A peer supporter is someone you can talk to about difficult experiences and stress at work. These talks should be commenced quickly after a critical incident, to support coping and prevent chronic issues. By sharing experiences and challenges with an experienced and like-minded person, misinterpretations can be reduced, for example the feeling of guilt. The peer supporter can help normalise emotions and reactions and suggest constructive coping strategies. Regular peer support groups can make it easier to obtain support and talk about difficult things. For emergency responders, for instance, peer support is a regular part of employee follow-up. However, this is not yet implemented by all humanitarian organisations as a standard part of personnel follow-up.
The peer supporter should have first hand knowledge about challenges inherent in the work. The employees select a respected and trusted colleague to be their peer supporter. The role of a peer supporter is to:
- Identify colleagues with stress reactions
- Support them back to health and wellbeing
- Facilitate referral to professional help when needed
A peer-support program should be a part of a humanitarian organisation’s OH&S-routines. Such a program involves routines for training as well as identification of colleagues that need support. Peer support is based on the principle of peer-to-peer equality. This can be informal, for example when two colleagues in a team agree to look after each other (as in a buddy system). Peer support can also occur in groups, for example when a team is gathered for after action review (AAR) following a critical incident.
The peer supporters get training in crisis support skills (active listening, psychological first aid) before commencing their role, and further undergo regular education, guidance and evaluation. While they are bound by confidentiality, appropriate disclosure can be used for expert help and/or further referral as necessary. The humanitarian organisation should ensure that the peer supporters have easy access to professional psychosocial support.