Rehumanizing Workplaces with Peer Support

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Imagine if there was someone at work who had recovered from depression and knew how to talk with you to help you cope and recover.  They would listen to you and actually get what you were saying!  They could coach you on handling conversations with your co-workers, HR or your manager.  They could help you understand what happens in depression, offer info on treatment options, and help you navigate your way forward.

This is workplace peer support my friends.

5547508381_6c89e1e33bPhoto Credit: CountYourBle$sings (college. Instagram: ldufffff) via Compfight cc

Peer support is a key element of Canada’s national mental health strategy.  Workplaces are one of the expected settings for the future practice of peer support.  Actually some progressive organizations have this now.

Last week I was at Canada’s first ever Mental Health Peer Support conference where I took in a few sessions on workplace peer support.  It’s what I’m most passionate about so I wanted to describe it for you.

Why have mental health support right in the workplace?

Mental illness is an expensive problem for organizations and despite advancements in medication and therapy, the problem continues to grow at phenomenal rates.

  • On any given week, more than 500,000 Canadians will not go to work because of mental illness.
  • More than 30% of disability claims and 70% of disability costs are attributed to mental illness.
  • Approximately $51 billion each year are lost to the Canadian economy because of mental illness.

Organizations need to be proactive by ensuring psychologically healthy and safe workplaces.  Critical to this is social support.  Peer support is a specialized form of this.

Advantages of peer support in the workplace:

  • Provides a non-medical, non-stigmatizing option for those who are struggling but don’t see themselves as mentally ill
  • Helps break down barriers to encourage people to seek treatment
  • Offers on-the-ground support for coping, return to work and recovery
  • Can help address isolation from colleagues and misunderstandings with supervisors
  • Reinforces corporate values around employee support

Why have peer support if you’ve got access to psychologists?

Peer support is designed to complement therapy not replace it.

Here’s how workplace peer support is different:

  • Peer is a role model of hope and recovery.
  • Peer has experience living with depression in the corporate environment which contributes to understanding, empathy, connection and trust.  When a peer validates and normalizes what you’re saying, you really feel it!
  • Peer is an equal unlike in hierarchical clinical relationships.  This contributes to feeling empowered in the relationship.
  • Peer understands issues like dealing with the stigma of a mental illness diagnosis, questioning your self identity, the challenges of explaining depression to others, the loss of relationships because of depression, trying to undo negative self-talk — basically the big picture of recovery.
  • Peer can help you navigate the mental health system and offers a less stigmatizing option outside the system.
  • Peer isn’t interested in your diagnosis.  The interest is in your strengths not what’s wrong with you.

What does workplace peer support look like?

I’ve heard of several workplace peer support programs.  In all cases, the peer support worker had to “come out” and acknowledge they had dealt with a mental health issue.  They are often trained in peer support and possibly suicide intervention.  They may be recruited or may just organically take on this role.

Peer support is often done as an off hours volunteer role with some contact during work hours.  It can also be during work hours as a secondment or permanent role.

It’s not a simple program to have.  It takes strong leadership support at all levels, safety for those who “come out”, confidentiality and policies to protect those who seek help, training and support for those doing peer support, significant long-term communication to build understanding, and ongoing monitoring and governance.

Result:  a healthier, more supportive workplace with a stronger sense of community.

What do you think?

Me July 2013

About the Author
Michele Longo
I promote peer support and encourage people on their recovery journeys. My plan with this blog is to build a community of like-minded individuals offering ideas and encouragement from their own experiences. My master plan is to help create psychologically safe and supportive workplaces. I live in Calgary, Canada.

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2 thoughts on “Rehumanizing Workplaces with Peer Support

  1. Douglas
    May 25, 2014 at 10:49 am

    I am a Peer Support worker in Mental Health, I also happen to have 30 years of experience in varying capacities in Social Services prior to my mental health journey and becoming a Peer Support worker. I have enthusiasm for the first time in my life since I have realized the value of Peer Support and the avenues that have now opened to me in this very exciting field. I have seen first hand the value of Peer Support in the work place, as I have offered Peer Support not only to my clients, but also to my colleagues, and they have in turn offered support to me. I recently have undergone a medical challenge which resulted in emergency surgery, a hospital stay, and now face at least one more surgery, a lengthy recovery, and some extended time off. This latest challenge in my life has shown me another area where peer support could be of great assistance. Patients in the Health care system, especially those facing serious/life threatening illness/injury, and or extensive surgery and or procedures would benefit from the support of someone who has been through it before. Being in hospital, facing terminal illness, an the uncertainty of what lies ahead is a scary prospect for anyone, and an empathetic ear to listen and guide you through the process would be a valuable, healing presence. I work for a major Health Authority and I am developing an inservice for Health care providers on the “Patient Experience” to help them to understand just what it is like to be a patient, and how they can make our journey through the Health system a little easier. I am also going to pursue initiating a Peer Support program for the medical system. I have no idea where this will lead, or how well it will be received, but I am wiling to put in the effort to try. Peer Support has given me the drive and ambition to make things better for people struggling with any life challenge, and the upcoming time off is going to give me the chance to work on these ideas. Thank you for your work in bringing Peer Support into the workplace, and I know that Peer Support is going to keep growing and developing and I am so very honoured to be on the pioneering edge of such a valuable field.

    1. Michele
      May 25, 2014 at 11:12 am

      That’s so exciting Douglas!! It does feel like we’re out on the edge of something very significant. Your Patient Experience inservice will have a big impact. I thought here in Calgary we had some ‘navigators’ in our health system although that might have just been at the cancer clinic. It makes perfect sense for mental health – it’s incredibly hard to navigate a system that isn’t even a real system. I think our medical system is ready for the Peer Support perspective to be incorporated. Driving that won’t be easy but you sound like you’re up for the challenge. Keep me posted!!

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