I recently came across an article that surprised me considering the profession. It concerned doctors and how they are unlikely to flag troubled peers which oftentimes lead to a tragedy. Carla K. Johnson of the associated press reported that a new survey finds that many American physicians fail to report seriously troubled colleagues believing that someone else will handle the problem. A surprising 17 percent of doctors surveyed had direct personal knowledge of an impaired and or incompetent physician in the workplace. The result is obvious and frequently leads to destroyed lives and career ending mistakes. See Portland Press Herald, Wednesday July 14, 2010. In focus: Impaired Physicians.
I have observed this same phenomenon in my own profession and organization over the years. It exists especially in professions that foster self reliance, bravery and a stoic approach to serious and deadly matters. These jobs can be filled with unique stressors, intense pressure and emotional turmoil in rapidly evolving unpredictable situations. The effect it has on individuals and the organization is enormous. Peer Support, coaching and developing resilience skills can make an incredible difference and avoid tragic results.
Peer support in law enforcement is not a new concept. Officers have always relied on peers and friends during times of difficulty. I have also observed that people have a tendency to believe a serious problem will go away on its own even when they know tragedy is predictable. It doesn’t go away! A structured peer program with solid education and policies can make a tremendous difference on many levels and in fact save lives. Trusted, respected, identified co-workers can guide and teach individuals the necessary positive coping and resilience skills. They also serve to network coworkers confidentially to employee assistance and or professional help. Trust and confidentiality are the cornerstones to the success of the program. It works!
Peer coaches are formerly trained by professionals in basic counseling, crisis intervention, debriefing, emotional communication and resilience skills. Peer support can be described as a subtle network of trained and educated individuals within an organization where others feel comfortable in sharing their feelings about the job, personal problems or a particular event that affects their work.
Building resilience skills and developing positive coping mechanisms along with understanding the organization and occupational stress is important for this to work. Ongoing education in the workforce, developing clear policies and procedures is paramount to ensure success. Overall, the peer coach should provide a confidential outlet and function as a guide in referral to mental health professionals. This program can be customized to any organization. I can personally endorse with confidence the success of a structured peer support and resilience coaching program. I know for a fact that the program in my organization made a tremendous difference in many many lives, averted serious issues, numerous mistakes and career ending tragedies.
Peer Support has often been the critical intervention point that has made a difference, helped the organization and in the end the welfare and safety of the public. This peer resource is available to physicians as well. I hope the profession considers this approach as well as the other services available.
Joseph K. Loughlin
Deputy Chief, Portland Police Ret.
Author of Finding Amy