Formalised peer supporter or peer worker roles exist within wider contexts that help define and shape practices. This includes having an awareness of perceptions and approaches to risk and boundaries within the peer relationship.
In module 5 we looked at the processes and practices of establishing peer relationships; particularly focusing on the role power in the peer relationship. This module builds on this by looking at two further aspects of the peer relationship both of which have implications for the power balance.
Boundaries refer to the borders or limits of a relationship. They relate to what is and what is not acceptable, and the types of boundaries that exist vary depending on the type of relationship. As relationships become more formal – such as where one party is in a peer supporter role whether paid or unpaid – clear and negotiated boundaries become more important. There are reasons why more boundaries exist in more formal relationships; particularly where one party has a responsibility and duty towards the other as a service provider.
Boundaries in formalised peer support
The peer relationship can be complex as it requires peer supporters to support, encourage and share experiences with a person while still maintaining the distance that is required to be an effective worker. An awareness of boundaries in practice is therefore a key element of the role. In the formalised peer support relationship there is a need for a clear negotiation of relationships.
It is important that peer supporters have a clear idea of their role and boundaries. Policies will describe the organisation’s position and supervision can help support understanding and practice. Where boundaries are negotiated and on the table from the outset there should be no tension between formalised peer support and boundaries. However when considering boundaries the following should be kept in mind:
- The need to be aware of and open and up front about the existence of boundaries increases as peer relationships become more formalised.
- While peer support is based on sharing experiences and what people have in common it does not mean that they become friends.
- Where one person is in a formal role of offering support (paid or unpaid) there is a professional responsibility to maintain boundaries.
- Clear and negotiated boundaries are essential in good peer support practice.
Professional boundaries are often dictated by professional codes of conduct and are put in place to make sure that the person in power does not abuse his or her position. Peer support boundaries are complex in that personal mutual relationships are formed but within the confines of a role that has certain responsibilities. The peer supporter’s role is therefore focused on negotiating boundaries in a way that is transparent and authentic. Peer supporters should feel comfortable in the art of negotiated boundaries.
Where it is done well it leads to clarity and honesty and, as a result, more mutually empowering relationships.
Understanding and maintaining the boundaries
In formalised peer support many different issues impact upon and affect the relationship:
- The more time peer supporters spend with people and the more intense the relationship becomes, the more difficult it can be for both parties to understand and maintain the boundaries that allow for a mutually empowering relationship.
- There is a power imbalance inherent within the relationship which peer supporters need to be aware and mindful of. Their professional responsibilities may include reporting back to other team members or participating in reviews or planning meetings and this may require them to write notes about the person using the service.
- Peer supporters may find themselves in confusing situations as they assume their role. For example they may be working in a service where they received support and the people they previously knew as service providers are now their peers and colleagues. This needs to be addressed openly with supervisors and colleagues to clarify any expectations.