Overcoming the challenges and creating the next generation of workplace peer support networks

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Much has been debated about workplace peer support networks. Yet, the evidence is clear. If implemented and supported correctly, they have been proven to be extremely effective.

In this article, I outline the key concerns and how we can overcome them to realise peer supports’ full value in addressing the impact of mental ill health on us personally and on our businesses.

“Several challenges” to peer support networks (Wellcome Trust)

The role of peer supports – including mental health champions and first aiders – was growing in popularity as a workplace intervention even before the pandemic. But there is still much debate about its appropriateness.  Research from the Wellcome Trust[1] “raises several challenges to consider in (the) development and implementation of effective peer support interventions”.

Their report highlighted concerns around the “maintenance of healthy boundaries and the lack of training (and) supervision”. In particular, the report emphasised the need for training focused on “social and emotional skill-building” as well as “supervision from mental health professionals” to increase their effectiveness.

Peer supports need more support themselves (Ripple&Co)

Research conducted into peer support last year in 20 large UK-based organisations with networks ranging from 50-1000 individuals found that the role attracts a high percentage of people with personal experience of mental ill health (average 78%).

It’s not only a powerful motivator for undertaking this difficult role, it has also been shown to increase effectiveness. But it can lead to a ‘hero’ mentality and a vulnerability to the peer support’s own mental health as they may be tempted to overstep boundaries and take on an untrained counselling role.

This can even potentially lead to them being triggered themselves, as well as increasing the risk to the person being assisted.

Ripple&Co found that on average 33% of peer supports’ mental health had been negatively impacted by the role. In some companies this was as high as 54%. Being able to offload and being supervised by mental health professionals not only supports them but has been found to increase their effectiveness.[2]

In an effort to reflect and emotionally detach after an interaction, many end up taking it home with them, as Ripple&Co found, with over half of peer supports debriefing to a family member (51%) and as high as 77% in some companies.

Most respondents (77%) said they would access further support if it were offered to them. For some respondents this was as high as 93%. And, perhaps most alarming, 89% of respondents said that time was a barrier to looking after their own wellbeing.

Maintaining confidentiality, gaining insight

In addition, the necessary veil of confidentiality to protect privacy can increase feelings of isolation.  But confidentiality can still be maintained whilst also ‘logging’ a conversation which would ensure optimal employee care, the ability to collect high level, pseudonymised data offering valuable insight into the peer support’s activity and a company’s wellbeing. Furthermore, since a peer support is a representative of the business, this would be fundamental in defending or seeking to counter employee litigation.

Knowing the potential for workplace peer supports as a solution that is as ‘effective as professional interventions’[3], which scores better than clinical practice in areas related to the recovery process and offers greater levels of self‐efficacy, empowerment, and engagement[4] we really ought not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

The value of workplace peer supports

Research by The Wellcome Trust (May 2021) shows that the value of talking to others who understand colleagues’ experiences can:

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Achieving value for money – peer supports on the front line

We are living through a time where growing numbers of people are experiencing poor mental health and we want more employees to come forward to speak about it. Since we spend a third of our adult lives at work, workplace peer supports are in a rare position to lower the emotional barrier for those who fear the consequences of disclosure or accessing support due to stigma or discrimination.

The peer support’s primary function to spot the early signs of poor mental health, to offer support and signpost to further help plays a critical role in accelerating self-referral to services to aid self-management and quicker recovery. This enables individuals and companies to realise the value of currently under-utilised EAP provision, estimated to be as low as 1.8%-6.9%[5]. Their unique role to directly access and document high-level, pseudonymised data provides an unrivalled opportunity for business to act upon currently unknown insight.

The future of peer support networks

Surely now is the time to super-charge and super-support our invaluable peer supports to tackle one of the greatest challenges of our time.

About the author

Eileen Donnelly is the founder of Ripple&Co and creator of PLATO, a SaaS solution which she believes will create the next generation of mental health peer supports [email protected]

[1] Wellcome Trust

[2] Wellcome Trust

[3] Bryan & Arkowitz

[4] Farkas et al

[5] Chestnut Global Partners EAP Trends Report 2016

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