By Sarah Guenette, Learning & Development Manager, Calgary Community Standards, IPSA Mental Health & Wellness Committee Member
Public safety events often have stressful and long-term effects on those involved. It is imperative that first responder agencies have a strong internal support system in place for employees. One of the resources to consider is a Peer Support team.
The theory behind peer support is simple – the power of shared experience. There are multiple models for peer support including internal and external and they range from informal to formal clinical care models. This article will focus on workplace peer support which is a formal and intentional form of support.
The nature of the shared experience varies with the environment. In first responder agencies, the shared experience is being in the same work environment and having exposure to the stressors related to the first responder role. Peers are there to offer support, empathy, guidance, information and access to resources. In the eyes of a first responder who is struggling, another first responder may be the only person who truly “gets it.”
Selection, qualifications of peers
It is well known there is a stigma against getting help within first responder communities. For some of them it is difficult to take that first step to ask for help and admit they are struggling. While the culture is slowly changing, stigma is still a factor. When a first responder finally takes the step to talk to someone, they want someone they respect, trust and who is going to be empathetic.
When selecting peers an agency needs to consider what attributes other first responders would be looking for in that person. Just because someone wants to be a peer doesn’t mean they will be suited for the role. They need to know and live the values of hope, recovery, empathy and self-determination. They also need to be skilled in interpersonal communication, critical thinking and be supportive of change.
To ensure the selection of appropriate peers, agencies could consider an application and selection process. This emphasizes the importance of the role through formalizing it. It could entail informal or formal interviews or reference checks with coworkers.
Each agency needs to decide what training they are prepared to deliver for peers; peer support training is critical. But ultimately successful peers should already have three core traits in common:
- The ability to empathize.
- The willingness to listen.
- The resilience to carry others’ problems along with their own.
One of the most valuable ways for new peers to learn is to work alongside more experienced ones. It is important that those existing peers demonstrate the values the workforce respects.
Performance of peers should be managed just like any other work tasks. Peers who break confidentiality without good cause should be asked to leave the team and any complaints against a peer should be investigated through the agency’s usual procedure.
It is imperative that management, leaders of the peer support team, field personnel and the peers themselves are all aware of the confidentiality rules that each agency puts in place. This should be documented in a policy, procedure or code of conduct which is acknowledged by all peers and communicated to all staff.
Situations that could lead to self-harm or harm to others should permit breaking of confidentiality. Aside from those scenarios, the leadership of the peer team and management need to clearly define the parameters of escalation so that everyone is on the same page, including employees who may access the team.
Employees will open-up to the peer about things that they do not want shared, very personal things. Outside of the predetermined parameters where disclosure is mandatory, the peer must keep this information to themselves unless the employee indicates that they want them to share it. If a peer team is seen by employees to be breaking confidentiality, employees will not approach them and will not use them as a resource and the team will no longer be effective.
Confidentiality is part of any successful psychological health and safety system.
There will be times when peers will need to breach confidentiality for safety reasons. How these incidents are handled should be planned to avoid uncertainty in the moment and unintended consequences. These are cases where time is of the essence and the member needs additional support urgently. There needs to be a safety component to these situations whether it is safety of the member themselves, a loved one or the public.
It is critical that all steps be taken to protect the member’s privacy and integrity. If an incident where a member is in crisis is handled poorly it can undermine the good intentions and image of the peer team. Ensure all peers understand the steps to take when they are faced with a safety sensitive situation.
Leaders of a peer team need to demonstrate the team is successful, that they are being accessed and that they are considered a valuable resource by employees. In order to obtain this data, a tracking system is needed. Peers can report interactions in a way that doesn’t breach confidentiality. A system of coded reporting where neither the peer nor the employee is identifiable is ideal.
Tracking is also useful for identifying organizational trending. If peers broadly categorize conversations in the tracking system, it can demonstrate whether there is a particular area of concern within the workforce. This gives management the opportunity to address that trend through training in that area or by offering additional support resources to assist.
Health of peers
Peer support team members need to be able to take on the problem of others in addition to their own.
When there are stressors within a workplace, the draw on them as a resource will increase, not decrease, even though they are dealing with the same stressors. They need to be able to balance supporting others and ensuring that they can stay healthy and use healthy coping mechanisms.
It is important that peers receive psychological health training so they can understand triggers, warning signs and healthy versus unhealthy coping strategies. If a peer is starting to feel overwhelmed, it is critical that they reach out to another member of the team to talk about it, and if necessary, request to take a break from supporting until they feel more stable to continue.
For peers to protect their own health, they need to be empowered to establish boundaries with coworkers. Peers are not mental health professionals. They provide timely support to a coworker and help them to identify the resources that they need. Peers should not be expected to support employees through long term psychological struggles. Follow up check-ins with employees are key and should be done after an initial conversation has taken place, but the peer cannot be the sole support for a member.
Ideally a peer support team will be an initiative that is strongly supported from the top down. Leaders, especially operational ones, can play a pivotal role in whether an initiative is endorsed by the front line. Having a well-respected leader as a champion of the program will help it succeed. Since a peer support team is a resource to support worker health and wellness, the union will also ideally be supportive, although they may have questions and concerns, especially around confidentiality. If both senior leadership and the union support the initiative that should be communicated to employees along with clear communication about how the team will function.
Every agency will benefit from having a peer support program. When implemented effectively it can be one of the best resources for first responders to access help, and more importantly, for taking the step to ask for it in the first place. There are many factors to consider in building the team and things that need to be thought out prior to implementing anything. The peer support team needs to be structured to meet the needs of members for it to be effective. With well thought out planning and implementation, a peer support team can become a core component of any agency’s psychological health and wellness program.
About the Author
Sarah Guenette, M.A., is the Learning & Development Manager for Calgary Community Standards. She oversees recruit training and continuing education for 9-1-1 call evaluators, bylaw and animal officers, business licensing inspectors, livery inspectors and animal shelter services employees. Sarah has a background in 9-1-1 and was a call evaluator, dispatcher and operations manager for over 10 years. She has overseen the Psychological Health and Safety portfolio and the Peer Support team for Calgary Community Standards since 2013. She is passionate about creating and maintaining a healthy workplace for employees. Sarah is also the proud wife of a Calgary Police Service Officer.
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