical-surgical area, where the nurse may be assigned to several patients with a variety of diagnoses.

“There’s still the same reality shock that you heard about years and years ago,” Reeves said. “It’s not necessarily what they expected. They get in an environment that sometimes is not seen as very supporting and nurturing.”

The mentor nurses can help their charges know “that what they’re going through is normal,” Reeves added, and be a sounding board when the younger nurse has a concern or wants to relate a bad experience. It differs from a preceptorship because there is no political relationship.

“There’s a lot of pressure on new graduates,” she said.

The mentor should communicate well, have a positive attitude, be a role model, handle stress well and serve as an advocate for patients as well as the mentee, Reeves explained.

Mentors should also be good listeners who can “guide, but not direct,” and open doors, point out resources and help reflect on the nursing practice and eventual career goals, said Cecelia Gatson Grindel, Ph.D., RN, CMSRN, and president-elect of AMSN. She formulated the evaluation piece of the N3 program.

Having a new nurse leave—either the facility or the career—in the first year is “very expensive and frustrating,” and “not a good scene for anybody,” said Grindel, who is the associate director for undergraduate programs at the Byrdine F. Lewis School of Nursing at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

“I think you have to mentor a new nurse not only to be an expert nurse, but also to be aware of the whole arena of health care,” Grindel said.

That includes systems, policy, reimbursement and other areas that affect the nursing practice as well as patient care, she said.

Mentoring can help a nurse grow beyond just working with patients, and begin exploring new avenues to career development, Grindel said.

The relationship can help a new nurse “reflect not only on the practice she’s learning,” but learn to evaluate leadership, seek resources and otherwise grow as a professional, she added.

“The mentor can help them deal with the frustration,” Grindel said.

Without mentoring, the nursing shortage would be worse “because the stress level will be too high for a new grad,” said Linda Panter, RN, MSN, FNP, and assistant professor at Alfred State College in Alfred, New York. She also runs the Adopt-a-Nurse mentoring program for male nursing students there.

"Mentoring is also important to smooth the transition from student to RN,” Panter said in an interview via e-mail.

A good facilitator is necessary for a successful mentoring program, Panter said.

“If you do not have someone frequently monitoring a program and keeping it positive, the program will go down the tubes,” she said.

On-site mentoring can be important for even experienced nurses learning a new job, said Karen Zander, RN, MS, CMAC, FAAN, co-owner of the Center for Case Management, a health care consultant company. For a fee, the company provides mentors for nurse managers and others, though that is not its main business.

Mentoring can be important for nurses because they rely on their senses, Zander said.

“They really have very little tolerance for theory that doesn’t apply directly to them,” she said. “They’re very pragmatic, goal-directed people. You have to be there when they’re there.”

A nurse whose organization will pay for them to be mentored “even for a half-day is a very lucky person,” Zander said.

For volunteer programs too, a hospital making a commitment to mentoring “speaks highly of the facility itself,” Reeves said.

Sometimes, mentoring is more informal.

Reeves said she has had people refer to her as their mentor when she didn’t realize she’d “had that kind of impact” on the person.

Grindel advised new nurses to prioritize facilities that offer mentoring programs.

“Skip the sign-on bonus, get someone to help you make it,” she said.

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