Peer support and human connection – valuable in stressful times
15 June 2022
Peer support is when people use their own experiences to help each other. Peer support aims to:
- bring together people with shared experiences to support each other
- provide a space where those involved feel accepted and understood
- treat everyone's experiences as equally important.
Peer support is very valuable to ensure the wellbeing of doctors and medical students and to enhance collaborative effort and teamwork. Human wellbeing is not achieved alone; our psychological health is grounded in attachment to and acceptance by others. Human connections are especially critical for addressing the effects of stress, anxiety, burnout, and other forms of workplace distress. Rather than just focusing on self-care, we need to be better at taking care of each other. When groups frame distress or adversity as a collective rather than an individual’s problem, the resulting communal coping strategies bolster genuine connection and better recovery. When connections are strengthened and groups work together to address adversity, they combine their physical and intellectual resources for a better outcome.
Peer support is valuable in a variety of situations in medicine:
- when working in a challenging environment, for example dealing with aggression and violence or constant under-resourcing.
- when going through the pressures associated with training, assessment and exams.
- when dealing with an adverse event including medical error to facilitate reflection and review
- to debrief after an incident in the workplace such as a code
- when dealing with situations involving moral distress or ethical dilemmas.
Peer support provides an opportunity to discuss emotional impact and receive acceptance and compassion to help disperse emotions. It is also more acceptable to doctors and medical students as there is less stigma in seeking peer support.
Key aspects of peer support which make it effective include:
- a common understanding of the background to a situation.
- good listening skills, notably curiosity about what the other person is saying.
- gentle probing rather than interrogation.
- non-judgmental acceptance which does not superimpose your own interpretation, experience or values.
- viewing each other respectfully and with compassion and empathy.
- confidentiality (provided there is no risk of harm).
- focusing on empowerment rather than providing advice or a quick fix.
- clear boundaries to ensure a peer support model rather than supervision, mentoring, counselling or therapy.
Peer support can be offered in a variety of formats. It may be over the telephone, including a one-off call to discuss a particular issue with a peer supporter, it may be a one-on-one ongoing connection either over the telephone or using an online platform or it may be a group activity. Some services carefully match peers and in other situations peers come together spontaneously. There is no right or wrong model as along as those involved feel safe and supported.
The pressure faced by all healthcare workers, including doctors and medical students, is intense and ongoing. Support from colleagues and sharing the burden through authentic connection with peers is an important strategy for wellbeing.
Further reading and resources
- Peer Support | AMA Victoria
- PPE for your mind: a peer support initiative for health care workers | The Medical Journal of Australia
- Hand-n-Hand Peer Support | handnhand.org.au
- Peer Support for Clinicians: A Programmatic Approach | Academic Medicine (lww.com)
- Van, Pelt F. 'Peer support: healthcare professionals supporting each other after adverse medical events'. BMJ Quality & Safety 2008;17:249-252.
- Stop Framing Wellness Programs Around Self-Care | Harvard Business Review