SUMMARY: Peer support programs are becoming more common as part of an overall approach to psychological health and safety in the workplace. We went to the experts to ask what employers need to know if they are considering launching their own.

Note: We are most often referring to a structured workplace Peer Support program and/or to trained Peer Supporters. When referring to the general concept of support from someone with a similar experience, peer support is not capitalized.

Overview of workplace programs

Employers who implement structured workplace Peer Support programs train qualified employees to assist other employees who are struggling with mental health challenges or illnesses. This approach has been evolving as a strategy to support psychological health and safety.

According to Peer Support Canada, “Peer Support Work is rooted in a trusting relationship between a person who is currently struggling and striving to find understanding and assistance, and the peer supporter whose personal history allows him or her to understand, support, and above all model a sense of hope.”

It is not exclusively for those who are seriously ill or have a diagnosis of a mental illness. If someone is struggling with work, relationships, or everyday stressors in their life, a Peer Supporter may be able to help them find the resources they need to manage their overall well-being. This does not replace -- and is a different strategy than -- professional support through human resources, occupational health, benefit providers, or doctors. Because they have recovered from a similar experience, the Peer Supporter can uniquely provide emotional and practical support. They can also act as a catalyst for encouraging access to professional resources.

Workplace peer support programs are being introduced across a wide range of organizations in Canada. The History of Peer Support provides a background and philosophy of this approach.

Different organizations launch a peer support program for different reasons. It may be that there are employees with mental health issues who can benefit from training as Peer Supporters, or employees who can benefit from peer support. It may also be that peer support is part of an effective psychological health and safety strategy.

Kim Sunderland, a Peer Support and Workplace Mental Health Consultant and Educator, shared, “Peer support can be for anyone and anything. It can help with a tough work experience, challenging relationship issue, addiction, or a mental health challenge.”

Shaleen Jones, Executive Director, Peer Support Canada, added, “The mental health system can be complex with delays in getting care; this is a way to help keep employees functioning and at work.”

Peer support is a safe place for an employee who is struggling to speak with someone who has experienced a similar issue. The role of the Peer Supporter is to encourage the individual to reach out for effective help and promote hope, empowerment and recovery.

Key considerations

The following are key considerations before and during implementation of a peer support program:

  • Support by leadership and internal champions is necessary to sustain a successful Peer Support Program.
  • Create a clear and measurable business case for implementation and revisit outcomes regularly for continued support.
  • Integrate ongoing two-way feedback with Peer Supporters for continual improvement.
  • Ensure alignment with the organization’s existing objectives, goals, culture, values, and mission should be integrated with the approach.
  • Consider the approach that’s right for your organization.
    • Internal Peer Supporters - Peer Supporters from within your organization provide the distinct benefit of knowing your organizational culture and having a similar work experience to those they will support. This means they are more likely to also help with productivity and workplace concerns.
    • External Peer Supporters – Peer Supporters may also be available from associations such as Canadian Mental Health or Mood Disorders. They may not be familiar with your workplace, but can provide personal and emotional support for your employees.

Peer Support Canada is one source for information on a range of peer support training providers and details on their Peer Supporter certification process.

Guidelines for the Practice and Training of Peer Support are provided by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Sustaining Peer Supporters

The Peer Supporters are the most critical resource for a successful program.

  • Carefully select and train Peer Supporters who will follow clear guidelines. Not everyone with lived experience can or should be a Peer Supporter. Ensure all Peer Supporters have appropriate initial and ongoing training.
  • Certification helps ensure that your Peer Supporters have the knowledge, skills, and competencies required to provide peer support safely and effectively in your organization. Certification by Peer Support Canada occurs after Peer Supporters have completed a recognized training program.
  • Articulate and reinforce that peer support is not counseling or trying to ‘fix’ anyone, by continually reviewing available organizational and community resources, including therapists.
  • Ensure there is no power differential. In most cases it isn’t advisable for an immediate manager or supervisor to be in an active Peer Support role for employees that report directly to them.
  • Be clear about the level of flexibility and the amount of time authorized to spend offering peer support during work hours without asking for special permission.
  • Provide safe and private meeting spaces when peer support is necessary.
  • Ensure clarity about your policies including the signing of liability release forms, details of the Peer Support agreement, conflict resolution processes, etc.
  • Provide an opportunity to network with other Peer Supporters either within or outside the organization to facilitate self-care, debrief and provide mutual support.

Costs and benefits

Costs

Peer Support is a transformational change initiative that can take anywhere from six months to two years to fully implement. Costs may include:

  • Peer Supporter training
  • Peer Supporter certification
  • Supervision of Peer Supporters
  • Program management
  • Travel and incidental expenses for meetings of Peer Supporters
  • Some work time for Peer Support to occur

You can directly contact Peer Support Canada to help you determine the bottom line cost for setting up and maintaining a Peer Support Program in your organization.

Organizational benefits

Our panel of experts report organizational benefits, including:

  • Providing a cost-effective approach to help promote and sustain a culture of wellness.
  • Addressing issues such as denial, shame, or secrecy about mental health problems by providing non-judgmental support for employees who are struggling.
  • Creating an antidote to isolation and a beacon of hope that professional medical treatment alone may not offer.
  • Overcoming obstacles to sustaining productivity during times of mental health challenges.
  • Removing barriers to inclusion for employees with mental health issues.
  • Having additional support at the time of return to work.
  • Helping to reduce absenteeism and disability through early identification and access to helpful resources.
  • Potentially, increasing effective usage of employee assistance programs because users may reach out for help earlier.
  • Improving employee morale through recognition that their employer cares about their well-being.
  • Increasing manager comfort in addressing employee issues through the assistance of a Peer Supporter.
  • Increasing employee retention and engagement.

Individual employees and their loved ones

Peer support can be a step towards recovery. Benefits for those accessing peer support as well as those who support them can include:

  • Sharing concerns in confidence with a safe, compassionate person, who has experienced something similar.
  • Hearing how others have coped and survived their journey through recovery.
  • Finding authentic validation and support.
  • Connecting to resources that have worked for others in their recovery.
  • An opportunity to connect with and learn from the experience of those who also have loved ones living with mental health challenges.

*Many thanks to the following workplace Peer Support experts for their contributions:

Dr. Ian Arnold, Occupational Health and Safety Consultant
Tom Barnett, Senior Consultant, Canadian Workplace Risk Management
Mandi Buckner, Workplace Mental Health Consulting, Mandi J. Buckner Consulting
Stéphane Grenier, Founder and Lead Innovator, Mental Health Innovations
Brian Hansell, Workplace Wellness and Mental Health Advocate, HCG Hansell Consulting Group Inc.
Shaleen Jones, Executive Director, Peer Support Canada
Ann Marie MacDonald, Executive Director/CEO, Mood Disorders Association of Ontario
Don Mahleka, Operations Manager, NGen Youth Centre
Hayley Peek, Peer Supporter and Facilitator, Mental Health and Wellness
Kim Sunderland, Peer Support and Workplace Mental Health Consultant, Mental Health Innovations