Nurse mentorship program a professional and personal lifeline during pandemic

‘Mentors address some of the psychosocial elements that are important to talk about,’ says Jessica Phillips, a manager with the Center for Nursing Excellence at UCLA Health

Starting a new job can be stressful on its own. But starting a new job in the midst of a pandemic can be overwhelming, especially in a health care setting.

Thankfully, new nurses at UCLA Health don’t have to face their fears alone. A program initiated through the Center for Nursing Excellence pairs former nurse residents with new nurse residents for a 12-month mentorship. Mentees and mentors meet virtually or by phone for monthly 30-minute sessions.

The Nurse Resident Mentor Program launched in 2018 and has guided more than 400 new nurses in their personal and professional development. Based on the success of that model, the Center launched a similar mentorship program for nurses transitioning to management.

For many nurses — mentees as well as mentors — the programs provided a lifeline when they needed it most.

Symbiotic relationships

Kennedy Davis, left, started as a nurse at UCLA Health in January 2021. She began working with nurse mentor Dahlia Maldonado soon after. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Kennedy Davis, RN, BSN, started her career as a nurse at UCLA Health in January 2021, at the height of the pandemic. She recalls the period as being “crazy, to say the least.”

“We didn’t know what unit we would be placed into at the time,” Davis says. “All we knew was that we had a job in the new grad program at UCLA. And that was enough.”

Davis initially worked in the vaccine and testing clinics before settling into her current role on 4 SW Oncology. A month into her job, she started working with her mentor, Dahlia Maldonado, RN, BSN-BC, and instantly felt a connection.

“Dahlia seemed like she really cared and wanted to get to know me, not just as a nurse but as a person, as well,” Davis says. During monthly calls or Zoom meetings, they first would talk about Davis’ professional development and stress management. After that, Maldonado would ask her about her boyfriend, her dog and her family.

“It was nice to not only be seen as a new grad nurse but as a person navigating a new career in a pandemic,” Davis says.

Davis says her experience with Maldonado has been invaluable, especially in learning to give herself credit for each win, whether personal or professional.

She recalls the importance their relationship took on after she experienced her first patient in rapid response.

“It was nice to just decompress and talk to her about it,” Davis says. “It’s different talking to your charge nurse or your resource nurse or your unit director, whom you feel supported by equally, but someone who understands what it’s like to go through something like that without actually being present.”

Mentors get to count their wins, too.

Maldonado, with just over five years of experience, is an administrative nurse in the medical-surgical nursing unit at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center. She says her mentoring experiences have enhanced her communication skills, made her perceptive to others’ emotions, and helped her with relationship-building.

Importantly, she says, mentoring has reignited her passion for nursing.

“Being able to help somebody else on their journey helps me remember what I love about nursing, where my passion started,” she says. “It reminds me how blessed and lucky I felt to start this career. And it brings me back to that point when I feel burned out.”

Maldonado notes it’s important to help mentees learn to manage stress, make time for themselves and focus on their own well-being.

“The skills you will learn with time. If you get burned out early in your career, it’s very hard to step back from that,” she says.

Personal connections

Mentors are former nurse residents who have successfully graduated from the program. They must have approval from their unit leader and make a one-year commitment to meet virtually with their mentee monthly.

"Every leader is always putting out fires, so when you do have a moment to spend time with somebody, it's almost a weight off your shoulders because your focus is on helping them."

Coleen Wilson, DNP, RN, director of adult in-patient nursing at Santa monica UCla medical center

Mentors attend initial training in communication, debriefing situations, stress management and addressing challenges and obstacles their mentees might experience. They receive additional training at the six-month mark.

What makes the mentor/mentee relationship most valuable? It’s that personal connection, says Jessica Phillips, MSN, RN, a Nursing Professional Development manager in the Center for Nursing Excellence.

“A mentor looks at the whole person. It’s a very different type of relationship they’re building,” Phillips says. “Mentors address some of the psychosocial elements that are important to talk about, especially in a pandemic in a highly stressful couple of years. We all need people to talk to.”

She notes the mentor role is different from the preceptor role, which provides guidance specifically for a skillset.

Phillips says mentors can be a lifeline to help new nurses process their experiences, let them know they’re not alone, guide them toward solutions and point them toward resources.

Retaining nurses

One of the program’s goals is to help retain nurses — especially important during the pandemic as nurses are leaving the profession in record numbers. Mentors are trained to recognize burnout, in their mentees and in themselves, and to address those feelings before they become overwhelming.

Their efforts appear to be working.

“As an organization, we have been under 10% turnover consistently for our nurse residency program, and we see a significant return on investment from the mentor program, not only to translate what they’re learning into practice but to be able to process the challenges and roadblocks that can happen in the first year of nursing practice,” Phillips says.

Dahlia Maldonado is an administrative nurse in the medical-surgical nursing unit at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Maldonado recognized she was suffering from burnout after her unit had been designated as one of the COVID units for the third time.

“I realized this is the time when people step away from bedside,” she says. “But being a mentor helped me stay because I realize I love this part of my job. I want to invest in nurse residents because they have so many great ideas; they look at things with fresh eyes.”

Building leaders

Phillips notes that mentorship within the Clinical Nurse Manager Program is equally helpful in guiding nurses transitioning to management.

“I have seen a lot of people transition from certified nurse manager to unit director. Imagine how valuable their mentors were in preparing them for interviewing and going through that process,” she says.

Coleen Wilson, DNP, RN, director of adult in-patient nursing at SMUCLA, recalls the importance of having an informal mentor when she was hired into her role.

“He pushed me outside my comfort zone, asked me ‘what are your goals, what do you want to accomplish?’” She told him offhandedly that she’d like to publish something someday, and the next thing she knew she was partnering with another mentor to publish in a nursing journal.

Today, Dr. Wilson relies on those seminal experiences when mentoring new nurse managers.

“In the past, I’d listen to people about their frustrations, about how I can guide them. Now, my focus is on their internal goals,” she says. “We talk about interacting and how to communicate with people and what tools and resources they can utilize. The other piece of it is what do they want help with.”

Joaquin Nunez, RN, CCRN, was paired with Dr. Wilson in November 2021 when he transitioned to his role as a clinical nurse manager for the neonatal pediatric/adult critical care transport team.

“I actually sought her out,” Nunez recalls. “For me, having someone with that experience is priceless. She’s very encouraging, she has a lot of resources and she’s gone through everything I’m going through as a new nurse manager — from counseling, which is a difficult task for someone new in their role, all the way up to the complexities of educating others, continuing education for the team and developing competencies.

Nunez remembers a time he had to counsel one of the nurses about a medication error, and Dr. Wilson’s guidance on how to talk with the nurse, develop a template and document the process was immeasurable.

His confidence level has risen significantly, he says, which he credits to the mentorship program.

Dr. Wilson, who has been a mentee since the inception of the program, says mentoring is the highlight of any leadership position she’s had.

“This is what brings joy to my job,” she says. “There’s so much craziness that goes on, and there are so many competing priorities. Every leader is always putting out fires, so when you do have a moment to spend time with somebody, it’s almost like a weight off your shoulders because your focus is on helping them.”

She notes that mentoring is not about giving advice.

“It’s about being present and meeting people where they need to be met and helping them grow toward whatever their goals are. It strengthens your relationships, it opens doors for others, and it opens doors for you.

It’s about creating a legacy, she says. “And it is so much fun.”

Learn more about the Center for Nursing Excellence at UCLA Health.

Jennifer Karmarkar is the author of this article.

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