Armed Forces mentoring and supporting NHS colleagues

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, it was clear people in the NHS were facing significant pressures. Defence staff are highly trained and experienced in dealing with the operational stressors of high-pressure situations, so a collaborative partnership was established in May 2020. In this article, the Defence Academy (DefAc) explains more about how the support was created and what happened as a result.

The nationwide “Mentoring Through Crisis” scheme aimed to share expertise and experience across boundaries. The scheme involved a diverse range of Defence staff (650 in total), ranging from Sergeant-Major through to Lieutenant-General, who have volunteered their expert services as mentors to support the NHS.

How did it happen?

The NHS initially approached the Centre for Army Leadership (CAL), requesting assistance in dealing with the volume of stress-related cases in the early stages of the pandemic. The Defence Academy was asked to support and offered the services of its Defence Leadership Centre (DLC). The DLC was already delivering a blended ‘Mentoring in Defence’ course, and its Masters-educated Programme Director, Jacqueline Seviour, helped design, develop, and curate various bespoke training materials in support of the scheme. 

One of these was a series of podcasts that explore the concept and processes of mentoring, while also explaining the skills required to practice effective mentoring (i.e. active listening, facilitative questioning, reflection). These podcasts remain available on the Defence Learning Environment, along with all the bespoke training materials. The first of this series has now been shared as part of the Public Leaders Report 2021.

Lessons and benefits

Since its inception, the scheme has established 130 mentoring relationships, of which 80 remain active. They have varied in duration, anywhere from four weeks to four months. Their routine weekly meetings allowed Defence mentors to continually help NHS mentees identify their own ways of dealing with the stresses of COVID-19. They also helped people develop a range of approaches to mitigate the impacts a crisis has on personal, collective and organisational resilience.

Defence mentors have reported positive benefits too. They have not only re-energised their existing mentoring skill sets, but they have increased their self-awareness and gained uniquely different perspectives on how another government department has led the country through the pandemic crisis.

The scheme recently transitioned away from Military Assistance to Civil Authorities and now operates under an agreed terms of reference. This has coincided with a surge in new mentee applications, particularly from Senior NHS Leaders. Feedback continues to be overwhelmingly positive, with the benefits of productive mentoring relationships being felt by individuals and teams at all levels across the NHS.

Personal reflections

Mentor: Brigadier Ian Mortimer | The British Army

I volunteered for the Army’s NHS Mentoring Programme to support the NHS during the COVID-19 crisis. I undertook the necessary prior education and training, provided by the DLC, and I can safely say that my experience throughout has been hugely positive, beneficial and rewarding. While I was officially the ‘mentor’, the relationship was neither one way nor transactional. It forced me to reflect upon my own experiences from my times in command and especially those during crises. This reflective learning allowed me to distil my own experiences into accessible and pertinent examples for Kathy. But I also learned as much from Kathy and her wealth of experience in the health sector and her subject matter expertise. Her insights allowed me to understand better some of the challenges Defence faces now and in the future. Being a mentor was so beneficial, both professionally and personally, that I have volunteered again!

Mentee: Kathy Farndon | Non-Executive Director, University Hospitals Derby & Burton NHS Foundation Trust

The mentoring scheme was offered at a critical time for me as I had been appointed as a Non-Executive Director for the NHS Trust just at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was really taking its toll on the country. It was crucially important to maintain overarching governance of the organisation whilst also having to deal with an unprecedented crisis situation. Staff were working under enormous pressure, significant changes in care pathways were introduced, some elective procedures had to be suspended, personal protective equipment was required and there was a significant increase in really ill patients, and some key staff members sadly caught the virus and passed away. 

Trying to maintain a ‘tree-top’ view and deliver on high level governance objectives whilst also dealing with a crisis was incredibly challenging, and the mentoring sessions with the Brigadier were enormously helpful. Brigadier Mortimer was able to provide relevant examples from his military experience to show how he had used his leadership skills in both combat and crisis situations, as well as other different approaches that military work involves, in order to give me a different perspective with which to view the situations I was dealing with and find solutions. I have grown in confidence tremendously as a result of the mentoring programme and have learned valuable techniques and methodologies that I have applied in my current role and which I will continue to apply in any role going forward. There is much benefit to be gained from being able to view challenges and difficult situations through a different lens and I feel fortunate to have been allocated such an insightful and skilled mentor and thoroughly recommend the programme.

Read the full Public Leaders Report: Supporting the NHS in its hour of need · Collaborating places · Extraordinary resilience and service · What do we know about public sector leaders · Looking ahead to 2022