hands holding other hands
hands holding other hands

When a union is a workplace stakeholder, opportunities for creative health protection programs can improve, especially when the union plays a key role in the employee’s work life.

What is a Peer Support Program?

A Peer Support Program offers personalized assistance to individuals dealing with serious or persistent mental illness provided by trained peer support workers. These workers offer one-on-one support, sharing insights and information on mental health and addiction, aiding in goal achievement and skill development, and connecting individuals with community resources.

The Example of Firefighters Peer Support Program

Earlier this month I was privileged to participate in a creative initiative of the International Association of Fire Firefighters (IAFF). The association has been working towards mental health protection for its members for many years.

Firefighters have a high risk for mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with occurrence rates of almost 10 times other occupations (10% instead of 1.3% in the general population). The risk of developing PTSD is reduced by building resiliency and social support. Despite the high risk of trauma exposure for firefighters and the knowledge about resiliency building being protective, a recent survey among British Columbia firefighters revealed that 76% had no mental health resiliency training or orientation during their firefighter training. This is a menacing scenario that hinders members from getting the help they need for building resilience and supporting fellow workers to get help.

To address this gap, the IAFF launched a Peer Support Training Program across North America. The program trains firefighters to support co-workers and help them get the mental health treatment they need. The goal is to have peer support available on every shift in every fire station. The peers learn to recognize mental health distress, assess for crisis, and create an action plan with a firefighter who needs help.

Lorne West, District VP of IAFF in Western Canada, said it best:

“Emergency services, and unions generally tend to be a pretty close knit family. In the Fire Service we have a bond like few others, from working together in difficult and trying circumstances. As much as that should create a culture that allows us to lean on each other in times of need, it can prevent us from doing so, for fear of not looking strong enough for the others that rely on us in those emergencies. I think we are working within that paradigm to build a new narrative. We have begun a conversation within, that we hope will allow us to lean on the strengths of our organization and work we do, with each other. People in our work are doers, we can’t wait for others to take on this role, we need to and we are, stepping up in developing programs that will deal with mental health through peer support.  Programs that are providing firefighters with the tools they need to respond to their own needs, when that crisis hits, and in time, before it hits.”

This program is a creative response to a serious need within the firefighter workplace.

Peer support for mental health has been successful in many workplaces. Maybe peer support programs could work for your organization? Be creative and consider a unique solution like peer support to improve the mental health protection of your workforce. You may like our mental health workshop.

Diana Vissers is the Founder and Director of Corporate Services at Work to Wellness Rehabilitation Inc. – a Canadian company providing expert disability management services to Canadian customers. She is in the business of making your place of business healthy, safe and productive. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter for the latest news and updates on health, wellness and integrated disability management.