Louisiana Department of Health Mentorship Program Thriving During COVID Response

April 20, 2022 | Liljana Baddour, M. Beth Scalco

Illustration of three people helping one another jump from a lower platform to a higher oneTimes of rapid or extreme change during a crisis can make organizations hold on to outdated or inefficient routines; they also present an ideal environment to start something new. The Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) had planned to launch an employee mentorship program in 2020, which they reluctantly decided to pause during its early COVID-19 response. Not to be deterred, they pressed forward in 2021, successfully launching mid-pandemic with a full complement of mentors and mentees.

ASTHO talked with representatives of the department to learn about their efforts.

Why did you start your mentorship program, and how were you able to move forward amid the pandemic response?

We had been wanting to do a mentorship program for a while. The results of our 2017 Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey told us that we needed to offer more professional development opportunities for personal growth and to engage in practices that support job satisfaction and improve retention. Nearly one in four of our staff who responded were thinking about leaving—and almost one-third were planning to retire within the next year.

These results, coupled with our workforce needs assessment in 2018 and the number of employee resignations, led us to our decision to implement a mentorship program.

We planned to launch in 2020—in fact, we got as far as accepting applicants—but because of our overwhelming involvement in COVID response, we made the decision to delay implementation. During the pandemic though, we found that employees were feeling isolated and longing for ways to connect with colleagues, so we decided to proceed with the launch in July 2021. It was interesting to note that we doubled the number of applicants from the time of the original intended launch!

Describe the program for us.

The mentorship program provides opportunities for employees to engage in meaningful conversations, connect with others outside of their own team, exchange information and gain professional development with experienced health department colleagues. We also wanted to recognize and empower our seasoned, skilled, talented team members who had the desire to pay it forward.

A pilot program for both mentor and mentee roles that included leadership allowed us to make improvements before a program-wide roll out. At the time of the official launch, we started with 20 pairs, involving a total of 40 individuals. We asked the mentor-mentee pairs to meet at least six times within a five-month window. We provided optional agenda templates for both mentors and mentees to guide individual interactions.

A series of video calls and webinars offered professional development resources, speakers on leadership journeys, and lessons learned. Some of the virtual events were open only to mentors, providing space to share specialized resources and exchange ideas for addressing challenges or questions that came up, while other virtual gatherings were open to all participants. Still other events were open to everyone who applied to the program, even if they were not selected for the first cohort.

You had already started the application process before deciding to pause the program because of COVID. When you relaunched the program, what adjustments did you make?

Because we launched during COVID response, we revised some of the content to adapt to our heavily virtual work environments and provide the opportunity to reflect on learning and experiences since COVID-19. We knew from the start that we wanted the program to be accessible for regional staff who were geographically distant from the main offices. COVID forced us to make it even more remote-friendly. We adjusted some of the suggested agenda topics by providing alternate ideas for the role play activities, shadowing experience, and networking.

What worked well?

Our technology platform was efficient, scalable, and cost-effective. It provided registration, matching assistance through our customized algorithm, and best-practice templates that we tailored to our agency. The programmatic supports we developed—including hosting informational and orientation sessions, a leadership speaker session, mentorship network calls, mentor directory, shared resources, and one-on-one support from the Workforce Team—were valuable.

What challenges did you overcome?

We had a few bumps but, fortunately, none that were insurmountable. There was a technology issue and it is always a challenge to schedule meetings for busy people! There were a couple of pairings that experienced some issues and we tried to empower the mentee to solve their own issues as part of the growth experience. We reviewed monthly session feedback regularly and offered 1:1 support where warranted. Overall, though, the pairings worked well.

What would you do differently?

We could have used a little more time to promote it and increase the number of mentor applicants. We would make better use of our senior leadership team to identify mentors and consider using one mentor for multiple mentees. There are also some ways we could link this program to other initiatives, such as succession planning, our stay interview initiative, leadership program, or to our strategic plan. We would also host a celebration event at the conclusion, even if we had to do it virtually. Finally, we might consider a non-cohort-based experience in the future, where the timeframe of the program would be based on individual mentee goals.

Do you have any evaluation results from your first cohort to share?

Generally speaking, mentorship has long-range outcomes that take time to manifest. That said, we have findings suggesting positive outcomes and experiences, including:

  • 78% report all or some goals discussed in the mentorship pair have been completed.
  • 82% say this mentoring relationship has been beneficial to them.
  • 78% feel more connected to others.
  • 67% have an increased understanding of others’ roles at our agency.
  • 63% report feeling more energized.
  • 100% of participants rated the program as valuable.

What advice do you have for other state and territorial health agencies considering a mentorship program?

We have several lessons learned to share, including:

  • Do it right and make it meaningful. As the department got pulled into COVID response, we knew we would not be able run the program how wanted to, so we paused to give it the time and attention it needed.
  • Use a technology platform. It really did make it easier particularly to make the program accessible through an application-based selection process.
  • Listen to employees and let them help shape the program. Then, stay in good contact with the participants and respond to messages and feedback. Have individual conversations as much as you can.
  • Get leadership on board. You will need leadership support with funding and promotion. Engage them in helping to select mentors and mentees.
  • Find champions who are approachable and can use personal touches for promoting and recruitment.

What is next for the program?

We showed thanks and appreciation particularly towards our mentors internally and on social media. We are launching another cohort in late summer 2022 and aim to offer this type of experience annually. We look forward to working more closely with teams within the health department to meet any customized needs or pairings. During a celebratory event, we would like to showcase participants to agency leadership.

Special thanks to LDH Office of Public Health staff for contributing to this article:

Katherine Cain, MPH, Director, Bureau of Planning and Performance
Melicia Levron, SPHR, Human Resources Manager
Jennifer Taylor, MS-HRLD, Deputy Director of Workforce Initiatives, Bureau of Performance and Planning