The key thing to remember when employing peer workers is that good human resource management practice makes the workplace good for all employees. You may already have comprehensive systems and policies in place. If you do then you have the basic building blocks for successfully recruiting and supporting peer workers.
In order to fill your peer worker roles, you first need to attract a pool of candidates with the desired skills, knowledge, experience and attitudes. From this pool you will select the best person, taking into account your selection method. Remember, that while you are looking for the ‘right fit’ employee, potential new peer workers are looking for the ‘right fit’ organisation to match their needs and aspirations too. Matching your organisation with the right people is the key to successful recruitment.
Start by thinking about the values and goals in your organisation that might attract peer workers. For instance, review what you have to offer in the following areas:
- your reputation
- workplace culture
- the remuneration and conditions
- the training and development opportunities
- flexible employment arrangements
- career development
This will help enable you to design a positive advertising and promotion campaign to attract suitable candidates, and give them an idea of what they can expect.
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The job description
Peer worker position descriptions should be written at the outset of the recruitment process in conjunction with peer worker leaders or representative organisations. Use language that is consistent with recovery orientation, peer work values and principles; and make sure to outline competencies appropriate to the specific peer work role. A well-written position description has a better chance of attracting skilled candidates. Position descriptions for the peer workforce should follow the same principles as those for any other workforce. They need to
- define and articulate the responsibilities and tasks of the position and identify each of the functions covered by the role
- ensure the selection criteria covers the range of skills, knowledge, experience and training required to perform the role
- determine accurate remuneration and grading of the position, taking into account roles and responsibilities and relevant education qualifications
- allocate hours per week to fulfil all aspects of the role
- detail line management and direct reports
- outline any budgetary responsibilities.
Remuneration and employment conditions
Peer worker remuneration should be commensurate with skills, expertise and experience and comparable to that for non-peer workers. Peer workers should also be entitled to the same conditions and entitlements as other employees, including salary packaging.
Remuneration scales and state awards might apply depending on the nature of the role. For example consumer researchers should be paid the same as other researchers doing similar work with similar experience.
The completion, commencement or willingness to undertake a Certificate IV in Mental Health Peer Work is increasingly regarded as a minimum requirement for a peer worker role. There is also a growing tendency to stipulate a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. Bear in mind, though, that often those most suited to supporting another person in recovery – by reason of their lived experience and their demonstrated expertise in sharing that lived experience – might not have a tertiary qualification. Before specifying that a tertiary degree is required, think about the value it adds to the specified roles and functions:
- is a degree necessary? Why?
- how does the value base and core competencies of the professional qualification conferred by the degree compare to peer worker values and core competencies?
- how will you ensure the authenticity and fidelity of the peer worker role if a person has qualifications in a professional qualification other than peer work?
Advertising for success
Make it clear when you advertise for a peer worker that the role is designated for someone who has lived experience of mental illness, or of supporting someone with mental illness (depending on the position) and who:
is in recovery
- has integrated their lived experience into their lives
- is not be ashamed of their experience (or their family member’s experience)
- has an understanding of stigma, discrimination and trauma
- is able and willing to share their lived experience to inform their work and support another person with their recovery.
Position descriptions and job advertisements need to be explicit about these requirements. It is also sensible to articulate the values and goals of your organisation in the ad, because this will help to attract the right candidates. Also consider suggesting that candidates may request adjustments if necessary to allow them to participate equitably in the recruitment process.
It’s important to determine the selection method for your peer worker position, and the relative weight you want to give to each component – for example, cover letter, resume, selection criteria, interview, and referees – before you advertise. This enables you to ask job seekers to supply the information you need so you have an effective, fair and equitable assessment process. Of course you should always take into account relevant equal opportunity and anti-discrimination legislation. Approach the task of employing a peer worker as you would for any other position. In particular, be careful to avoid the following pitfalls:
- hiring someone you like because you believe it would be good for his or her recovery to be working in the role
- employing a strong applicant, even though you think he or she probably isn’t right for the job
- shifting a person who has been in a clinical role with your organisation for a long time into a peer role because it’s easier to employ someone already familiar with the organisation
- showing tokenism or paternalism by lowering recruitment standards just to fill the position.
