Peer workers are increasingly employed in mental health services to use their own experiences of mental distress in supporting others with similar experiences. While evidence is emerging of the benefits of peer support for people using services, the impact on peer workers is less clear. There is a lack of research that takes a longitudinal approach to exploring impact on both employment outcomes for peer workers, and their experiences of working in the peer worker role.
In a longitudinal mixed methods study, 32 peer workers providing peer support for discharge from inpatient to community mental health care - as part of a randomised controlled trial - undertook in-depth qualitative interviews conducted by service user researchers, and completed measures of wellbeing, burnout, job satisfaction and multi-disciplinary team working after completing training, and four and 12 months into the role. Questionnaire data were summarised and compared to outcomes for relevant population norms, and changes in outcomes were analysed using paired t-tests. Thematic analysis and interpretive workshops involving service user researchers were used to analysis interview transcripts. A critical interpretive synthesis approach was used to synthesise analyses of both datasets.
For the duration of the study, all questionnaire outcomes were comparable with population norms for health professionals or for the general population. There were small-to-medium decreases in wellbeing and aspects of job satisfaction, and increase in burnout after 4 months, but these changes were largely not maintained at 12 months. Peer workers felt valued, empowered and connected in the role, but could find it challenging to adjust to the demands of the job after initial optimism. Supervision and being part of a standalone peer worker team was supportive, although communication with clinical teams could be improved.
Peer workers seem no more likely to experience negative impacts of working than other healthcare professionals but should be well supported as they settle into post, provided with in-work training and support around job insecurity. Research is needed to optimise working arrangements for peer workers alongside clinical teams.