SPARKS (Supporting PARKland Staff) is a peer support program in which employee volunteers provide confidential support to Parkland employees who experience a stressful patient-related event, such as workplace violence, medical errors or sudden patient deaths. How does this build trustworthiness? The program builds trust with employees at all levels of the organization by providing effective and compassionate support from their fellow employees at a time of vulnerability.

How It Works

SPARKS (Supporting Parkland Staff) is a peer support program comprised of volunteer Parkland employees who receive training in psychological first aid. Parkland SPARKS peer supporters provide confidential support to Parkland employees who experience a stressful patient-related event, which can include cumulative work stress or a specific patient situation. Event examples include workplace violence, medical errors or sudden patient deaths. Unanticipated medical events can trigger the “second victim” phenomenon where the person experiences prolonged negative impacts and distress that can interfere in their functioning at home and work.

In situations where an employee is vulnerable and seeking support from a peer, building trust is of utmost importance. Prior to meeting with an employee, SPARKS supporters receive in-depth and ongoing training to ensure those who seek support receive confidential and unconditional support without judgment. Without trust, employees will not feel supported and will not utilize the program for future needs. SPARKS builds trust by developing competent, compassionate peer supporters.

Prior to the SPARKS program, Parkland employees could utilize other resources, including the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). According to the Mental Health Commission in Canada, employees tend to reach out to peers rather than EAP as peer supporters ‘inspire hope and demonstrate the possibility of recovery; there is value in the authenticity of the peer supporter.’ In a hospital-based peer support program, trust is implicitly built into the model, as the employees are receiving support from peers who are also embedded in the organization. SPARKS builds trust by having peer supporters who can understand employee experiences at Parkland.

There are approximately 60 trained SPARKS peer supporters from various roles and locations across the hospital system. Employees have readily volunteered to be peer supporters, suggesting trust in the program’s mission to “Provide timely support to employees who encounter stressful patient-related events.” SPARKS builds trust by being composed of enthusiastic peer supporters from all disciplines and roles.

SPARKS builds trust by demonstrating the utility, effectiveness, and need for peer support in the organization. In summary, SPARKS builds trust with employees at all levels of the organization by effectively, compassionately, and intrinsically providing support to each other.

Skills and Competencies

Peer supporters must be in good standing in their primary role with approval by their immediate leader. They agree to maintain strict confidentiality, attend in-person training, provide on-call peer support, debrief and document encounters, and participate in monthly meetings. During training, peer supporters learn tenets and skills of psychological first aid and strategies for providing resources and referrals. They are trained to provide individual, group, and crisis support. Didactics, role plays, and current hospital issues are presented in monthly meetings. Peer supporters develop skills and competencies to provide impacted staff with proactive, consistent, nonjudgmental support after stressful patient-related events.


A small group of Parkland leaders identified the intense need just before the Dallas Police shootings in July of 2016. These leaders developed a proposal for funds from the Parkland Foundation’s ‘I Give’ Campaign, which are funds donated by employees for the purpose of developing the program. With the $37,000 received from the Foundation, Parkland enlisted Johns Hopkins RISE (RISE) Leaders and the Maryland Patient Safety Institute (MPSI) to assist in training and program development, as they had been successful pioneers in this area. In April 2017, Parkland held a five-hour educational session led by the RISE and Maryland Patient Safety Institute leaders to educate Executive Nursing, Physician and Operational leaders of the Hopkins RISE program and the need for building an internal program.

In August 2017, monies were awarded from the Parkland Foundation, where a SPARKS executive team was formed that worked with RISE and MPSI. Parkland Executive Leadership sponsored the program and, with the support of the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Nurse Executive and Chief Operating Officer, an enterprise-wide campaign was launched to enhance employee knowledge of the new program. “The program developed for employees through the funds of employees” also launched a campaign to identify potential supporters. Criteria to be a SPARKS supporter included those who had an interest in helping their peers but were also in good standing and approved by their leader. Two training sessions were held in March and September 2018 for approximately 60 SPARKS volunteers from all roles across the health system. The interest and engagement were palpable, and the needs of staff were higher than originally anticipated. Data collected through two separate culture of safety surveys identified the need for staff support and in February 2019, the SPARKS Peer Support Program was formally launched. It is currently led by a formal dedicated Program Manager and two peer supporters are on call 24/7/365, with mentoring back up as needed.

The executive team and program manager have developed procedures, training materials, marketing materials, and a voicemail box to ensure staff are receiving the support needed. With 293 employees being supported by the program in its first year, it demonstrates the trust of staff in their peers to help them when in need.


Trust in the SPARKS program is evident in the number of employees who have reached out for support in our initial launch year. In the first 10 months, 230 employees have received peer support from SPARKS. These calls for support have come from employees themselves, as well as supervisors and concerned peers. In comparison to similar programs across the nation, SPARKS has had significantly higher utilization rate than other programs.


As part of the RISE consortium, Parkland has shared our practices and documents with the intent to help others build their program. With the positive response from the encounters but also from the Peer Supporters themselves, feedback obtained at the annual retreat noted this to be a program of great need and one in which staff have a desire to participate. There is currently a waiting list! This engagement by the peer supporters lends to the trust they have in one another as well as the trust within the program and its leadership. This level of trust cascades to the middle management, frontline staff and others whom have entrusted themselves to reach out for support.