What I learnt from the wonderful Dept. of Justice NSW Peer Support Officers

Dept Justice

The Department of Justice NSW peer support program involves people supporting colleagues who are experiencing difficulty at work and/or in their private lives. Support is provided by Peer Support Officers (PSOs) who are volunteers (image above). They receive training, guidance, and support about how to have caring conversations, and where appropriate, provide help seeking options. They work in some very stressful environments including Corrective Services (prisons), Juvenile Justice, Victim Services, and the courts.

What is extraordinary about this program is that it has been going continuously for 22 years. These people do a fantastic job and are very well led by Alison Tibbey, HR Advisor, Peer Support, who does an amazing job training and supporting the PSOs.

QBE (who are their Workers Compensation Insurance provider) were kind enough to sponsor me to do a keynote presentation called “5 Green Zone Rituals”. As part of my I asked to interview 5 PSOs before the event. They had been in the role from one month to 16+ years.

Why did you volunteer to be a PSO in addition to your normal role when you don’t get paid for it?

“I like to help people. A family member struggles with depression and I wanted to be better equipped to help them.”

“I was formerly a mental health nurse. It’s natural to want to help.”

“I’m someone who people confide in anyway. I wanted to be better qualified to have these conversations and to have the training to be recognized for it.”

“We work in very a very stressful environment. I really believe in staff wellbeing and I like to help other people. I was unofficially doing it anyway before I became a PSO – I wanted to be better at it. I also have a family member who struggles with anxiety”

“I had been on a wellbeing committee for a number of years. People were coming to me anyway for advice. A friend had a significant depressive episode and I want to be better equipped to help.”

What has been the best thing about being a PSO?

“Being able to help those who are having a tough time and know where to refer them to seek help.”

“From what I have learnt being trained to be a PSO, I have been able to help my daughter.”

“I’ve only just started but I feel well prepared to help my workmates through the training I received.”

“Being able to give people practical advice about their options and know that it will make a difference. People say it is “easy to talk to you” and that makes me feel good”.

“It feels good to be trusted by your colleagues when they share something so personal”

“Organising events that are good for mental wellbeing like R U OK? Day”

“Getting great support and advice from Alison if I am stumped by something.”

What is the toughest thing about being a PSO?

“Because of the work we do, people often share quite traumatic events. I have to be careful not to take on their crap. I have to keep reminding myself that self-care is important.”

“Our roles are stressful without the PSO responsibilities. I make sure that I see my counsellor regularly.”

“Because we live in a country town some staff members raise things in public. I was once approached in the supermarket by someone with a serious issue. I had to remind them that this wasn’t the right place to have that conversation. You have to maintain boundaries.”

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to a PSO who was just starting?

“Make sure you keep your boundaries and never forget the importance of self-care. You can’t help other people if you’re not in good shape yourself.”

“Be an active listener. People usually know what to do but sometimes that need encouragement to take the first step.”

“Make self-care a priority.”

“Make sure you respect confidentiality. Trust takes a long time to build up and can be shattered in an instant.”

“Don’t think it is your responsibility to rescue someone. All you can do is offer options and encouragement. Sometimes people are not ready to seek help yet. You can take a horse to water…..”

If you would like to know more about best practice in establishing peer support programs, please email support@graemecowan.com.au to set up a time to speak.

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