Peer support programs have been emerging as standard practice for supporting staff in high-risk agencies such as the emergency services, military, and mental health, where exposure to potentially traumatic events is high relative to the general population.
Despite the lack of direct evidence relating to peer support programs, an emerging body of evidence shows that boosting and protecting social support can increase an individual’s capacity to deal with a potentially traumatic event. As such, peer support represents one attempt to operationalise social support within organisational structures.
Using a well-established method of enquiry that canvases the opinions of experts in a particular field (the Delphi method; Linstone & Turoff, 1975), in 2010-11, Phoenix Australia surveyed an international group of experts and peer support practitioners to ascertain consensus on various aspects of peer support. The aim was to achieve consensus on basic issues pertaining to peer support upon which future research can be built, and the peer support guidelines were developed. Until an evidence base is developed, these guidelines aim to inform the practice of peer support internationally on the basis of the best available advice from experts and practitioners in the field.
Updates to the guidelines
In 2021, Phoenix Australia was engaged as subject matter experts by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) to undertake a systematic literature review and broad sector review with Australian emergency services and disaster response agencies in order to understand the application and relevance of the peer support guidelines in practice, and how peer support programs might operate within a multi-agency context. Three clear outcomes emerged from the reviews:
- Updates to the best practice guidelines for peer support programs in agencies in the emergency management and response sector
- A model for a multi-agency approach to peer support
- A peer support program self-evaluation tool
The research report summarises the evidence and details updates to the peer support guidelines. The resulting peer support program self-evaluation tool was piloted with a group of Victorian Government agencies and departments with disaster response functions, who evaluated their existing peer support programs, and was refined following this process.
Peer Support Program Self-Evaluation Tool
The purpose of the tool is to aid organisations to assess their peer support program against the refined best practice guidelines. It presents the core requirements needed to meet best practice, across 11 program elements. The first 10 of these are common to most peer support programs. The final element is specific to organisations that are considering a multi-agency approach to peer support.
Not all organisations are at the same maturity with their peer support program and nor do all peer support programs need to look exactly alike – the function and needs of each organisation will differ. The tool allows for organisations to identify areas of strength and areas for improvement to align their particular program to best practice. It can also be used as a guide to support the development of a new peer support program or in the redesign or re-establishment of a peer support program.