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Rethinking Corporate Wellness: The Power of Peer Support Programs in Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)

In today's fast-paced work environment, the mental health and overall wellness of employees often take a backseat. This leads to disengagement, absenteeism, and turnover. The traditional response to workplace trauma has typically been critical incident stress debriefing and group counselling within an EAP. But is this approach truly helping, or is it causing more harm than good?

Recent evidence suggests that not only are such interventions unhelpful, but they may do more harm than good. A Cochrane Collaboration determined there was no evidence that psychological debriefing is effective. It concluded that compulsory debriefing of trauma victims should not be undertaken, stating “there is little evidence to support the use of psychological intervention for routine use following traumatic events.”

In addition, it concluded psychological debriefing may actually cause adverse effects. McNally et al (2003) echoes this concern and states there is no convincing evidence psychological debriefing works and that studies of “individualised debriefing and comparative, non-randomised studies of group debriefing have failed to confirm the method’s efficacy. Some evidence suggests that it may impede natural recovery. For scientific and ethical reasons, professionals should cease compulsory debriefing of trauma-exposed people.”

The American Psychological Association has also weighed in and describes psychological debriefing as having no research support and as potentially harmful. This raises a critical question about the current state of corporate health and the role of traditional EAPs.

So, if critical incident debriefing isn't the answer, what alternatives should companies explore to manage traumatic events and enhance corporate wellness? How can we reimagine EAPs to better serve the needs of today's workforce?

The Rise of Peer Support Programs (PSP) in EAP

The concept of peer support originated in emergency services and critical incident response. PSPs are managed by trained 'lay people', offering an affordable, immediate, and effective solution for resolving minor incidents. Infusing the EAPs with such a program can significantly bolster a company's wellness strategy.

PSPs have demonstrated their ability to mitigate organisational psychological health-related behaviours such as disengagement, absenteeism, and intentions to leave the organisation (Whybrow, Jones, & Greenberg, 2015). This shows that EAPs enhanced with PSPs can become a powerful tool for promoting wellness in the workplace.


Implementing a Peer Support Program in EAP

Before launching a Peer Support Program as part of the EAP, an organisation needs to train its employees on how to assist peers who have experienced a traumatic incident. Peer Support Members (PSMs) are employees trained in Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) and basic crisis intervention techniques.

They provide support in a confidential, non-judgmental manner, assisting others by listening, validating their thoughts and emotions about overwhelming incidents or traumas, and imparting positive stress management techniques. This approach, integrated into the EAP, can effectively enhance workplace wellness.


The Benefits of a Peer Support Program within EAP

The benefits of a PSP are well-documented and have become a staple in emergency services, NGOs, media organisations, and other high-risk organisations contributing to the overall wellness of the organisation. Benefits include:


1. Improved employee mental health

PSPs offer immediate, empathetic support to employees going through personal or professional issues. By addressing these issues early on, PSPs can help mitigate the impact of stress and mental health challenges, promoting overall emotional wellness.


2. Increased employee engagement

When employees feel supported and valued, they are more likely to be engaged in their work. A PSP within the EAP can foster a supportive work environment that encourages employee wellbeing, engagement and productivity.


3. Reduced absenteeism and turnover

Employees are less likely to take time off due to stress or burnout when they have access to a support system like a PSP. This can also impact employee turnover rates, as employees who feel supported are more likely to stay with the organisation, contributing to a stable and healthy work environment.


4. Strengthened organisational culture

PSPs can help cultivate an organisational culture of empathy and support. This culture shift can enhance employee morale, collaboration, and overall wellness.


5. Cost-effectiveness

Compared to external mental health services, peer support can be a cost-effective solution for organisations. Integrating it into the existing EAP can provide a low-cost enhancement that yields significant benefits for employee wellbeing.


6. Enhanced EAP utilisation

Employees may feel more comfortable reaching out to a peer than a professional counsellor, especially for minor issues or initial conversations. This can lead to increased usage of the EAP, ensuring more employees benefit from its resources.


