'Friendtors,' 'well-being buddies': Health systems zero in on peer support

As burnout continues to plague clinical staff and executive leaders alike, health systems are turning to peer support programs to combat loneliness and isolation. 

At New York City-based NYC Health + Hospitals, one staff member on each unit volunteers to be a "well-being buddy" for that shift. The designated person checks in on and supports colleagues, asking questions like "Did you get a lunch break?" or "Do you need water or coffee?" 

The resulting culture shift has been "phenomenal," Natalia Cineas, DNP, RN, the health system's senior vice president and chief nurse executive, told Becker's. Both patient and nurse satisfaction scores have risen since the program's implementation. 

Houston-based Memorial Hermann Health System also saw success with a colleague support program, "Code Lilac." Unlike NYC Health + Hospitals' program, which takes a more preventive approach, Code Lilac summons peer responders trained in psychological first aid when on-site colleagues report distress. 

Demand has been high; more than 400 volunteer first responders have provided support to more than 10,000 employees, the health system said in a November news release. 

"We developed Code Lilac to give our workforce a confidential space to talk to their peers about what is troubling them," said Laura Salazar-Hopps, chaplain manager of Code Lilac. "They experience a high degree of emotional trauma exposure all the time, including difficult cases and cumulative stress. Code Lilac gives distressed healthcare workers the opportunity to talk to a colleague who understands and can help them better deal with what they are going through."

Even Cleveland Clinic has leaned into the concept of peer support, uplifting "friendtors" in a September blog post. The system's caregiver office encourages employees and managers to develop bonds with one another to develop purpose and belonging. 

Professional mental health support is difficult to come by, especially on a healthcare workers' busy schedule. In fact, many employers are adding AI chatbots meant to mimic therapists and wellness apps that diagnose mental health conditions to their benefit plans as a more accessible form of support. On-site peer support programs offer a chance to talk through challenges with a human being rather than a computer — building culture and relationships in the process.

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