Healthcare worker peer support

by Christopher Cheney, senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.

A program that features peer support is helping healthcare workers at Bon Secours Mercy Health address behavioral health issues.

Healthcare worker burnout has reached alarming proportions during the coronavirus pandemic, a healthcare worker well-being expert told HealthLeaders. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, healthcare worker burnout rates on average ranged from 30% to 50%, says Bernadette Melnyk, PhD, APRN-CNP, chief wellness officer of The Ohio State University and dean of the university's College of Nursing. Now, burnout rates range from 40% to 70%, she said.

In 2021, 71% of Bon Secours Mercy Health providers reported experiencing COVID-19 distress.

In May 2020, the Cincinnati-based health system launched Caring4Colleagues in response to the pandemic and the toll it was taking on healthcare providers and their families. The program features peer support, which in the beginning focused on clinicians, says W. Carson Felkel II, MD, system medical director for behavioral health.

"It started out with flyers in the physician lounges. It was a grassroots initiation effort. The beauty of the early version of the program was the simplicity. The flyer had many cellphone numbers on it. When people are in crisis, they reach out and often feel shame and guilt. They want a person to talk to and they want to feel heard. So, they would call one of our cellphones, and we would begin to have a conversation and continue to follow up with them over time," he said.

The peer support effort has grown to include all of the health system's associates, Felkel says. "To date, we have done 430 of these peer support pairings among physicians, advanced practice clinicians, nurses, and other associates."

Peer support volunteers not only engage struggling healthcare workers in a deep conversation but also help connect them with behavioral health services, he says. "What we have been finding from COVID and the workplace in general is associates need to have easy access to a colleague—a peer—who can navigate the complex mental health world and get them to the right resource at the right time."

The peer support volunteers receive training from health system professionals, Felkel says.

"We have a robust team of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, nurses, chaplains, and other specialists who train volunteers to have conversations with their colleagues. The volunteers are in the trenches alongside our associates, and that is why peer support works. It's not like just having a behavioral health team applying mental health. We are colleagues talking with colleagues. Within the training, we train individuals to have deep conversations using a trauma-informed approach and motivational interviewing," he says.

Editor's note: To read this entire article, visit HealthLeaders

Found in Categories: 
COVID-19, Leadership Insight