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Book excerpt: Peer Support Fundamentals: Ask, Listen, Encourage, Follow-up

Peer support can decrease the unnecessary suffering of coworkers and give the peer supporter a greater sense of purpose

Peer Support by Brian Casey.jpg
Peer Support by Brian Casey.jpg

This hands-on workbook covers the principles, basic knowledge and essential peer support skills needed to best support coworkers in mental and emotional distress.

What is Peer Support?

Peer support, as with a trusted friend or neighbor, is someone able and willing to confidentially offer support. Peer support can take place between any two people or members of a group, but because the term is generally associated with the workplace, I will refer to them as coworkers. Peer support team members are a group of specially trained coworkers who offer support and are knowledgeable about resources. They are intentionally not a professional counselor or therapist.

Peer support team members are uniquely qualified because they often understand the stressors of the workplace and demands of the work, and may have had similar experiences on or off the job. Well-trained and skilled peer support teams can elevate a workgroup’s expectation of well-being. Peer support is the wellness workforce multiplier.

Peer support can be early intervention. With forethought, we can often better plan for, respond to, and prevent unnecessary distress, and in some cases, a crisis. Peer support team members are trained to recognize the limits of their role and refer as appropriate to a higher level of support, intervention, or care. While peer support can be utilized to respond to coworkers after a crisis, its primary function is more ordinary as in everyday interactions or encouragement.

A formal peer support team is part of a worker-centric peer support program that is intended to augment existing resources such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) and internal or external professional psychological services. Informal peer support likely already exists at your workplace. It is not my role to grant or deny your workplace peer support. The intention of “Peer Support Fundamentals” is to advance your understanding and develop your skills in effective peer support.

Collective Healing and Protection

Mammals gather and humans talk. Injured or threatened mammals, especially herd animals tend to gather. Humans, which are mammals, additionally benefit from talking about their distress with those they trust. Gathering and talking can be both healing and a communal protective factor. So, I believe it is fair to say, there are both healing and protective benefits to peer support. There is nothing new here. These are ancient practices that can be summarized by what David Grossman has said, “Pain shared is pain divided; joy shared is joy multiplied.”

There is a part of growth and healing, recovery from harm, that is individual and personal, and there is a part that is communal. Experience makes us not better than others, but better for others. As a group, we are not as strong as our weakest link, we are as strong as whoever is paying attention and ready to help.

Please take what I say and compare it to what you know, your observations, your experience, and your study. Make your clarifications, and ask your questions. Sometimes we defer too readily to unwise experts when we are the experts. What I love most about peer support is that it is provided by so-called non-experts or amateurs. People on the factory floor. Simple coworkers.

To build and maintain trust with coworkers, I think it is a good idea to honor their suspicions, even stigma, around mental health issues. It makes sense that a person might be reluctant to talk openly about their distress. At the same time, peer support can provide them with the ease of talking to someone without them writing anything down, without an appointment or record of the meeting.

This is our domain, our important work to do.

Informal Peer Support

Many workplaces already have informal peer support, meaning coworkers have been watching out for each other, both effectively and ineffectively, for a long time. We do not want to replace a sense of responsibility to watch out for each other but instead add to it. At the same time, people who offer good listening and good counsel (practical advice) must know the limits of their ability, such as when a coworker wants or needs professional psychological help.

Peer support can provide what a person in distress needs the most.

  • Someone they recognize and trust.
  • Someone they do not have to explain the job to.
  • Someone whose core message is, “You are not alone.

Coworkers may automatically qualify as someone recognized, but their trustworthiness precedes them. As peers, there is theoretically not a hierarchy, unlike a manager or even a therapist.

The message “You are not alone” is powerful. Peer support is being a trusted friend and support to a coworker in mental or emotional distress. It is not about treating people, like a doctor or therapist provides treatment to those suffering with mental health problems or disorders, but it can mean being with them in their distress.

Peer support is not therapy, but it can be therapeutic. And therapy is not peer support. Peer support is something of its own domain. So, it’s okay that we do this work as non-professionals, as long as we know our limits. We can do peer support because we are peers. And with some training and access to resources, we are a workforce wellness multiplier.

Formal Peer Support Team

Formal peer support is provided by selected and trained members of an organized peer support team. They specialize in the daily troubles of distressed coworkers. Most issues can be managed at the lowest level, meeting people where they are, closest to the action. This is not completely dissimilar to when factory line workers are given the authority to improve a product or fix problems that appear before them. Supplied with a set of guiding principles, tools, resources and the authority to use them, groups can fix many of their own problems.

Effective peer support is peer-driven, worker-centric, and provided by non-professionals. Peer support is intentionally outside the formal management structure and needs to be free of the control of therapists, lawyers, managers and administrators. Peers can benefit from the support of management and administrative staff, and the advice, insight, and resources of mental health professionals, but they may have conflicting agendas and cannot function as true peers. In most applications, peer support is a voluntary role. Volunteer means you do it willingly. Peer support is an additive process, where peer support team members seek out opportunities to provide support, and the whole workgroup elevates its expectation of well-being. Distressed coworkers feel encouraged to reach out for help.

We can know that the fundamentals of peer support are not complex and is within reach of all workers. Demonstrating trustworthiness and willingness to help are unquestionably good human qualities that we can seek whether part of an organized peer team or not.

About the Workbook

This hands-on peer support and wellness workbook gives you the principles, basic knowledge and essential skills needed to best support coworkers in mental and emotional distress. Each chapter includes powerful and engaging activities that can be used individually or as a group process to explore, reinforce and deepen understanding of the concepts presented in the book. “Peer Support Fundamentals” can be an economical and practical tool for initial or ongoing peer support training that locks in learning while providing relevance to your unique workplace.

Peers are uniquely qualified because they often understand the stressors of the workplace and demands of the work, and may have shared experiences on or off the job. Well-trained and skilled peer support teams can elevate a workgroup’s expectation of well-being and act as a wellness workforce multiplier.

About the author

Brian Casey is an author, health educator and active police sergeant. He has a degree in Health Education from the University of Minnesota and over 35 years of experience working as a paramedic, EMS educator and police officer. His skills include developing peer support teams, building and maintaining trust with public safety workers, and promoting mental and emotional well-being. He is also the author of “Ambulance Man: A Memoir” and “Good Cop, Good Cop: A Get Healthy, Stay Healthy Guide for Law Enforcement.” For more information, visit