Supervision is organised, ongoing support for the peer worker.  This section will describe in detail:

  • why supervision is important
  • the tasks of a supervisor
  • essential elements of the supervision process
  • important issues regarding supervision
  • and suggestions for additional support strategies.



Relevance of supervision

Supervision is important because:

  • it is essential for the performance and wellbeing of the peer worker
  • it makes sure that the goals of the work are met


Supervision is critically important for peer workers because of the nature of the work.  Peer work is on the edge, being in both worlds.  Peer work is inspiring and might lead to great aspirations, but might sometimes also be a source of isolation and frustration. Good supervision can reduce these tensions.  However good peer workers’ motivations and ambitions, they should not be overloaded with responsibilities and roles.

Supervision can be conducted during regular, scheduled sessions and on an ‘as-needed’ basis by project staff and intermediaries.  Supervision can cover both work-related issues, like how dealing with the death of a client affects a worker, and administrative issues concerning job performance.

Tasks of a supervisor

  • keeping track of all the peer workers
  • documenting all work-related matters, supervision sessions, work schedules, etc.
  • reporting back to the rest of the agency
  • helping guide peers to use/improve their personal and professional skills and suggesting training
  • providing direction and making sure that the peer workers’ targets and the agency's goals are being met.

Essential elements of the supervision process
Most agencies assign a staff member to coordinate/supervise peers.  Supervision for peer workers should be conducted regularly.  In these sessions, the peers receive support in planning how to go about their work, in further training and self-development, and in resolving conflicts and differences of opinion. 

The sessions also provide:

  • Technical support in the form of information, skills training, answers to questions, help in setting up presentations and activities, and funding for ongoing training and equipment.
  • Social and community support in maintaining links and liaisons with partners, other NGOs and peer projects, and support in resolving problems between peer workers and intermediaries, social network gatekeepers and community members.
  • Personal support assistance in the form of emotional support on an ‘as-needed’ basis for both project activities and personal growth;  the maintenance of a positive atmosphere among workers;  and support in times of personal and/or group crisis.

Supervision:  important issues
Important issues surrounding supervision are:  (source: Open Society Public Health Program, ‘Harm reduction at work’):

  • Peers need to communicate with their supervisor regularly.
  • Peer work is not regular nine to five work.  The agency needs to create a convenient time and place where the peer and the supervisor can meet.
  • The supervisor should be much more than just a boss.  He or she should create a safe environment to discuss personal and work matters, be a caring, experienced person who has a genuine understanding of marginalised communities, the life they are living and the struggles they might have.
  • An open ear and open door policy are helpful, so workers feel free to come in and share their concerns, insights or questions with their supervisor.
  • All supervision procedures should be as supportive and respectful as possible toward employees who use drugs.  Successes in job performance should be acknowledged (“I appreciate that you have seemed more focused and are contributing in meetings”).
  • Supervisors should be mindful of the language they use, avoiding positive reinforcement for non-drug using behaviours by saying things such as “I’m so glad you haven’t been using lately”.
  • The confidentiality of employees should always be respected, and private information about an employee’s work performance should never be shared with anyone else.
  • Supervision should be ongoing and consistent.  Supervisors and supervisees should find a format that works in their situation and stick to it.
  • Supervisors should be flexible and adjust their supervisory procedures to maximise positive returns for the programme and for employees who use drugs.
  • Employees should be encouraged to be truthful about any problems or achievements they may encounter in their work, without fear of prejudice or discrimination.
  • Discussions about an employee’s drug use should never be used against them.  Supervisors should focus on job performance, not drug use.
  • Positive reinforcement and problem-solving should be built into the format of supervision meetings.
  • Employees who use drugs, like other employees, should be recognised and rewarded for their good work.  Supervisors should be creative in giving rewards such as certificates recognising achievements, including special notes in a staff member’s file, or giving gift vouchers from local restaurants or entertainment businesses.
  • Supervisors should be prepared to recognise non-traditional forms of problem-solving by drug-using employees. The nature of peer work can frequently result in unconvential but effective solutions to complex problems for service users, projects, and staff.
  • Additional support strategies: Some suggested additional support strategies for peer workers (in addition to supervision) are: (source: Open Society Public Health Program, ‘Harm reduction at work’):
  • Get a counsellor from an agency not affiliated with your programme to facilitate a discussion group for staff who use drugs.  This will allow staff to discuss issues they may be afraid to talk about with supervisors and management in general.  Such topics include a move to more “chaotic” drug using behaviours;   personal crises, such as loss of housing or deteriorating personal relationships;   and issues related to confidentiality.
  • Participate as a team in other community-based initiatives that have overlapping political objectives with your programme.  HIV/AIDS projects, affordable housing support groups and anti-racist activist groups may host special events such as demonstrations, parties, fundraising initiatives, and other events.
  • Schedule regular staff appreciation events for your own organisation (like annual barbeque or group dinners).  Other events include activities through which staff bond by giving back to the community.  One example is a “community clean-up,” where staff go out as a group and clean up drug paraphernalia discarded in public spaces, or have a picnic, or do something not work-related together for fun.
  • If your programme has a fixed site or an office, promote support groups for drug-using staff from different organisations by allowing them to use your resources, including the space, coffee machines and kitchens, for example.
  • Encourage employees who use drugs to join other drug user activist organisations such as users’ unions, user- based community newsletters, etc.
  • Encourage and assist employees who use drugs to participate in drug user-specific events such as conferences and workshops.  Teach them how to write abstracts and biographies  and try to secure funding for them to attend these events.   Suggest an ‘advocacy event leave’ as a day off to participate in relevant demonstrations or other political events.