Responding to the Need for Workplace Peer Support

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By Mary Ellen Gornick

Mary Ellen Gornick

It is estimated that 970 million people worldwide have a mental health or substance abuse disorder. Depression and anxiety disorders alone cost the global economy an estimated $1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Around the world, employers are responding to this growing workforce challenge by implementing wellbeing programs and providing employees access to professional emotional wellbeing support, traditionally through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefit.

Along this line, worker wellbeing champions in several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, are sharing the benefits of training employees to provide on-site peer support when a co-worker seems distressed. The concept has grown so popular in the United Kingdom, that earlier this year Parliament debated whether employers should be required to have a trained mental health first-aider on site.

There are several reasons why having employees trained in recognizing co-worker distress can be advantageous:

  • Work peers can often be the first ones to recognize symptoms of distress
  • By serving as the first line of defense, trained employees can point co-workers to available wellbeing resources
  • Early intervention may reduce the severity of anxiety disorders and depression
  • Trained employees can help reduce the stigma associated with mental health by serving as mental health ambassadors
  • Training employees can demonstrate an employer’s commitment to workforce wellbeing

Workplace Options developed Mental Health Drives Performance for companies interested in having employees trained to understand the behavioral signs of distress. Designed to prepare employees to recognize when a co-worker is experiencing emotional distress, the program also equips participants to be supportive in-the-moment and encourage use of effective, available resources. Specifically developed to address workplace stressors, the learning objectives include a focus on how to interpret sudden changes in behavior and performance as indicators of a potential need for emotional support.

A companion program, AIR (Awareness, Intervention, Resilience) for Managers was designed solely for managers to further address the myriad ways that an employee can show signs of chronic stress resulting in declining performance. The focus is not to diagnose, but rather to recognize distress and respond with the appropriate help. This may involve bringing in occupational health services, human resources, EAP support, or in extreme cases, mobilizing emergency services.

A unique feature of the program for managers is the provision of a tool to use in determining the severity of distress experienced by employees. The tool also includes appropriate supportive actions based on the level of distress. In this training, managers also receive practice in engaging in sensitive conversations and delivering difficult feedback.

Employees who have participated in Mental Health Drives Performance and managers participating in AIR are reporting a greater understanding in the causes of emotional distress, and how to respond with effective interactions and resources while respecting the bonds of confidentiality.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family and personal needs to become healthier, happier and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit