AOP insight: the AOP mentoring programme

AOP membership benefits officer, Sarah Melzack, looks at how the mentoring programme has evolved, and why optometrists seeking a mentor should get involved

girl writing
Pexels/RODNAE Productions

Commercial: Sarah Melzack, AOP membership benefits officer

How has the AOP’s mentoring programme been received?

Sarah Melzack
The reception has been great. We’ve had a huge number of mentors sign up, and over two thirds of mentees who are on the platform have matched themselves with someone through the skills and expertise they’re looking for support with and are currently in active relationships.

The platform has only been running since September but we’ve already had a few relationships close, and the feedback has been really positive from both sides. Mentors really enjoy connecting with younger, less experienced optometrists, and have the feel-good factor of helping someone who is walking in the shoes that they once did.

For mentees, it is a fantastic opportunity to cherry pick someone who has experience in the area they are looking to develop in. It is quite an unusual opportunity.

How many mentors are currently signed up to the scheme and what levels of experience do they have?

We have almost 100 mentors. What’s even more fantastic about that is that over half of our mentors have 20 years of experience in practice or above. More broadly, over two thirds of mentors have more than 11 years of experience. We have a great balance between mentors working in the corporate and independent space, which is good for people potentially wanting to look for career connections in different areas, or to understand more about life in that kind of practice. Of our mentors, 20% are locum optometrists, and 15% are optometrists working in hospitals or academia.

What led to the decision to expand the programme to locum members?

While locums may work regularly in some practices, there are a lot of locums who are one-person bands. They don’t have that stable sense of team or supervision. Even if they do, they might not necessarily want to elaborate on the challenges they face with someone who hires them, for fear they may potentially interpret them as weaknesses that aren’t necessarily there. Mentoring can give the locum the space for those conversations outside of day-to-day relationships, and still have someone in their corner on a regular basis.

When everything else in a locum’s day-to-day can be segmented, a mentor can sew it all together – understanding where the locum has been and what they are going on to. If an optometrist is new to locuming, it can also be nice to speak to someone who has been doing it for a while. There are a number of pitfalls that people can fall into in that self-employed space. Having someone to speak to, to help identify and avoid those pitfalls, and share some tips and tricks along the way, could be useful.

What can a mentoring relationship provide for an optometrist early in their career?

Mentoring can provide reassurance. Being new to anything can mean you feel unsteady on your feet and having someone who has 20 years of experience is a great source of reassurance. Most importantly, mentors can offer confidentiality if someone is struggling. If it’s something to do with self-confidence or clinical management, mentees might not necessarily want to admit that to the people they work with, or who they hope might take them on for a permanent position or promotion in the future. Being able to speak to someone who is just as experienced, but is outside of that employer circle, is quite special.

Are there any common areas of support that mentees are seeking?

Confidence-building is a common topic that mentees are looking to cover. We opened the programme initially to newly-qualified optometrists and pre-regs. For people in their early career, confidence-building can be vital, not just in terms of providing a good service to patients, but also job fulfilment. You don’t want to go into practice every day with that sense of dread that you are going to do something wrong, and leave replaying everything in your head and wondering ‘what if?’ Being able to tap into a source of support early-on will be helpful. Confidence also covers decision-making and clinical management, a lot of which comes with experience. Mentees can overcome those challenges by speaking to someone with a lot more experience for advice and to work out their own development programme in those areas.

I suspect the pandemic has contributed to the areas mentees are seeking support for. Students, newly-qualified and pre-reg optometrists haven’t all had the practical experience that they necessarily had hoped to have. A lot of locum optometrists who were not able to work during the pandemic have suffered a loss of confidence where they had not been working day-to-day with patients.

Similarly, anyone who didn’t work as much as they were used to during the pandemic may return to find that technology has advanced, or regulations have changed. They can find themselves playing catch up and that’s when mentoring can help them to speed through.

How might a mentoring relationship work alongside their placement, studies, or work? What level of engagement is needed from mentees on a regular basis?

It is completely up to the mentee and very flexible. The mentoring relationship lasts as long as mentees want it to last (though we advise six months), and until they have met the goals or overcome the particular challenge they wanted to work through. It can work around the mentee’s timeline.

Will there be more to see from the mentoring programme?

There will be more expansion. We would like to allow as many people as possible access to this type of support. We will be thinking about who else might feel potentially vulnerable in the profession or lacking in confidence – especially as that seems to be a key thing that people are seeking in the mentoring space. Career breakers, for example, people who have been on parental leave, or had to step away from the profession for a period of time, and might just need a bit of assurance when going back on a regular basis.

Would you have any key message for members about accessing the mentoring programme?

Just go for it. It’s free, quick and easy to access and is so flexible. A mentoring relationship will not be overly demanding. The mentee chooses who to match to, when to see them and what to talk about. The mentor is willing to be there for you 100%.