Working as a peer supporter can be challenging. There are a lot of negative beliefs that still permeate our culture about what it means to live with a mental health diagnosis. Peer supporters may be working alongside non-peer staff who either don’t share their values or buy into recovery-focused practice. Co-workers may be unsure about the peer supporter’s role in the service and have concerns about education and training levels and ability to handle stress.
This can combine to create powerful messages that reinforce an individual’s doubts about their capacity to work collaboratively with others. In such situations self-care becomes even more important. However peer supporters should also remember:
- They were hired specifically to bring a different kind of knowledge into the service setting — one based on ‘having been there’. This perspective provides peer supporters and those working alongside them with a new understanding of recovery. Lived experience forms the basis of the job, and is the education from which insight and expertise is drawn.
- There is a difference between being inexperienced and being disabled or unwell. Peer supporters may have spent much of their time focusing on what you needed to do just to get by day-by-day, while many of their co-workers have been developing employment skills. This means that they may still have a lot to learn about how to develop meaningful work relationships as well as a meaningful work ethic, and this involves experiencing different types of stresses common to all workers and not unique to peer supporters.
- Asking for help and support is a strength rather than a sign of weakness. We all have things to learn and should look for those who can help this – family, friends, coworkers, managers…
However this can make any new work experience more challenging than it usually is. Some tips to help peer workers navigate new work experiences while keeping themselves well are:
- All organisations have their own culture or ways of doing things that are simply understood. Pay attention to how people operate in your organisation to get an idea of what some of these unspoken expectations are.
- Avoid using symptoms or issues with diagnosis to excuse poor work behaviour or poor choices. Instead acknowledge the mistake and take steps to address it.
- Model personal responsibility for wellness by framing ‘setbacks’ as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and what you need.
- Remember that it is appropriate to assert boundaries around personal information. While peer supporters use personal experience to build connections with others and provide alternative perspectives; they do not have to answer questions from those they support and co-workers that they do not feel comfortable answering.
- If there are policies and practices that appear to apply to peer supporters only raise this with the relevant people – managers, HR department. They may be unaware of this. Indeed some practices meant to support peers in the workplace can actually be exclusionary or discriminatory.