Peer Support – harnessing employee power to drive wellbeing

Peer Support – harnessing employee power to drive wellbeing
By Paul Clifford and Chris Morgan

Wellbeing continues to feature prominently in organisational conversation as the risk and rate of psychological injury weighs increasingly heavy on many organisations. In search of solutions, organisations have typically looked externally for support in managing mental health and wellbeing. This has been a function of the focus on the 'illness' end of the mental health and wellbeing continuum and the corresponding need to engage psychologists and social workers with the requisite skills, qualifications and expertise not found within organisations. With the spotlight being shone on the ‘healthy’ end of the mental health and wellbeing continuum over the past decade or so, the expert mental health specialist has become just one of the wellbeing solutions open to organisations.  Additional avenues of support have become tenable.  In many cases organisations are turning to their most important and obvious internal resource - their own employees - to be an additional source of support.  This is often formalised as a Peer Support Program.

What is Peer Support?

Workplace Peer Support Programs are coordinated programs where trained employees volunteer their time to provide mental health and wellbeing support to their colleagues. Peers act as a contact point for those in need – engaging and supporting them, assessing their needs, and referring them on to relevant support services where appropriate. Peer Support has a history steeped in formal and informal community support groups, and within health and emergency services. Today, there is recognition that the Peer Support model is beneficial to a wide range of organisational contexts, and an important ‘prevention/early intervention’ pillar in strategic wellbeing programs. Through destigmatising the notion of seeking help, Peer Support Programs also increase the total usage of support services, which means more people receiving care, at the time they need it.

What is the value of Peer Support?

So, if you’re asking “What can Peer Support do for my organisation?” the answers are manifold.  Firstly it offers employees with an arguably more relatable support mechanism.  Their peers know and understand their work context intimately and so they are able to offer a degree of empathy that may be missing when engaging an external counsellor.  Secondly, Peers are ‘closer to the action’.  They can see things as they happen and as a result can be in the best position to help their colleagues identify issues early and encourage them to take action sooner rather than later.  Thirdly, Peer Support Programs can be culture changers. With the implementation of Peer Support the quality and tone of workplace interactions often change for the better.  Trained Peers begin to view conversational dynamics differently, increasing the standard of care and discretion around informal workplace conversations. This helps to build trust in Peers which in turn increases the tendency for employees to self-disclose, normalising the concept of sharing wellbeing issues, and the utilisation of available support services. Over time, these small changes can translate into a seismic shift in the organisation’s culture, which can then provide positive flow-on effects in the form of improved employee morale and productivity.

Peer Support Programs in Practice

Whilst launching a Peer Support Program is not overly complex there are some critical success factors that are worthy of consideration.  These include:

  • A steering committee – an important part of the program’s infrastructure ensuring appropriate decisions are made that uphold the purpose and intent of the program.
  • A rigorous training and development framework – beginning with a qualification program that gives Peers a comprehensive understanding of the role and strategies to manage challenging scenarios.  It also includes regular supervision and professional development to ensure Peers mature in their capability. 
  • Program governance – the establishment of policies, processes and structures to ensure peers continue to deliver the program as intended – in a safe and competent manner, and that any issues are managed effectively as they arise.

Innovative Models of Peer Support in the Health Sector

Given the benefits of Peer Support Programs, organisations across industries are rallying towards implementation.  FBG have been ready to respond flexibly to the needs of different industries.  As an example, FBG has in recent times helped Monash Health and Austin Health launch their Doctors’ Peer Support Programs.  The Peer qualification training program is usually a 2-3 day program but doctors are simply not available for anywhere near that amount of time in one stretch. Clearly, a tailored approach was required to meet their specific needs. FBG’s solution was a flexible training model that combined an abridged workshop for Peers with the appointment of coaches to help Peers upskill at flexible and convenient locations and times.


 

The first Pilot of this program structure was successfully rolled out with Monash Health in 2015. In total three training programs qualifying approximately 120 doctors in Peer Support have been delivered to Monash Health.  This model was replicated by Austin Health, with the recent qualification of approximately 20 Peers and 6 coaches.  Both organisations relied on the flexible model to make the program work in their organisations.  Alison Smith, Manager Wellness Programs at Austin Health, who headed up the program’s coordination is clear on the value it has brought to Austin Health. “We see Peer Support as a valuable tool to assist in improving the wellbeing of our doctors.  The ability to use a flexible training model has been critical for us due to doctors’ extremely busy schedule.  Our doctors have responded very enthusiastically to the program and we look forward to it becoming an integral part of our wellbeing strategy”.  Dr Anjali Dhulia, Director Medical Services at Monash Health says that the advantage of Peer Support is the accessibility and approachability of a Peer.  “Peers are right there on the spot or close by and can become a highly visible and convenient support mechanism.  It also increases the likelihood that our doctors will seek help. They may be reluctant to talk to their seniors or management but they will talk to their peers.  This gives us comfort that they have an avenue of support they are comfortable with”.

A bright future ahead

With more organisations looking for innovative ways to support the mental health & wellbeing of their people, the attention on Peer Support as a viable, cost effective support option with a high degree of face validity has never been greater.  With its ability to offer wellbeing, culture and professional development solutions all in one, it provides a compelling proposition that is hard to ignore.      

Comments

  • Sue Crock Monday, 04 July 2016

    Great to see doctors being trained in peer support. Much needed, and in many other professions as well. We are currently running Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) training in Perth that's an evidence based peer support program developed in the UK military and used widely in many first responder agencies there. This is the first time it's been offered in Australia and we are delighted to have the enthusiastic participation of WA Police, Dept of Corrective Services, Dept of Fire and Emergency Services, Mind People @ Work and Lifeline attending, and the facilitation of Gavin Rogers from March on Stress UK.

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