Does gathering at the local pub count as peer support?

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Contributing Authors: Kirsten Pabst, NDAA Prosecutor Wellbeing Committee Chair & Mary Ashley, NDAA Prosecutor Wellbeing Committee Vice Chair

Fair question that we get a lot.

When I was a deputy prosecutor, the only peer support we knew involved copious amounts of alcohol and commiseration, usually at Sean Kelly’s, which we referred to as “the satellite office.” Decades later, after several of us burned-out, landed in rehab, got divorced or worse, we started learning about actual peer support and its related benefits. Several years ago, I asked our facilitator the same question.

“Is the old-fashioned, alcohol-aided kind of debriefing – — almost as good as this peer support of which you speak?”

The answer was no, but not necessarily for the reasons you’d think.

For the record, we are not knocking sharing a cocktail with friends and colleagues on weekends or after work. It can be fun and socializing can is an opportunity to build friendships beyond the workplace. But that kind of socializing is different than what we now know constitutes peer support.

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

What is peer support, actually?

We’ve been hearing a lot about peer support, for good reason. Peer support goes beyond having like-minded friends at work. Broadly defined, “peer support” refers to a process through which people who share common experiences or face similar challenges come together as equals to give and receive [neurological] help based on the knowledge [and help] that comes through shared experience (D. Penney, Defining “Peer Support”: Implications for Policy, Practice, and Research)[KP additions].

According to neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, Professor at Stanford Medical School, peer connection can actually flip the brain’s nervous-system switch from sympathetic (high stress) to parasympathetic (rest and relax). The sharing of difficult content with someone who listens and understands allows our stressed-out brains to go from fight or flight, back to rest and relax.

The difference

Inclusive v. exclusive. Real peer support is inclusive of every single person in your organization and generally happens in the work environment. Drinking events often exclude people who do not drink alcohol, people with family obligations, and more introverted employees, who need the benefits of peer support at least as much as those who pub. Successful peer support programs include those at every level, assignment, and rank; those who do not or cannot drink; those with other obligations outside of work, like parent care and child care. It is a safe space for anyone vulnerable to substance use disorder [SUD] — which is very high amongst lawyers in general and prosecutors specifically.

Constructive v. potentially harmful. Peer support at work is proven to assist neuroplasticity and improve resilience. It is a mechanism to process the stress of the job in a constructive way, not temporarily numb it. On the flip side, drinking-centered “debriefings” can be less constructive, often devolving to story-topping, protracted venting, or siloed thinking, in addition to contributing to increased dependence on alcohol to disengage from work.

The elephant. We know that excessive alcohol consumption lowers productivity, causes absenteeism, and leads to health problems. We can’t ignore that SUD is rampant in our profession, and based on research, is getting worse with younger attorneys. We also can’t ignore the irony that we work in a world steeped in the negative consequences of defendants’ use and abuse of chemicals yet seem less concerned about our colleagues’ use, when excessive.

Organizational connection

On our three-pronged Seat of Resilience, connection is the ability to give and receive support from colleagues with a common baseline of the unique challenges of managing the recreation of humanity’s worst events. Being and feeling supported by another human can be the difference between protracted anguish and resolution. Peer support can be formally structured into your organization as an established peer-support program, but even without a formal program, organizations can derive the benefits of peer support through education and example. Connection is a skill that when taught and practiced can be a game-changer in the quest to thrive and, it is easier than it sounds. We simply need to learn how to listen and organizations are perfectly suited to do just that.

And . . . science says:

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has long advocated and utilized research to reinforce the power of peer support. Some positive reported outcomes for individuals who receive peer support — formal or informal — are increased self-esteem and confidence, increased sense of control and ability to bring about changes in their lives, raised empowerment, and a feeling that treatment can be responsive and inclusive of their needs.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez 🇨🇦 on Unsplash

In Peer Support: What Makes It Unique, authors Shery Mead & Cheryl McNeil writes,

“Peer support encompasses a range of activities and interactions between people who share similar experiences. This mutuality, called ‘peerness,’ between a peer support person and a person seeking help promotes connection and inspires hope. Peer support offers a level of acceptance, understanding, and validation not found in many other professional relationships.”

A review of current literature underscores the effectiveness of peer support, for the supported AND the supporters.

