Abstract: Do Peer Support Workers Experience Disproportionate General Stress or Work Stress? (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Do Peer Support Workers Experience Disproportionate General Stress or Work Stress?

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Stephania L. Hayes
Jennifer L. Skeem, PhD, Mack Distinguished Professor, University of California, Berkeley, CA
Background: Peer support specialists (PS) have experience in mental health recovery and are hired to assist others struggling with similar challenges in often-overburdened behavioral healthcare settings. This study’s objective is to characterize the severity of general stress and work-related stress in a large sample of active PSs (n=738), compared to normative data on other groups. The role of current symptom severity is also considered.

Method: A sample of 738 adult PSs working in mental health service settings were recruited to complete a cross-sectional online survey that included the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the Secondary Traumatic Stress Scale, and the Perceived Stress Scale. Participants’ scores are described and compared with normative samples of mental health service providers and non-referred adults. Comparisons are stratified by PSs’ current level of psychological distress, as assessed by the Brief Symptom Inventory.

Results: As a group, PSs experienced low to moderate levels of general stress and work-related stress. Compared with norms for community residents, PSs endorsed modestly lower levels of perceived general distress (d =-.25). PSs endorsed levels of secondary trauma (d= -.15) that approximate norms for social workers—and endorsed only modestly greater emotional exhaustion (d= .20) than norms for clinicians. However, a small subgroup of PSs (21.6%) were experiencing clinically significant levels of current symptoms and endorsed substantially greater general stress, secondary trauma, and emotional exhaustion than norms (d= 0.76, 1.09 & 1.43, respectively), despite having caseloads, work hours, pay, and tenure similar to that of their peers.

Conclusion: As a group, PSs appear no more susceptible to general stress and work-related stress than relevant comparison groups of community residents and clinicians. However, a small subgroup of PSs experience both significant stress and symptoms—in keeping with a well-established association between stress and psychological distress. Implications for supporting PSs and other clinicians with periods of work stress are discussed.