24 March 2016

It was the late 1960s and Barbara Yeoh was fresh out of university when she first experienced the impact a strong mentor can have on a person’s career.

The now chair of Monash Health with a distinguished business career history, Yeoh had graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Pure & Applied Mathematics and was working at the Bureau of Statistics when she was placed in charge of an important research project.

“I was given full rein by my boss to work with the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons to investigate the effectiveness of seat belts,” says Yeoh. “It was research that led to Victoria being the first place in the world to make seat belts compulsory.”

Yeoh says her boss’s confidence in her abilities, encouragement and support showed her the impact of mentorship and sparked a career-long passion as an advocate for it in workplaces.

“It made me realise the importance of nurturing, supporting and encouraging young people to reach their full potential,” she says. “I was freshly minted from university and this particular gentleman was a retired air force commander, a mathematician, a statistician, and was amazing. He said, ‘My door’s always open, but I want you to do the work; go for it.’ He had so much confidence in me it gave me the self-confidence I needed.”

Yeoh says she was lucky enough to have two more standout mentors as she progressed who played significant roles in her professional and personal development.

“What stayed with me regarding my leadership journey was first of all the power of having a generous spirit and being liberal in sharing your knowledge and expertise,” she says. “And the feeling of someone having your back; being able to tap into that experience and support as we progress in our careers.”

Yeoh says mentor-focused workplaces are particularly vital within the healthcare industry where staff face daily challenges in a demanding environment that can sometimes take its toll.

“Staff are our most valuable asset, especially in healthcare,” she says. “If you’re a staff member and thinking, ‘I don’t want to be at work today’, how can you be focused on giving your best patient care. One of the important qualities is resilience and mentoring can help build that, the capacity to deal with the ups and downs we all have. Your self-resilience is so crucial and I think my mentors helped me with that.”

Monash Health’s approach to mentoring

At Monash Health mentorship has been embraced with a series of programs targeting various areas.

The issue of the mental health of young doctors was behind a key mentoring program launched 18 months ago. Monash Care was prompted by research showing doctors, and especially interns, were particularly vulnerable to depression.

“We said this can’t go on,” says Yeoh. “So we developed a strategy that has the tagline, ‘No doctor should suffer in silence’, with strong components of mentoring that’s available to all doctors, and particularly for our interns. We also have a program Women in Medicine that’s focused on supporting women doctors.

“We’ve had tremendous buy-in and support from our senior medical staff who are all very committed to this.”

A general program described by Yeoh as being ‘a bit like a matching service’ is available to all staff.

“Our senior leadership team are all encouraged to be mentors, to nominate areas where they have strengths and the time they have available,” says Yeoh. “Then staff can seek a match. Very importantly, this is nothing to do with performance evaluation. It’s something that’s totally between the mentor and mentee, a safe harbour.”

Yeoh adds that the matches are followed up with the mentor and mentee to ensure they’re a good fit by Monash’s People and Culture department. Formerly the HR department, it was renamed last year to better convey the Monash philosophy of valuing its people and culture. “It’s the emphasis on how you communicate,” says Yeoh. “I don’t know that ‘Human Resources’ conveys that.”

Yeoh says the benefits a culture of mentorship brings to a workplace are invaluable. “We have this powerful expression [at Monash] – the joy of coming to work. What we aspire to is that all of our staff experience that.

“I think mentoring helps to create that through greater self-awareness, confidence and people’s personal development. Distributed leadership is very important in a large complex health service and mentorship helps people become more effective as a team, and to develop an acceptance and tolerance to the views of others and allows staff to reach their full leadership potential.”

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