Peer Support Strengthens Mental Health Offerings

Employees who have overcome emotional challenges offer support to colleagues

By Greg Goth November 29, 2018
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In workplace peer-support programs, employees are encouraged to talk to their co-workers before personal issues cascade out of control.

In peer support, employees who have experienced mental and emotional health challenges and learned to manage them help co-workers who are facing similar issues. It isn't meant to replace professional therapy but instead serves as outreach to those who are struggling. Peers let their co-workers know they're not alone in dealing with mental and emotional health problems and encourage them to take advantage of counseling through an employee assistance program (EAP). Peers also provide ongoing support as employees work to resolve addiction, depression and other issues.

That's good for employees and good for the company, said Mike Weiner, EAP director for global consultancy EY, where peer counseling has proved successful. "It means people are more comfortable getting the care they perhaps had been uncomfortable reaching out for previously."

Two years ago, when the company introduced the peer-support program, it hoped for "a boost in people calling the employee assistance program to get support, and that's exactly what has happened," Weiner said.

EY is not alone. Other companies are creating peer-support systems for their workers.

"We have increased our EAP utilization and have decreased our sick leave, both short and long term, related to mental health cases," said Lyne Wilson, assistant vice president for talent management at Nav Canada, a not-for-profit corporation that runs Canada's civil air navigation system. "There are employees who are at work today who [otherwise] would have gone out on sick leave, and we were able to prevent that."

Another Source of Support

Stéphane Grenier had served in the Canadian army for 29 years and was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression when a colleague's offer to talk opened the floodgates of inspiration. Grenier is founder of Ottawa, Ontario-based consultancy Mental Health Innovations (MHI) and a past member of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Peer support at the worksite can help with issues that are no less debilitating just because they're common. "When you are getting a divorce, you are struggling emotionally. That is a mental health challenge," Grenier said.

As helpful as peer support can be, however, it should be considered part of an overall mental health benefits package that includes clinical expertise, he pointed out.

In the past two decades, large employers in the United States and Canada have "availed themselves of good employee assistance programs," Grenier said. Peer support "fast-tracks employees into the hands of care providers when they need it to ensure they get the best support available."

The problem is, he added, "people do not recover in their clinicians' office." In addition to health care and counseling with a professional therapist, "the third leg is to actually support people through the recovery process."

Nav Canada, an MHI client, launched a peer-support program called Light the Way in 2012. EY began its program, originally called r u ok?, in 2016. Other organizations contemplating peer support might look to these employers and their programs for best practices.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Employee Assistance Programs]

A Wider Scope

About a year ago, EY expanded its peer-support program beyond addiction and clinically designated mental illness (such as depression and anxiety) to cover emotional challenges, and it rebranded the program as We Care, Weiner said.

"We saw the rebranding as an opportunity to broaden the scope, and so we talk about issues like sleep, relationships and challenges that come up in the workplace." Weiner said the effort led to a 45 percent increase in calls to the EAP.

"That's a good thing," he said. "It doesn't mean there are more issues; it means people are more comfortable getting care."

Employers can customize the peer-support approach to fit their culture. In Nav Canada's case, trained employees who have gone through similar challenges provide support either in person or through a variety of communication technologies, Wilson said. The Nav Canada intranet includes contact and biographical information on each of the company's peer supporters.

"The description of their experience is written in their own words―whether they went through a marriage breakdown, child custody issues or whatever they dealt with," Wilson noted. "They struggled through that period of time, but they made it through and things are better for them."

Someone going through something similar can text or e-mail a supporter or, if they are in the same building, "just talk over coffee, and the peer supporter may just listen or may refer them to the EAP or a clinical professional, depending on the situation," Wilson explained.

At EY, employees companywide are trained to recognize when a colleague might be dealing with an emotional or mental health issue, and they are encouraged to act, such as by telling the colleague how the EAP can help, Weiner said.

He recognized that some might regard such action as "intrusive" and emphasized that peer supporters are instructed to be respectful.

Nav Canada convenes its 50 peer-support volunteers, divided into seven regions nationwide, at its Cornwall, Ontario, training center for a couple days every year to teach effective ways to reach out to colleagues and what is and isn't appropriate.

Worth the Cost

Annual costs for a company of 2,000 to contract with MHI to launch a peer-support program amounts to "a middle manager's salary," Grenier said.

Calculating whether a peer-support program is worth the cost is not an easy dollars-and-cents equation, however.

"I know [return on investment] comes up," Weiner said. "What's most important to me is that people are using the services. If people are getting help through the employee assistance program, that means they are getting help proactively before there is a very serious issue."

"You don't know what you're preventing," Wilson said. "It is an investment in creating a healthy [and] an engaged workforce."

"Anyone can implement this kind of program," Weiner added. "This is all on a voluntary basis; employees do this because they want to. The size of the program may be smaller at a smaller company, but anyone can do it."

Greg Goth is a freelance health and technology writer based in Oakville, Conn.

Related SHRM Articles:

Overcoming Stigma Around Mental Health Services, SHRM Online, March 2016

Mental Health Support Begins by Recognizing the Need, SHRM Online, December 2016

Prepare for More Scrutiny of Mental Health Benefits, SHRM Online, July 2017


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