“[S]tudies suggest that peer support is associated with improvements in mental health including greater happiness, self-esteem and effective coping, and reductions in depression, loneliness and anxiety. Both individual and group peer support appear to be beneficial for mental health with positive effects also being present for those providing the support. (Scoping review to evaluate the effects of peer support on the mental health of young adults, BJM Open, Aug. 24, 2022).

Formal peer support programs

While not every member of an office needs formal assistance or suffers from secondary trauma, nearly everyone at some point in his or her life is in need of compassion and empathy — at the very least, a friendly ear or shoulder when a bad day or personal challenge leaves one struggling.

Formal peer support groups are set up to offer an anonymous place for distressed workers to seek advice. Mentors are trained in active listening and provide an ear, shared experience, advice when appropriate, and referrals when necessary. They work because workers trust peers over supervisors because peers understand your job, the atmosphere, and the experiences within the profession. Peer support programs have done well in the fields of law enforcement, emergency, fire, and first responders.

Informal empathic listening in a prosecutor’s office

Similar outcomes can be attained with an informal peer support program, by teaching resonant listening skills and fostering a culture of vulnerability and support. People can resist having to engage in “team building” activities, but this is much more practical. Even those who roll their eyes during the exercises, in my experience, become better listeners. A critical piece of resilience is connection and when resonant listening skills are taught to employees and they learn to hear and support each other during the difficult times, the whole organization benefits.

After my employees did the resonant listening exercise, the changes were subtle, at first, and incremental, but I noticed less complaining, more vulnerability, less competitiveness, and more compassion. We all became better listeners and conversationalists. More importantly, we learned how to activate resilience for our co-workers.

Resonant listening & mirroring

I first learned the concept of resonant listening from Andrew Laue, LCSW, our Secondary Trauma Group’s facilitator. About 10 of us were seated in chairs in a circle around a small round table, talking about ways that we could support each other during trial, beyond offering to do legal research, getting take-out sandwiches, or buying a round. Andy described the importance of really listening to each other, especially the stuff that is hard to hear, and letting the story “resonate” in our space. He suggested imagining a large drum in the middle and when one of our work-family spoke about a child that had been beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend, we were instructed to hold that story and resonate with the others’ pain, rather than responding or discussing a similar memory. We practiced with each person, in turn, offering a summary word of the experience, then repeated by each. It sounds simple but was transformative.

Photo by Bence Halmosi on Unsplash

The Great Question

One takeaway from the resonant listening workshop was the importance of asking the GQ — the great question which, unless you are a born-extrovert, takes a little practice. Next time you are wanting to jump right in with a better story than the one you are listening to, tell yourself to wait until they’ve finished the narrative. Ask the GQ. Ask the teller to expand on the idea; to explain what about the idea is most important to them. Your follow up says, “I am hearing you and respectfully holding your experience.”

Here are some GQs to help enhance connection:

“What is the most alive thing you get to do this week?”

“What are you most excited about today?”

“You have a concerned look. What are you worried about?”

“That had to be difficult. I am interested in hearing more.”

Mirroring is the practice of repeating back what a person has said, trying to entrain with their tone, posture, and body position. Mirroring enhances connection and is easy to teach and practice. It also helps the teller feel heard and enhances the connection between the two of you.

The takeaway here is that peer connection is an incredibly valuable skill for employee longevity and every organization should utilize it, either by implementing a formal peer support program or by teaching empathic listening skills.

Back to the pub

To be clear, we are not knocking the occasional stop by the local haunt to meet colleagues and hoist a brew. It can be positive. It should be inclusive. But it is very different than what we mean when we talk about peer support. Please don’t put off forming your own peer support system because you already handle it the “old fashioned way.” The old-fashioned way was our singular wellbeing practice for centuries and it has left our profession in a bit of a bind.

Kirsten Pabst is the elected prosecutor in Missoula County, Montana, chairs NDAA’s Prosecutor Wellbeing Committee, and is the author of Thriving Through Chaos — Survival Gear for Criminal Justice Professionals. She can be reached at kpabst@missoulacounty.us.

Prosecutor Wellbeing Committee Vice Chair, Mary Ashley, is a Deputy District Attorney with the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office. Along with being a Board member of NDAA, Mary is also a member of the California District Attorneys Association and NDAA’s Vice Chair of the Women Prosecutors Section.

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National District Attorneys Association

The National District Attorneys Association (NDAA) is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country.