Peer Support and Mental Health

What is Peer Support?

Given the positive and collaborative relationships amongst peers in the workplace, peers are often the first to notice changes in their colleagues when things aren’t going so well. Peer or co-worker relationships are important! The surge of mental health training uptake in theworkplace shows the increasing awareness of the importance of being able to identify and effectively respond to an employee that may be presenting with
a mental health issue at work.

This has been of great importance when we consider the following stats around the prevalence of mental health issues in the Australian population:
• 1 in 5 Australians will suffer from depression.
• Almost half the Australian population will experience a mental health concern.
• 2 days sick leave per working Australian is attributable to untreated mental health issues (SANE Australia).
• 62% of people with depression don’t seek treatment or intervention (Lawyers Weekly 2005).
• 25% of workers take time off each year for stress related issues. (Charted Secretaries Australia Media Release 12 April 2012).

Whilst there is an increasing awareness of mental health issues and its prevalence at work, employees are still unlikely to come forward and acknowledge that they may be suffering. There is still some residual stigma attached to an employee admitting to their manager or HR that they may be struggling, whereas this may become known when a performance or conduct issue is presented at work.

Positive Relationships

As a peer, fostering positive relationships with colleagues is key to promoting a healthy work environment. Healthy work environments are characterised by collaboration, consultation, and acceptance of individual contributions to the overall team goals. It is unrealistic to suggest that colleagues can be close friends, however, forming professional collegiate relationships where everyone is working to a common goal is known to foster team harmony and therefore improve overall morale and effectiveness at work. Another key outcome of positive relationships is for peers to understand what standard and normal behaviour with the colleague is. This means that by knowing normal habits, stressors, and reactions to events, colleagues can react and respond in predictable and known ways.

Early Identification

Given the positive collaborative relationships amongst peers in the workplace, and the proximity of their work requirements, peers are often the first to
notice changes in their colleagues when things aren’t going so well. A peer trends notice the early warning signs in the colleagues in the following areas:

• Physical signs such as appetite, sleep, health concerns

• Changes to mood such as being reactive, angry, or distressed

• Irrational and reactive though processes

• Changes to behaviour, such as social withdrawal

• Changes to performance and conduct, such as becoming unreliable

Too often a colleague will notice these subtle changes to their colleague, however the fear of saying the wrong thing means that the peer won’t say anything at all, and workplace relationships become strained.

Taking Action

If any changes are noticed in a colleague over a period, even as short as two weeks, there is a responsibility to ask, “Are you ok?” By showing concern and that you have noticed changes, the colleague may feel relief in the ability to be able to open and discuss what may be going on for them in this space. Listening is key for understanding what is happening and how support can be offered. A peer can offer a friendly ear and support by listening without judgement and acknowledging the difficulty of the situation. Beyond this it is important to refer off for professional assistance where appropriate.
Recommending bringing in additional support, such as a manager or HR or EAP, is important to facilitate a structured support and recovery for an employee.

Next Steps

Peers staying connected with a colleague is key to demonstrating support and assisting in the recovery of the colleague with a mental health issue. This
involves regularly checking in and having a supportive ear. It does not involve bearing the brunt of the colleague’s workload or covering up any issues that may be present at work. Maintaining clear boundaries whilst providing an ongoing supportive relationship aid in the colleague staying on track at work.

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