Described by the National Academy of Medicine as “a workplace syndrome characterized by high emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a low sense of accomplishment at work,” evidence suggests that burnout affects more than half of practising physicians.
Confronted with the ongoing stress and strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, we expect that number to continue to rise. A survey published in JAMA in April identified new sources of anxiety and fear among physicians, including shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), exposure to COVID-19 and increased risk to family members, access to adequate childcare and supporting personal and family needs.
At the peak of the first wave, many of our faculty faced stressful challenges, worrying for their own safety and the safety of their families. We witnessed first-hand the distress this caused.
As the Vice Dean of Faculty Affairs at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, it quickly became apparent to me that while it was important to explore and understand the emotional distress faced by physicians and healthcare workers, a solutions-focused approach was an immediate priority.
When the pandemic was declared in March, we immediately fast-tracked plans to implement a peer support program, moving from concept to fruition in just four weeks, to better support clinical faculty at the institutional level.
The resulting Peers for Peers Program at the Schulich Medicine & Dentistry provides one-on-one peer support for clinical faculty, emphasizing empathetic listening and shared experience. It is the first program of its kind in Canada based at an academic centre.
To ensure psychological safety, the program engages faculty members who are interested in wellbeing initiatives. Called Wellbeing Leads, these faculty members are trained to provide emotional support and resources to their peers. It’s important to note that while they provide support and an empathetic ear, they don’t provide therapy. They are trained to provide resources to seek professional care if needed.
The concept was borrowed from a similar program designed for commercial airline pilots that has quickly become popular across the globe. The concept of peer-to-peer support recognizes that it is important for professionals to be able to access the emotional support they need but at a distance from leaders and their employer. The program builds on mounting evidence that one-on-one conversations with peers enhances wellness and builds resilience.
As part of the Peers for Peers Program, we have also developed a training curriculum accredited by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada that covers a range of topics, from empathetic listening to recognizing peers in distress to implicit bias. We engaged all of our chair/chiefs in selecting Wellbeing Leads within every academic department and included Wellbeing Leads to represent our Windsor campus and Dentistry, forming a team of 17. Taking a ‘train the trainers’ approach, the program empowered the Wellbeing Leads to keep the program moving forward.
In May and June, there were 87 encounters with the program and we found that most of those encounters were in the form of an informal chat and check-in. Almost half of the reasons for contact were for mental health concerns and 20 per cent for family concerns.
Our Peers for Peers program, launched with the full support of our leaders, provides the necessary in-the-moment peer support through personal empathetic conversations. We hope to be able to share what we’ve learned with other healthcare organizations to support provider wellbeing more broadly.