Checking in with our Peer Support program

In October 2020, the Physician Wellness Advisory Committee (comprised of SEAMO, Kingston HealthHeadshots of Dr. Jo Shapiro, Dr. Alexandre Menard, Dr. Gillian MacLean, and Dr. Dan Howse Sciences Centre, and Providence Care) and the PSI Foundation (Physicians Services Incorporated) were pleased to present a special event with Harvard’s Dr. Jo Shapiro on the topic of peer support. Dr. Shapiro was also able to host training sessions with our peer supporters on how to develop their skills to aid other physicians in need. Three of our peer supporters were able to reflect on what they learned from Dr. Shapiro and how they approach physician wellness and peer support now.

Dr. Alexandre Menard from the Department of Diagnostic Radiology says the beauty of the peer support process is its inherent simplicity – peers are more likely to communicate with each other. “I have observed that physicians are afraid of opening up to administrators and physicians in positions of power; however, peers trust peers. This is the basis of peer support: having a peer who is likely to have walked the same or a similar path, who is more likely to understand your struggles, be there to listen and offer support.” Dr. Menard says even though the evidence is very strong that overall burnout is much higher for physicians than the general population, and among the highest among professions, as a group of health care workers who have committed to improving the quality of life of others, they are incredibly slow at recognizing suffering and burnout within themselves. “I personally have gone through a burnout. I did learn a few things. A few small changes can have a huge impact in one’s wellbeing, and satisfaction with work. I also found that once I opened up about my previous burnout, many colleagues would also express their own struggles, and share how they managed them. It’s amazing once you start talking about it, how many colleagues are going through or have gone through the same thing.” 

Dr. Menard says the two messages that resonated from working with Dr. Shapiro are gratitude and empathy. “It’s easy to under-appreciate the wonder and impact of the work we do. Science of burnout tells us that improving our sense of personal accomplishment protects us from burnout. If we take a step back, we can be grateful for all sorts of things: our colleagues and their talents, the medical equipment we have, the interactions with our patients,” he says. “The cornerstone of peer support is also empathy. No matter how right or wrong someone might be, to support someone, you have to put yourself in their shoes, and try to feel what they are feeling. It’s much easier for someone to be willing to self-reflect, revisit events, reconsider opinions, and find possible solutions, if their feelings have been acknowledged and recognized.”

Dr. Gillian MacLean from the Department of Pediatrics says she learned from Dr. Shapiro about the dangers of physician burnout and ways for physicians to support each other. “Dr. Shapiro’s teaching events were beyond what I expected. She had us role play a peer support conversation in the first 10 minutes, and everyone was panicking a little as she had not taught us how to do it yet.  It was such an eye-opening exercise to learn how you ask questions, listen, and explore how coping mechanisms are really key to how your peer will feel supported.  The strategies she provided are invaluable and I have frequently revisited her resources,” she says. 

Dr. MacLean says physician wellness and peer support are vital components to the working environment and longevity of a physician’s career. She says, “Taking care of others is our job and taking care of peers is no different than that. Even though I am early in my career, I have already had interactions with peers who needed support, were struggling with coping and who were reaching out prior to crisis.  Helping each other and working together are what wellness and support mean to me.” Dr. MacLean says she hopes to be a non-judgemental and empathetic ear to her colleagues and provide problem-solving guidance in her role as a peer supporter. “I hope to be a non-judgmental and empathetic ear to my colleagues and provide problem solving guidance as a peer supporter.”

Dr. Dan Howse, Department Head of Critical Care Medicine, says he learned from Dr. Shapiro to understand the potential that a whole group of peer supporters could have to improve the overall wellness of an organization. “There are so many people struggling right now, and peer support can help lower the barriers to seeking help,” he says. 

For Dr. Howse, physician wellness is much more than the absence of disease or states of distress. “Wellness, for anyone, should be a state of optimized physical, spiritual and mental health. It won’t always be perfect, or even ideal, but as individuals we need to work to optimize our own wellness and the wellness of the people around us. Peer support is just about offering a hand, or an ear, to the people you work with when the load that they are carrying seems heavy.”