Is Peer Support Worth It?

Psychotherapist BEN PORTER highlights some of the opportunities and pitfalls of peer support in the development and humanitarian sector.

I have been part of very effective peer support programmes and enjoyed my peer support role.  In this programme [different organisation] it’s not working. We have too much inter-ethnic tension in my office and the programme feels like a token add-on”

Aid Worker

Is peer support worth it? My answer is….it depends.  I’ve seen peer support be a life-line to staff, and I’ve seen peer support programmes flop. In this blog, I’ll highlight some of the opportunities as well as pitfalls of peer support in the development and humanitarian sector.

To begin with, there is little consensus on what peer support is and what it can do.  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as each peer support programme will need to be shaped according to the organisation and context.  Broadly speaking, peer support is a non-hierarchical and reciprocal form of support between people or groups in similar circumstances. It can be structured/formal or unstructured/informal and as simple or complex as required.  Done well, peer support has the ability to reach all parts of an organisation in building social capital and maintaining wellbeing, rather than treating illness or dysfunction.

In a major staff care review (2013) of over 1,500 staff of the UNHCR, peer support was identified as the programme that staff “rely on most heavily during times of distress.”

However, incorrect assumptions and expectations about a peer support programme leads to confusion and dissatisfaction with outcomes.  Peer support isn’t a substitute for a staff care plan, it’s a part of a staff care plan. Peer support doesn’t take over key Human Resource practices such as training and enforcing organisational policy (ie safeguarding, employee conduct, case management).  By its very nature, peer support isn’t something that can be “outsourced”, it must be owned and driven internally, even if there are external experts and peer supervisors inputting into the programme.

Peer support may be as simple as establishing a buddy system or as complicated as using highly trained peer supporters in complex critical incident response mechanisms, or running support groups.  For example, some organisations have newly recruited staff assigned (buddy) to a more experienced staff during induction, while other organisations use peer support specialists with 6-months of training from the Centre for Humanitarian Psychology.  Knowing your organisation’s psychosocial needs, what to expect from a peer support programme, and realistically assessing the buy-in are the first questions to ask if you are considering a peer support programme.

The size of your organisation, the type of work you do, the socio-political context and accessibility to medical and social services, all go into the equation for determining what your programme may look like. 

Staff care in the development and humanitarian space can be likened to the mental health and wellbeing of the populations we serve.  The Inter Agency Standing Committee on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support guidelines recommends a layered system of complimentary supports. 

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to peer support.  And this is why Thrive Worldwide spends time learning your organisations needs, strengths and capacities in designing and implementing peer support systems.  Having worked with several organisations in the planning, training & supervision, and evaluation of peer support programmes, we are happy to discuss the “menu” of activities that best suits your situation.  Get in touch if you would like to explore a peer support programme for your organisation:

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