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Peer Perspectives

Peer Support: Building Up From the Inside Out

By Randy Kratz, LCSW

Social workers give so much to enhance the lives of their clients. Due to the nature of the work, however, social workers are often exposed to highly emotional cases that can carry into their personal lives, leading to an unhealthy amount of stress and potential burnout. To alleviate some of this stress, employees may turn to their peers for insight and advice. The best care and support can often come from inside the workplace, as coworkers provide a familiar outlet for guidance.

Peer support is an approach to workplace well-being that uses the nonclinical strengths and abilities of motivated staff to assist coworkers in times of struggle or personal crisis. Peer support is neither counseling nor therapy; it is a way organizations can provide familiar employee support systems in high-stress workplaces. Many employees feel more comfortable sharing their concerns with a peer who understands their circumstances as opposed to an off-site therapist who is removed from the workplace. Social workers are more likely to lean on a coworker who has been through similar situations and can provide relatable anecdotes and advice.

Training Season
For an organization to begin a peer support program, it must first train employees on how to work with coworkers during difficult times. From addressing compassion fatigue to coping with vicarious trauma, training employees to recognize signs of stress and how to support peers enables them to provide an empathetic outlet for their fellow professionals. Coworkers are uniquely positioned to relate to the day-to-day realities of social work. Providing peer support training to employees allows organizations to invest in their human capital.

The Making of a Peer Supporter
A peer support team member must demonstrate an array of qualities that reflect the underlying principles of the program. For starters, it is essential to respect and communicate the confidential nature of the help being offered and maintain personal boundaries for those seeking assistance. Providing peer support also calls for compassion, composure, and trained employees who genuinely care about others and are able to remain calm under pressure. Active listening skills, building rapport, and promoting trust are traits that will make those seeking assistance feel more comfortable. Throughout the process, peer supporters are keenly aware of body language and environmental surroundings, taking action to resolve potential threats of either a personal or situational nature.

Planning for Your Organization
Different organizations require different plans. Peer support programs should be flexible in both design and function. In order to build healthy relationships through peer support, certain crucial pillars need establishing: mutual respect, mindfulness, diversity, teamwork, and meaningful conversations. The way employers engage these pillars and select employees for participation in peer support differs from organization to organization.

Regardless of an organization's needs, support from executive staff and interest in the health and well-being of its workforce helps to reflect an organizational investment in addressing challenging workplace issues.

Employee Involvement
Peer support efforts are customized through the lens of organizational culture, facilitating recruitment efforts by acknowledging the diversity of individual employee needs.

Many peer supporters self-identify, and some already function as someone whom coworkers turn to when seeking assistance with unofficial conflict resolution and workplace disputes. Team members aren't expected to counsel; instead, they support peers through active listening and ensure psychological wellness. Lending an ear and providing undivided attention can go great lengths for an individual in need. Seeking employees who embody the characteristics of a peer supporter will aid in the development of an organizational framework reflecting the ideal support team.

Guidance From a Behavioral Health Expert
If a peer support program is to succeed, an organization must first collaborate with an accomplished partner experienced in comprehensive behavioral, emotional, and wellness solutions. Guidance from a behavioral health expert and consultant helps provide resilience training, psychological first aid, and personal resilience education on how to recognize stress and support one another.

Peer support needs can range from the high-touch of monthly consultations to the low-touch of one-time trainings. Determine whether your organization would benefit from short- or long-term support based on the following criteria:

• Short-term support can incorporate annual training in psychological first aid and personal resiliency strategies. Training may educate employees on the nature of vicarious and secondary trauma as well as compassion fatigue. Employees also can learn how to support one another through team-building exercises and provide insight on how to develop resiliency through a self-care plan. Short-term support may help employees consider the different forms of traumatic stress specific to their organization and workforce.

• Long-term support is a more intimate option that, along with the advantages of short-term consultation and training, may contribute to an ongoing evaluation of formalized support and services. Long-term support can include reevaluation of current policies and development of a peer support operations manual. It also may work to build safety and psychological first aid into programs through ongoing training and debriefings. A multiday certification program could be conducted to select peer support team members to lead the program and carry out the policies and procedures detailed in the peer support operations manual.

In today's social work industry, it's not a question of whether a peer support program will be beneficial, but what kind of program is best. Every organization is different and requires a specialized program to fit its unique needs. Organizations should take a deep dive into their work dynamics to determine a specialized approach to keeping their social work teams thriving. The intimate, yet powerful, relationships built through peer support programs allow employees to rely on one another for assistance during stressful times while preventing both burnout and compassion fatigue.

— Randy Kratz, LCSW, is a senior account manager at FEI Behavioral Health, a Milwaukee-based social enterprise providing organizational resiliency solutions.