7. Resiliency building

PSPs can help employees develop coping strategies and resilience, which are crucial for managing stress and bouncing back from adversity. This can benefit individual employees and the organisation as a whole, contributing to a resilient and wellness-focused work environment.

By integrating PSPs into the existing EAP, companies can create a more robust and effective support system for their employees, leading to a healthier, more engaged, and more productive workforce.

Though even the most comprehensive and considered peer-support programme should not replace or resemble your organisation’s professional or HR support strategy, a Peer Support Programme can help companies across various different sectors in encouraging and enabling staff to support each other. Peer support is not counselling or therapy; it is a type of psychological first aid. It can complement and enhance these systems within the EAP, encouraging and enabling staff to support each other and promote wellness.


Key Elements of a PSP Training Program within EAP

A comprehensive PSP training program should cover a number of aspects to ensure it contributes effectively to the EAP and corporate wellness program strategy. Here is an FAQ section on those aspects:


Q1. What is a PSP, and how does it differ from professional counseling?

A: A PSP (Peer Support Program) is a form of support provided by peers within the workplace. It differs from professional counseling in that it involves colleagues offering assistance and a listening ear to their peers. It is not a substitute for professional counseling but complements it within the EAP (Employee Assistance Program).


Q2. Why is confidentiality important in PSPs?

A: Confidentiality is crucial in PSPs because it builds trust and encourages employees to seek help. Peer Support Members (PSMs) must respect the privacy of their peers to create a safe environment for sharing.


Q3. How can PSMs create an appropriate setting for peer support?

A: PSMs should be trained to arrange private and comfortable spaces for peer support sessions. The focus should always remain on the individual seeking help.


Q4. What crisis intervention techniques should PSMs be familiar with?

A: PSMs should receive training in basic crisis intervention techniques to help diffuse immediate crises and stabilize situations.


Q5. What are active listening skills, and why are they important in PSPs?

A: Active listening involves truly hearing what the person is saying, reflecting their feelings, and confirming understanding. It helps build trust and validation in peer support relationships.


Q6. How can PSMs develop empathy?

A: Training should provide strategies for developing empathy, including perspective-taking and expressing understanding and validation.


Q7. When should PSMs recognize the need for professional help and risk assessment?

A: PSMs should be trained to recognize signs of severe distress or danger, such as suicidal ideation. They need to know when and how to escalate these situations to professional help.


Q8. When should PSMs refer peers to external resources or professionals?

A: PSMs must understand that they are not substitutes for professional help. Training should help them identify when a peer's needs exceed the scope of the PSP and the EAP, and how to refer them to external resources.


Q9. What are the mutual obligations of PSMs in peer support?

A: PSMs need to understand their obligations to the peer, the organization, and themselves. This includes maintaining personal well-being and setting boundaries to avoid compassion fatigue and burnout.


Q10. How often should PSMs maintain contact with their peers within the EAP?

A: Training should guide PSMs on appropriate follow-up frequency and methods within the EAP while respecting the peer's boundaries and wishes.


Q11. What is the value of peer support in corporate wellness?

A: Peer support offers an effective, empathetic, and immediate response to minor incidents and traumatic events, contributing to a healthier and more engaged workforce. Integrating PSPs into the existing EAP creates a robust support system for employees' mental health and overall wellness.


Q12. How can companies benefit from integrating PSPs into their EAPs?

A: Companies can provide better support for employees' mental health and wellness by integrating PSPs into their EAPs. This approach creates a more comprehensive and effective support system, enhancing overall workplace wellness.

By incorporating all these elements into a comprehensive Employee Assistance Program, businesses can ensure they are providing the best possible support for their employees' mental health and overall wellness.

The value of peer support in corporate health and wellness cannot be understated. It offers an effective, empathetic, and immediate response to minor incidents and traumatic events, contributing to a healthier and more engaged workforce. By integrating PSPs into the existing EAP, companies can create a more robust and effective support system for their employees. It's time for companies to rethink their approach to workplace wellness and consider the power and potential of peer support programs within their EAPs.


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Topics: Mental Health, Health & Wellness

John Corbett

John Corbett

Psychologist & Counselling