Peer support and mental health

Given the positive 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. DEBRA BRODOWSKI highlights the importance of peer relationships.

The surge of mental health training uptake in the workplace shows the increasing awareness of the importance to be 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 stressrelated 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 from a diagnosable clinical condition. There is still some residual stigma attached to an employee admitting to their manager or HR that they may be struggling, whereby this may become known when a performance or conduct issue is presented at work.

The research of Dr Peter Cotton shows us that management support, in the form of a supportive leadership style is key to buffering the potential effects of a mental health issue present for an employee, as well as supporting a recovery from a clinical diagnosis. Dr Cotton’s research also tells us that another key avenue for recovery in this space from a workplace perspectiveis that of peer support.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians recently released a consensus statement on the health benefits for work. In this consensus statement, it is noted that “work is generally good for health and wellbeing” and promotes safe work practises for employees for the purposes of promoting individual health, wellbeing, and productivity. Given that there are known health benefits for work, and that like manager support, peer support is a key element for an employee to feel supported and therefore to facilitate recovery, there are steps that an employee can take to support their colleague in this space.

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 are able to 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 have an understanding of what is considered to be standard and normal behaviour with the colleague. This means that by knowing normal habits, stressors, and reactions to events, colleagues are able to react and respond in predictable and known ways.

Early Identification

Given the positive collaborative relationships amongst peers in the workplace, and the close 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 tends notice the early warning signs in the colleague 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 of time, 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 up 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 is able to 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 to bring in additional support, such as a manager or HR, 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 aids in the colleague staying on track at work.

Contact us for more information on how to foster positive peer relationships.