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A helping hand: Why your organisation or movement needs wellbeing peer supporters

A just and equitable world where communities and ecosystems can thrive is possible. But social injustice, democratic backsliding, and the climate crisis threaten us all. The courageous people and communities daring to speak out face attacks and reprisals from powerful vested interests.

The constant threat of physical, digital, or psychological harm means that poor wellbeing and resilience is a very real danger among activists and advocates, particularly those working in closed civic spaces or violent environments. In a 2015 study, 74% of the human rights defenders surveyed reported experiencing physical symptoms due to burnout and 83% reported experiencing emotional exhaustion.

The impacts of this transcend our work, rippling out to create fear and anxiety in our daily lives, for our families, and within our communities. Collectively, poor wellbeing can undermine the effectiveness and sustainability of organisations and movements. This makes poor wellbeing a key concern that we need to address now!

What is a peer supporter?

One of the best ways we can help is by expanding the use of peer supporters within our organisations and movements. These are individuals trained to take on an informal welfare role in addition to their usual responsibilities. Having a designated peer supporter in place can be an efficient and effective means of promoting individual and collective resilience.

Through training, peer supporters are equipped to:

  1. Provide an empathetic and confidential environment where colleagues can talk about workplace stress or personal circumstances that are impacting their wellbeing.
  2. Champion an organisational culture that values wellbeing and resilience.
  3. Create a positive work environment by identifying and, where possible, addressing work-related stressors.
  4. Offer information and support on stress reactions and positive coping strategies to individual co-workers in distress.
  5. Provide Psychological First Aid following an incident or traumatic event.

Crucially, they are also trained to know the limits of their role and when and how to signpost co-workers to professional psychological or medical support.

5 ways in which having a peer supporter can help your organisation

There are five key benefits to having a trained peer supporter within your organisation or movement:

1. Embedding peer support can destigmatise mental health by providing a space where people feel accepted and understood. Engaging a peer supporter can help promote inclusion as people are more likely to feel that their views and experiences are equally valued. No one is seen as an ‘expert’ in the relationship because there are no professional counsellors or psychologists involved. By building self-esteem and self-confidence, it can encourage individuals to be more responsive to efforts by their peer supporter to signpost to relevant professional support.

2. The empathic communication skills built through peer support can help strengthen your organisational culture. A peer supporter programme can have wider impacts on interpersonal communications and culture within your organisation. Rachel VanNice, director of finance, people, and operations at Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, shared her experiences of working with Open Briefing to implement a peer supporter training programme and the impact it’s had on her team:

“The training has enabled us to create more connections amongst our staff. We are able to coach colleagues and discuss things differently, even outside of peer support discussions. There is a new skill set within the team that has been replicable in other interactions.”

3. As a cost-effective intervention, peer supporters offer an efficient and effective tool for community care. Peer supporters provide low-intensity interventions, such as psycho-education (on stress, trauma, or self-care), to help identify and mitigate potential issues before a situation worsens and more-costly interventions are required.

4. When critical incidents occur, peer supporters can act as a bridge between colleagues and mental health professionals. Following a critical incident, a peer supporter can keep a ‘watchful eye’ on those who have been impacted and make referrals for additional support where necessary. Most people are more likely to want to connect with a peer rather than a mental health professional in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic incident. But having peer supporters available can increase the likelihood of individuals then seeking professional support in order to begin their recovery.

5. By preventing and reducing the impact of burnout, peer supporters can have a positive financial impact on your organisation. Burnout resulting from poor management of wellbeing and resilience can have a major financial impact on organisations and movements. A 2022 report published by Deloitte revealed that the cost to employers of poor mental health rose from £45 billion in 2019 to £56 billion in 2020-21. This includes the cost of absenteeism and higher staff-turnover rates. In a 2018 study of human rights defenders, 19% of those surveyed met criteria for burnout and 75% reported little support from their employers. In helping prevent and reduce the impact of burnout, a peer supporter programme can have a positive impact on an organisation’s work.

Join our 2024 peer supporter training programme

Open Briefing is excited to launch its 2024 peer supporter training programme on 12 February 2024. This remote training programme will support staff members or activists who are interested in acting as a peer supporter within their organisation or movement. (This complements our usual offer for organisations with the budget to implement a full peer support programme.)

The training will run for eight weeks and will be delivered through seven 90-minute sessions, which will take place every Wednesday and Friday. Our trainers will combine facilitated discussions, role plays, presentations, self-reflection, and experiential learning to help participants develop the relevant skills and competencies they need to champion a culture that values wellbeing and resilience.

The training will be trauma informed and will focus on de-stigmatising poor mental health and emphasising the cultural aspects of stress and self-care.

Register now to join our first cohort of 2024 peer supporters!

If you or your organisation are interested in joining this programme, please register your interest by 5 February 2024.

We are offering free places to those from movements and grassroots organisations who may otherwise lack the resources to invest in this vital training. You can request a sponsored place via our online form.

Each session will be delivered remotely and in English. We also plan to run further training programmes in Spanish and Arabic later this year. Register your interest here or sign-up to our newsletter for more information on these programmes.