Organisations are becoming increasingly aware of the important role workplace cultures can have on both the well being and effectiveness of their employees. It is well recognised that a positive connection between employees and the broader organisation increases productivity and creativity 11.
One way of achieving positive employee relations is to create a culture which embraces and encourages connections.
Creating cultural change which is responsive to the varied needs of employees, which embraces diversity and which champions strengths, can enhance employee performance and minimise organisational risks.
There has been growing popularity of the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course as the primary model of addressing needs around workplace mental health. Research shows that it improves general mental health literacy and responsiveness.
Mental Health First Aiders alone cannot develop positive mental health cultures, nor minimise risks and provide adequate controls to ensure obligations around psychological safety, non-discrimination and privacy are met. MHFA can provide one element of a multi-modal workplace strategy but should not be relied upon alone to create a positive, inclusive and productive workplace culture.
One approach to creating inclusive and responsive cultures is through Peer Support programs.
Two common examples of Peer Support programs are:
- Peer Workers: working in mental health services (i.e. people with lived experience supporting the recovery of service users with mental health issues); or
- Peer Support Officers: employees in workplaces (especially in high-risk industries/ roles) who are trained to assist others needing support.
Peer Support Officers in workplaces can be effective however some criticism of this model highlights the risk that the outcomes of the support are dependent on the individual skills, well being, boundaries, social acceptance and connections of the individual Peer Supporter.
Empirical research on Peer Support programs in general workplaces is limited. There is a lot of research focussed on first responder and military organisations, as would be expected, given the high risk of exposure to psychological distress inherent within these industries. Although the needs in these sectors exceed what more conventional organisations will face, the lessons learned in these organisations can inform the development of appropriate programs for a wide range of sectors.
What is clear from the research is that although there are both benefits and limitations to a model of Peer Support Officers there is now movement towards developing Cultures of Peer Support as a stronger and more sustainable alternative.
The benefits of developing a Culture of Peer Support are many and varied.
- Build the capacity within the organisation to reduce future risks and increase current responsiveness to mental well being;
- Create a culture of ‘this is how we do things around here’ thus organisations are not dependent on a limited number of individuals, but rather all employees are empowered to take action;
- Embed proactive processes in all levels of decision making, planning, strategy and implementation, so that the organisation is focused on the well being of all rather than addressing an isolated incident of crisis or risk;
- Establish clear boundaries regarding the purpose of the peer support and encourage all employees to be responsible for a collective approach in identifying risks and creating solutions – not just the peer support worker;
- Help to balance the employee’s job role with the peer support they provide so that they do not become a quasi-mental health worker; and
- Create peer support ‘mutuality’ which ensures that the diversity of the workforce is reflected and all employees feel they have someone to approach with whom they identify.
The Culture of Peer Support is driven by individuals, but not wholly dependent on individuals. Rather it is a collective, holistic approach.
How to create a Culture of Peer Support?
In order to develop a culture of peer support, training of individuals is still key. However, beyond training, i there needs to be mechanisms which will increase the transfer of new knowledge and skills into individual and collective behaviours.
It should be noted that supervisor support is an important factor in the transfer of learned skills from a training environment into a workplace environment. Interestingly, support from peers is an even greater influence on the transfer of skills from training into practice2 2.
Some key elements 33 to creating a culture of peer support are:
- Training employees to help enhance a culture of psychological safety, within clear guidelines. Having clearly defined goals, boundaries and pathways to support.
- The goal is not for trained employees to deliver mental health interventions, but to facilitate help-seeking.
- The goal is to connect with any distressed employees and connect them with appropriate professional support.
- The trained employee should not focus only on crisis but also on promotion and prevention activities.
- Clearly defined selection process:
- Application process and accreditation process to ensure those selected to help enhance the culture of positive psychological well being have the suitable skills.
- Equip a range of individuals with the skills and knowledge required, who will then develop this in their peers:
- Not dependent just on a few individuals, but a wide range of people who will be relatable across a diverse workforce.
- Support for all employees trained in the role:
- Ongoing development opportunities to increase and maintain skills, to reflect on practice and to review future needs.
The Mental Health Champions Program was developed to address the short-comings of other Peer Support models.
It has been designed to meet the complex needs of organisations through building capacity to enhance both proactive and responsive mental wellbeing.
The program includes:
- A Mental Health Awareness Audit – a review of policies and procedures and surveys for leaders Photo: Piscilla Du Preez unsplash 10 and employees in order to develop clear and realistic recommendations for improvement specific to your organisation;
- Executive Briefing Session to ensure your Executive can support the implementation of Champions across the organisation;
- Assisting your organisation to identify appropriate Champions from across all levels of the organisation (includes recruitment and assessment support);
- 5-day education program for Champions (including Mental Health First Aid, Leading Positively through Change, Mental Health for Leaders intensive and employee Mental Health awareness program).
Your Champions will have access to the following resources:
- Communication toolkit to develop awareness and skills in your organisation, consisting of posters, articles for intranet, newsletters and Toolbox conversation sessions;
- Champions quarterly MasterClass for ongoing professional development (4 per year of the program);
- Online Champions Vault of resources (Facilitator videos and activities for Champions to deliver education sessions to their colleagues);
- Online Employee Vault of resources (videos, articles, ebooks, short lessons they can subscribe to, to improve their own mental wellbeing & better support others, Workplace Mental Health for Leaders online course, It’s Time to Bloom online course).
Your Champions will be equipped to facilitate the Mental Health for Leaders intensive and the employee Mental Health awareness sessions within your organisation. Thereby building capacity across the organisation to appropriately recognise and respond to mental health issues. Through a combination of programs and resources your Champions will be able to develop and facilitate a supportive, inclusive, productive workplace culture to create a positive connection between each employee and the organisation as a whole.
This program will enable your organisation to meet your obligations around workplace psychological safety and to enhance positive well being.
- Achor, S, 2010, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, viewed 30/8/2015
- Chauhan, R., Ghosh, P., Rai, A., & Shukla, D. (2016). The impact of support at the workplace on transfer of training: a study of an Indian manufacturing unit. International Journal of Training and Development, 20(3), 200-213.
- Creamer, M. C., Varker, T., Bisson, J., Darte, K., Greenberg, N., Lau, W., … & Watson, P. (2012). Guidelines for peer support in high‐risk organizations: An international consensus study using the delphi method. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 25(2), 134-141.
- Pilgrim, D. (2017). Key Concepts in Mental Health (4th ed.). London: Sage