Peer Support does not equal counsellor


Mental Health First Aid and related initiatives are doing a fantastic job. They are doing what has been needed for a long time which is raising in the awareness of employers the impact that mental and emotional health issues have on the workforce. They also provide a human safety net with signposting to specialists for those in the workplace that are suffering with their mental health. 

They can also have some unintended consequences

Before I go any further let me be clear. We also provide this type of training to clients of ours that wish to have a minimum level of awareness of mental health in their workplace. So the aim of this article is not to run down a well placed initiative. The purpose of this is to raise awareness of the possible pitfalls and address them.

Possible pitfalls

  • The Peer Supporters, as we like to name them, become labeled as the mental health experts. This, in time, sees them quickly labeled as the go to resource on mental health and seen by the business as counsellors. Counselling is a role they are not equipped for.
  • Sometimes the very people that apply to take on these roles have emotional issues that may well mean they will not be able to fulfill the roles effectively
  • Employers think that having a minimum number of staff trained to spot issues and sign posts is all they need to do. This can be thought of as a tick box mentality. We think of it as a missed opportunity
  • The support services in place are not really designed to cope with a sudden influx of mental health issues. 
  • The employer is not really giving their teams anything that will benefit all of them or necessarily the employer. It’s just a safety net.

Let’s expand on those points and look at how we deal with them

Peer supporters are not counsellors

The role of a counsellor requires a lot of self development, a lot of training and cannot be delivered in a 1 or 2 day workshop. If a business is not careful and does not support the supporters they are liable to become overwhelmed as their very actions in raising their profit of mental health sees them as the businesses experts and people go to them with their problems. Since they volunteered for those roles because they wanted to help they find it difficult to set healthy boundaries and their roles become confused and ironically they start to be out under unacceptable levels of pressure and their own productivity drops. This series of events is not an uncommon experience.

How Calm People deals with this

We have really clear conversations with the employer when they first make an enquiry about this type of solution. We talk about how they will position the posts they advertise, how they publicise the role within the business and what support they will give those that are selected. We also talk about how we will educate them about self care and healthy boundaries during any workshops we run.

Are those selected for the roles suitable?

Sometimes those that volunteer for support roles are looking to get something out of those that the role can’t provide. Maybe it will give them a chance to practice their inner counsellor. Maybe they hope it will take them away from a job they find boring. Maybe they hope it will give them the skills to deal with their own emotional and mental health issues. These are really good reasons to not take on a peer support role or it may be they need to be really clear on the boundaries. 

If this does not get checked it can lead to the peer supporter spending too much time building their role as a mental health expert (which they are not) or worse still becoming ill themselves. There are many of us who slip into the role of “do as I say, not what I do.” When it comes to mental and emotional health role modelling is really important.

How Calm People avoid this

If our clients wish, we provide a set of screening questions with a simple scoring process that helps the business select those that are going to be suitable for the role of peer supporter. 

The missed opportunity

Many employers are scared of the impact mental health issues can have on their business. Many are beginning to notice the impact. Despite this, many think that a minimum safety net type of intervention is what is needed. This is for obvious reasons such as time constraints and budgetary issues. 

This means that they are putting in policies and procedures to catch people as they fall. In other words they are waiting for something to go wrong and then signpost them to getting it fixed. The challenge with emotional and mental health issues is that they rarely just happen. They may be brought to the surface by present day issues such as bereavement or large scale change but the issues that are revealed will have been the product of unaddressed challenges and poor coping mechanisms, often, over years. In other words it will not get fixed quickly.

The missed opportunity is to support employees in developing healthy coping strategies and genuine healthy emotional resilience that means you actually build an emotionally resilient business with staff who feel valued and engaged.

How Calm People Deals with this

We encourage employers to invest in genuine skill development and see any peer support development as just the first step. Awareness is great but our workshops such as Essential Emotional Resilience help people understand their relationships with areas such as stress, self esteem and feeling vulnerable and gives them the tools they need to work on themselves.

Support Services Cannot cope

You do not have to go far in a Google search to discover waiting times for mental health services are under increasing pressure. A natural byproduct of building a system that notices when people are not well and sign posting them is that it increases the numbers of people looking for help when they are unwell. This, in turn, creates capacity issues in the services that have been created and resourced for a certain level of awareness and demand. Mental Health First Aiders naturally increase awareness and therefore demand.

This is not a criticism. Increased awareness is essential to change the relationship our society has with emotional and mental health issues. At Calm People, we do question whether shifting large numbers toward already over stretched resources is sensible. Far better, in our opinion, to develop healthy habits, practices and coping mechanisms so that we can help ourselves and build our own emotional resilience. This, of course, links directly in to the point above.

How Calm People deals with this

Just like the point above. By giving team members genuine skills that help them develop their resilience the employer is helping to take a burden away from the NHS. If that feels like a tax by the back door perhaps look at it another way. If you raise awareness and sign post your team members in crisis to a service that cant cope they will end up off work for a lot longer than if they have the skills themselves to be emotionally strong and avoid the majority of issues.

The employer is not giving their teams that much

The employee employer relationship is constantly changing. The bar is being raised all the time. Teams are looking for more from their employer than just a wage and a pension. Among the many areas that help teams remain loyal and productive is genuine investment in them. Engagement (the holy grail) increases when teams know their bosses genuinely, I repeat genuinely, care. 

What shows genuine care more? Providing a safety net to spot when you look unwell or helping you understand yourself better and developed the essential coping strategies you need to stay healthy?

You know the answer even if your budget holder does not want you to acknowledge it. Look at providing emotional resilience skills workshops as an investment that will pay back in ways you may never ever realise.

How Calm People deals with this

In every workshop or course we run we emphasise to the employees that we are here because the employer cares, and that is true. There is, however, a world of difference between an awareness and signposting workshop and one that delivers genuine skills that make a difference. In addition, delegates start to connect the dots themselves and realise that their employers have invested in them as a human being and that these workshops are not about being a more efficient team member they are just about being healthy. As a result the tools they develop may help them more in their home life than work life. The net result, though, is that the teams genuinely feel invested in and valued and thus, are more engaged.


It is not hard to see what route we at Calm People prefer. Can we provide MHFA style solutions for your team? If you see that as part of your journey then yes we can. Let’s be clear though, we see that as the start not the end of the journey towards an emotionally healthy and resilient organisation.

Remember, emotionally resilient people are not only more productive but they make better decisions.

What can Calm People provide? 

As specialists in emotional resilience we can provide a range of workshops that help you and your teams develop emotional resilience skills. We have also created Inner Calm, an online emotional assessment and support hub which can be taken in isolation or as part of the Calm People stable of services.

To find out more look here at our most popular workshops and seminars. If you would like to discuss any or all of this send a note to


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