Peer support challenge during the pandemic

By Janice M. Skot

What a year it’s been!

In all my years in healthcare, both as a frontline nurse and then in leadership roles, I have never experienced a time like this.


When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, we never imagined its severity, its length, or its impacts.

And yet, as I reflect on this past year, I’m struck by the incredible courage, compassion and commitment of healthcare teams across Ontario.

I’m personally impressed and humbled by what I’ve witnessed here at RVH and so proud of the cohesion and camaraderie shown by our healthcare professionals.

Early on in the pandemic, we recognized our team needed extra support – in mind, body and spirit. We conducted a wellness survey to gauge the pulse of the organization and it showed that 80 per cent of respondents were worried about their own, or a family member’s, mental health.

While our team cared for almost 600 very sick COVID-19 positive patients; faced constantly changing information about the virus; dealt with the increased use of PPE; they were also dealing with isolation, lack of social interaction with family and friends, online school and the long lines at the grocery store. Just like everyone else.

I knew as the leader of this organization I needed to do more to support our entire workforce, we fondly call TEAM RVH. To do this I enlisted the help of other leaders in the organization, official and unofficial, from all levels, including physicians, housekeeping staff, social workers, security, Spiritual Care, Human Resources, Occupational Health and Wellness, Mental Health and Addictions, Corporate Communications and our own ONA President.

Together we formed the Caring for YOU Committee and began to collectively meet the needs of TEAM RVH. From creating new website pages with pandemic-specific mental health resources, to sourcing rooms for safe, physically-distanced breaks, complete with very popular massage chairs;  to delivering food to offices, the ideas flowing from this committee seemed endless. During one meeting we discussed the possibility of a peer-to-peer support program and that’s when we learned about the RISE (Resilience in Stressful Events) program.

It was just what we were looking for and the perfect program to provide that extra support for TEAM RVH. While other hospitals have peer support programs, RVH is the first, and currently the only hospital in Canada, to fully and formally implement this program created by Johns Hopkins Medicine and supported by the Maryland Patient Safety Center.

The program comes with the tools and templates required to become fully operational within 12-18 months. To meet our urgent need, we accelerated the implementation. We began recruiting for the program in March 2021 and by June we had 36 volunteer peer responders, trained by the Johns Hopkins RISE Team, ready to take a phone call from a colleague in crisis. Our RISE Peer Responder team includes physicians, clinical and non-clinical staff, all who have been carefully selected and have joined RISE because they are all passionate about the wellbeing of their colleagues.

They are not counsellors or therapists, but they are trained to listen and offer support when a peer is experiencing a stressful or difficult situation and, if required, refer the caller to more specific resources.

Did I mention they are all volunteers? Each of them has committed to taking one, five-hour on-call shift every month. Dr. Ana Igric, a physician in our Intensive Care Unit, is one of our responders and here is what she had to say:

“When I learned about the RISE program, I knew right away it was something I would want to be a part of.  Who better to support a colleague through a difficult experience than someone who is a peer and may have had those same feelings or experienced something similar? I feel this program can complement an individual’s journey to wellness and resilience in the face of stress at work. I love that the program is staffed by colleagues from many different disciplines and areas of the hospital, who have volunteered to support their colleagues.”

RVH had many mental health and wellness resources already in place, but as Dr. Igric put it – it is the peer-to-peer angle that makes this program unique. While the calls are anonymous, we have had callers reach out afterwards to let us know how well it went. Here’s what one of them had to say:

“After a tough phone call with a patient expressing thoughts of self-harm, I was a little rattled and needed to talk about it. I was really nervous to call RISE, but talked myself into it and I am so glad I did. The person who answered didn’t ask me any personal questions, not even my name. She listened patiently, told me I had made a good decision to call her, expressed compassion and empathy for how I was feeling and made sure I had a strategy in place for some rest and decompression later that day. I had no idea what the call would be like, but it was truly the most supported I have ever felt after a tough moment at work. Thank you RISE Team!”

That says it all!

RISE is not just a pandemic support, it’s here to stay. Now that the program is fully established it resides with our Human Resources team under the leadership of Darrell Sewell, Vice President, Facilities and Chief Human Resources Officer.

Healthcare is very rewarding, but it can also be very demanding and stressful. At RVH, we want to ensure our team is as healthy as they can be and ready to provide the high-quality, patient-centred care the people of this region have come to expect.

I’m so proud of our new RISE program and our volunteer Peer Responders. Each time they take a RISE shift, they exemplify one of our core strategic directions – Value People and ensure we are living two of our core values Work Together and Respect All.  With this new peer support program in place, we know that as we face the future, we will go farther together.

Janice M. Skot, MHSc, CHE is President and CEO at Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre.