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Healthcare Worker Peer Support: 'We Can Have a Conversation and Walk Alongside Them'

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   September 07, 2022

At Bon Secours Mercy Health, a peer support program is a key component of healthcare worker well-being efforts.

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 has 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.

The engagement of top health system leaders has boosted the Caring4Colleagues program, Felkel says.

"One of the successes of this program has been our extraordinary leadership within Bon Secours Mercy Health supporting the effort. Whenever you do associate well-being efforts, it is usually top-down, meaning that it comes from upper leadership, and that is exactly what has happened with the Caring4Colleagues program. Leaders have talked about the program in many meetings, and they have utilized the program—it is not just physicians, advanced practice providers, and nurses who have been struggling, it's all of us, including leaders. So, leaders have modeled the use of the program themselves and talk about the success and share it with others. That creates trust in these conversations," he says.

Caring4Colleagues serves as a bridge to the health system's employee assistance program (EAP), Felkel says. "The beauty of Caring4Colleagues is that we provide the transition from a crucial conversation to the therapists within the EAP program. We grew EAP services within our ministry for physicians from 6.8% to 9.7%. With Caring4Colleagues, we were able to get almost 1 in 10 physicians into an EAP therapist, and that is not common in healthcare."

Reaching out to healthcare workers

The Caring4Colleagues program also includes "empathy rounding."

"Rounding is essential to our ministry because it creates visibility, trust, and relationships. We have many types of rounding that go on daily. We have leaders rounding, but more recently, we have started empathy rounding with chaplains and therapists rounding on units to provide visibility and immediate care when necessary. The beauty of our Caring4Colleagues program is that we can support empathy rounding when there is a crisis or the identification of someone who is struggling. We can immediately surround them with multidisciplinary care," Felkel says.

Empathy rounding is a way to be proactive with healthcare workers, he says. "In empathy rounding, we are visible and present. We must be intentional about being present with our colleagues. Several times a month, the chaplains and therapists are available on the units just to check in."

Getting help

At Bon Secours Mercy Health, healthcare workers in crisis have a support system in place to navigate behavioral health services, Felkel says. "It is as easy as calling one of our Caring4Colleagues cellphones, so we can have a conversation and walk alongside them. We can listen to what they are going through."

The health system is helping healthcare workers with a multidisciplinary approach, he says. "To address mental health needs, it takes a coordinated health system effort, and we have great leader engagement around this effort. For example, we have a great provider network within our benefit plan, we have excellent EAP benefits such as six free counseling sessions, we have leader rounding, we have well-being committees, we have chaplains and therapists rounding, and all of this must be tied together through a trusted peer program."

Related: One-Third of Nurses Plan to Quit Their Jobs in 2022, Thanks to High Stress and Burnout

Christopher Cheney is the CMO editor at HealthLeaders.


Bon Secours Mercy Health's peer support program started with physicians in May 2020 and has grown to serve all healthcare workers.

So far, there have been 430 peer support pairings among physicians, advanced practice clinicians, nurses, and other associates.

The health system has also initiated "empathy rounding," where chaplains and therapists visit hospital units to check on healthcare worker well-being.

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