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Dr Jo Burrell

Ultimate Resilience

Clinical Psychologist

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Employee wellbeing: how to make peer-led staff support safe and sustainable

How HR can make peer-led wellbeing support both safe and sustainable.

With over half of working-age adults reporting that their mental health has suffered as a consequence of the Covid pandemic, levels of need for wellbeing support within the workplace are running high. Many employers are still failing, however, to capitalise on the skills of mental health first aid (MHFA) trained staff and wellbeing champions to bring meaningful wellbeing benefit across their organisations.

Staff members delivering peer support provide a hugely valuable service to colleagues, with the potential to improve the wellbeing and productivity of employees and the organisation. 

Peer-led staff support groups have the potential to offer an impactful return on investment and could also reduce the need to commission external wellbeing services.

What is peer-led staff support?

Perhaps you already have wellbeing champions established within your organisation, or staff who have an interest and expertise in mental health awareness and support. These people know your organisation; they are familiar with many of the stresses and pressures that come with working in your sector or service. As such, they are well placed to set up and facilitate a peer-led staff wellbeing initiative.  

There are all sorts of approaches to consider – mentoring, buddying, reflective practice, wellbeing groups – your staff might have their own ideas too. The initiatives likely to be the most effective, safe and sustainable, however, are those that contain certain key features:

  • Structure and process: having this clearly defined is crucial for establishing the parameters and purpose of the intervention. This creates a sense of consistency for both facilitators and participants.
  • Defined roles: this helps to form the boundaries of the intervention.
  • Consistency and clear boundaries: these are essential for creating a safe and emotionally containing space for participants.

The ten-minute pause space

This is a great example of peer-led support containing all these important features. Originally created by and for NHS staff, this group intervention can be delivered within any industry, both face-to-face and remotely.

With a focus on self-care, the ‘pause space’ creates opportunity for staff to relax, reflect and show appreciation for one another. It’s time-limited and scripted method that provides a clear structure and process. MHFA trained staff or wellbeing champions are ideal candidates to facilitate the group and guide participants through the activities that make up the pause space, which include:

  • Brief mindfulness exercise
  • Listening in pairs
  • Showing appreciation for others
  • Winding-down activity

Several versions of the pause space have now been created and scripts for each are freely available.  

Cost effective, but not free

While building peer-led initiatives into your staff wellbeing offer can be highly cost effective, they are not without resource implications. Indeed, allocating the right resources at the right time will be crucial for sustainability and success.

Staff members delivering peer support provide a hugely valuable service to colleagues, with the potential to improve the wellbeing and productivity of employees and the organisation. These results can only be achieved, however, if sufficient time and space are given to scoping out, designing, delivering and evaluating the service.

Facilitators also need to be adequately supported in their role. Without this support, they are at risk of quickly getting out of their depth and becoming emotionally overburdened. Left unchecked, this will inevitably threaten safety within the group, with potentially damaging consequences for participants.

Ideally, facilitator supervision should be provided on a consistent and regular basis by a suitably qualified mental health professional. Supervision will help facilitators to remain within the limits of their competence and expertise, and to effectively manage the emotional impact of their role. It will also support them to learn when to signpost colleagues to external services and how to address challenging issues, like conflict or risk factors, as they arise.

Making adequate resources available will need management buy-in and agreement, so explicit discussions need to occur well before any new initiative is designed or set in motion.

Pilot and evaluate

There is little point implementing a programme of staff wellbeing support without having a system in place to evaluate whether it is positively impacting staff wellbeing. Without this, you will have no idea whether your initiative is valued by staff or producing the desired results.

Start with a pilot project in which your new intervention is delivered a number of times over a defined period. Ensure evaluation data is collected that gives insights into participant experience and impact on wellbeing. You could consider using a standardised measure of wellbeing, such as the Warwick Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale. Data gathered through your evaluation can then inform any adaptations to your intervention going forward. Re-evaluating on a regular basis will ensure that the initiative is fit for purpose and producing positive results for your staff.

Taking the first steps

Forming a working party including MHFA trained staff and wellbeing champions is a good place to begin the planning process. Scoping out staff need and interest by carrying out a brief online survey will allow you to personalise the intervention. Asking what types of peer-led support your employees would find most useful will enable you to understand your audience and meet them where they are, by adopting their language around wellbeing. Once you have gathered this data, the next step is to set out a clear process for implementation: design, deliver, evaluate, adapt.

Remember, the ultimate goal is not to achieve wellbeing perfection; rather, it is to offer meaningful, lasting support that will help staff to manage and grow through challenge and change.

Interested in this topic? Read Mindfulness: motivating a workforce under pressure with employee-led wellbeing.

Author Profile Picture
Dr Jo Burrell

Clinical Psychologist

Read more from Dr Jo Burrell

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