Interview candidates using a planned and open process. A well thought-out interview process, should help to ensure the best candidate is identified for the new peer role.
You should include employees with experience of working as a peer worker on the section panel. If you don’t have any existing peer workers, organise an external peer worker to fulfil this role. Make sure, too, that the non-peer members of the selection panel have a good awareness of recovery and the importance of the peer role.
Once you have filled the position, you need to introduce the successful candidate to your organisation and make sure they have the opportunities and training they need to perform their role to the best of their ability. The development of a new peer worker starts with induction. Through the induction process you can explain to new peer workers both what they should expect and what they are required to do. This will help them to fit in and become part of the team. Training and other ways of increasing knowledge and improving skills will develop the new peer worker’s potential and improve their capabilities.
Welcoming a peer worker into your organisation and making them feel comfortable in their new workplace helps to reduce any anxiety about starting a new job. When you plan your induction process, consider whether the new peer worker has had recent work experience – this position might be their first job since leaving school, or in a long while. Remember to include basic information such as the terms and conditions of employment, any legal and compliance requirements and also pay attention to the health, safety and wellbeing of the new peer worker. Consider any reasonable workplace adjustments you can make that will help their performance. A good quality and relevant induction for peer workers lets them know where they fit in. The induction plan might include:
- organisational policies and procedures
- introductions and meetings with co-workers and peer worker networks
- the organisation’s peer worker statement
- the organisation’s vision for peer worker roles
- the plan for the development of the peer workforce
- peer worker roles and positions within the organisation’s multidisciplinary workforce
- what it means to be part of a multidisciplinary team
- line management and supervision procedures
- opportunities for professional development
- a code of conduct and ethical considerations, for example an awareness of confidentiality and boundaries.
Induction helps to establish good work habits, creates a professional impression of the organisation and your management style. It can also establish clear expectations to assist with performance, training and development plans. New peer workers should have the opportunity to ask questions, seek assistance and even suggest improvements.
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Some of your peer workers may require workplace adjustments to fulfil their role more effectively. They are not alone in this – most employees face times when they need to seek reasonable adjustments in the workplace.
Under the Australian Federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992, and the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977, employees with a mental illness, such as Consumer Workers, are considered to be employees with a disability. Both acts require workplaces to make work-related reasonable accommodations to enable employees with a disability to perform their work. The Australian Human Rights Commission reminds employers that they must ‘consider reasonable adjustments in the workplace for workers with mental illness’ to comply with anti-discrimination legislation, and points out that these ‘adjustments enable a worker to carry out their job to the best of their ability, making them a productive member of your workplace’.
To minimise difference between peer workers and the rest of your employees think about how the workplace can be flexible for workers with a variety of experiences and situations. Reasonable adjustment can be made at all points of the employment lifecycle – recruitment, induction and ongoing performance management. Learn more from the Reasonable Adjustments Info Sheet.
Privacy and confidentiality
Because many peer workers have jobs that require them to share their lived experience, managers can be lulled into accepting lower compliance with privacy requirements. Remember peer workers choose what to share and what to disclose during the performance of their roles. Managers and peer workers both need to be clear about what information can be shared with other employees – who, when and for what purposes. This requires discussions and agreement underpinned by practices, principles and rules.
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Training obviously goes hand in hand with career planning, and is intrinsic to developing a workforce. Training may include teaching specific skills, or developing capabilities through a range of strategies including mentoring, ‘acting up’, secondments and external study.
A new national qualification, the Certificate IV in Mental Health Peer Work, is specific to workers who have lived experience of mental illness as either a consumer or family/carer and who work in mental health services in roles that support consumer peers or family/carer peers. It is quickly becoming required training for mental health peer workers and a number of organisations are supporting their peer workers to obtain this qualification during the course of their employment. The course details and a number of resources can be found on myskills.gov.au website.