Why Being a Mentor is Good for Your Health

Are you feeling stressed? Even though it’s only January, are you already feeling overburdened and anxious about the year ahead?

Here’s a solution. Become a CAGP or AFP Mentor for 2014 and you can help lower your stress level, improve your health, strengthen your immune system AND become a more sustainable leader.

Sound miraculous? Read on to learn about the science behind this.

Leadership is stressful. Experienced fundraising professionals have to cope with pressure day in and day out, year after year. This “power stress” is caused by a combination of responsibility, constant self-control and dealing with the inevitable small and large crises that leadership roles demand.

You may not realize this, but stress increases the electrical activity in your brain’s right prefrontal cortex and releases hormones that activate your “fight or flight” response.

Over the years, researchers have gained insight into the long-term effects stress has on our physical and psychological health. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. “Research suggests that prolonged stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction,” according to the Harvard Mental Health Newsletter.

But it’s not just about you. Emotions are literally contagious. When leaders are in the grip of stress or burnout, the dissonance they create spreads to all those around them.

Leadership experts have found that one of the most effective ways to renew yourself as a leader is through “compassionate coaching” or mentorship.

This type of caring relationship is a win-win situation, with clear benefits for the person being coached and some great, more hidden, benefits for the mentor.

When we act with compassion, helping others develop and grow, we increase the activity in our body’s parasympathetic nervous system. This in turn activates a set of hormones that lowers our blood pressure and strengthens our immune system. At the same time, the activity in our sympathetic nervous system – the fight or flight — subsides.

“When leaders experience compassion through coaching the development of others, they experience psychophysiological effects that restore the body’s natural healing and growth processes, thus enhancing their sustainability. We thus suggest that to sustain their effectiveness, leaders should emphasize coaching as a key part of their role and behavioral habits,” say leadership experts Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith and Nancy Blaize of Case Western Reserve University.

Both the Canadian Association of Gift Planners and the Association of Fundraising Professionals have excellent mentorship programs as free benefits to their members. You can learn how to become a CAGP Mentor or an AFP Mentor through your local chapters.

Note: For a thorough review of research and literature on stress, power stress, and leadership see Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee, “Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion” and Richard E. Boyatzis, Melvin L. Smith and Nancy Blaize “Developing Sustainable Leaders through Coaching and Compassion”.

Heather Wardle CFRE is a fundraising and communications consultant in Vancouver (www.heatherwardle.com) and is the Chair of AFP Vancouver’s Scholarship and Mentorship Committee. Many years ago, when she made the career switch from book publishing to fundraising, she was fortunate to have two wonderful mentors through the CAGP and AFP mentorship programs. Heather is now an AFP Mentor and loves the opportunity to give back.