Emergency COVID response mentoring program in Victoria judged a success

Malcolm Baalman – Public Health Association Australia

An evaluation released in the past week highlights the success of last year’s emergency mentoring program for Victoria’s hard-pressed COVID response workforce, established at short notice by PHAA and the Australasian Epidemiological Association (AEA).

The program was rushed into action to assist the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), which had taken on thousands of new staff to assist with the COVID response by mid-2020.

The program saw almost 200 experienced public health experts from around Australia volunteer their time to help DHHS response staff cope with the personal and professional challenges of the situation.

The evaluation report, led by PHD candidate Amy Parry at ANU, explored three main topics with evaluation participants, the utility of the program structure, how the program supported mentees, and the benefits of participating in the program.

“The mentoring program that we put in place was primarily designed to address burnout and other by-products of working in such a high-pressure environment. The staff working on the front line needed an opportunity for discussion, support and guidance from people with broad experience in the public health sector,” noted PHAA CEO Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin and AEA President Associate Professor Brigid Lynch in the to the report introduction.

“We were delighted by the willingness of so many senior public health figures to step up and volunteer their time to help support colleagues in Victoria. The list of volunteer mentors really was a ‘who’s who’ of public health in Australia.”

The evaluation identified that 86% of mentees were satisfied with their mentor match, and the evaluation reported many positive comments about how the programme helped them cope.

The evaluation concluded that while the program structure – assembled in just a few weeks by PHAA National Office – was useful as a pilot, modifications would be required “to ensure future programs set appropriate expectations and provide specific guidance suitable for emergency response.”

The report gives recommendations for future similar efforts regarding publishing guidance documents, instructions to mentees to develop ‘smart objectives’ for themselves, training and information sessions for mentors and mentees, and many other useful improvements.

Project coordinator Malcolm Baalman, at PHAA, welcomed the evaluation. “We were flying blind a bit, since one of the key requirements of the exercise was sheer speed. If it wasn’t up and running in a few weeks, it wouldn’t be useful.”

“At that time, in September 2020, the staff at DHHS in Victoria really were Australia’s frontline in facing the Melbourne outbreak. Individuals were under all sorts of personal and professional pressures, as the city itself went into a deep lockdown.”

“Matching the volunteer mentors with applicant mentees successfully, based on their experiences and limited data on their personal background and professional interests, was the key urgent task. PHAA Membership Officer Gemma Beet had to work through large spreadsheets to prioritise and match mentee work roles, career stages, interests, and educational profiles and find best fits with mentor professional backgrounds and expertise. Personal attributes were also considered where known, but not everyone had flagged them. So overall, the fact that the evaluation indicates that 80% or so of both groups thought the matches were appropriate is very welcome.”

“Once the program got underway, to a large extent it was left to the good sense of mentors and mentees to use the guidelines we set as best they could. Mentor-mentee pairs were expected to set goals for the mentee at the beginning of their relationship, to guide their time together. There were only a small number of administrative issues to manage, and the evaluation report suggests that the self-managed model worked out for most people.”

Professor Terry Slevin said he was very keen to thank and acknowledge all the people who made this program possible, including the committee of PHAA, AEA, and DHHS members who quickly guided the creation and implementation of the program.

“But the very rapid response of so many volunteer mentors was also absolutely crucial. Without nearly 200 mentors from the public health field stepping forward, in just a few weeks, this program would not have come off the way it did.”

“Also, it seems well worth noting that we are right now looking at another particularly challenging time in the cycle of the pandemic that has changed the world. So this is an excellent time to reflect on a worthwhile project which seems to have helped many frontline workers.”

Associate Professor Brigid Lynch noted that many of the mentee staff would have returned to their ordinary roles in the Victorian public service, but that many would also have been inspired to continue working in public health-related fields.

“Whatever their working roles now that things have stabilised, we thank everyone involved in the DHHS response to COVID in its first year, and we wish them all the very best for the future.”



Photo credit: Pat Whelen from Pexels

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