Monthly Archives: August 2015

Burnout in the Aid Sector: Debates and Emerging Issues

Burnout is a term that has become increasingly popular among the helping professions. Described by its key researchers as the emotional exhaustion and development of negative attitudes towards oneself and others that occurs among individuals doing ‘people work’  it is now increasingly recognised as a widespread problem within the aid sector. Within this sector, burnout is equated with mental and physical exhaustion, emotional detachment and insomnia arising from operating in challenging environments, heavy workload and insufficient social or organisational support. Concern has also been raised over its impact in terms of high staff turnover and absenteeism.

However the causes of burnout among aid workers are not clear or straightforward. There is a misguided assumption in much of the academic literature and public debates on this issue that chronic forms of stress such as burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder are associated with working in insecure or dangerous environments. This assumption fails to capture who exactly the aid worker is and how their unique circumstances – the personal values, choices or expectations that influence their work – may have an effect on their experience of stress. In addition, the humanitarian workers featured in most of the studies of stress and burnout in the sector are expatriates, whose emotional challenges are often associated with the specific pressures of living away from home in unfamiliar settings. Only a limited number of studies examine stress among national aid workers operating in their own countries (for some exceptional examples read Ager et al, 2012, and Cardozo et al, 2005).

A recent online consultation by PHAP (Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection) was a promising step towards putting the issue of stress and burnout and improving staff welfare in the aid sector firmly on the agenda of the UN at the World Humanitarian Summit next year, alongside a petition calling for the same. Among the rich and impassioned debate among approximately 170 aid professionals who joined the consultation online, a couple of issues emerged that reinforce the concerns I’ve outlined above. One is that we need to recognise that the emotional difficulties of this work do not only affect those doing the frontline interventions. Aid work means many things to many people; within my own professional experience this has included being a programme officer, human rights defender, researcher and campaigner. None of these roles fit traditionally within the humanitarian worker mold, but the emotions they provoke are not dissimilar due to the implications of repeatedly bearing witness to immense suffering and the horrors of mankind.

Not only is the call for better staff welfare too often focused purely on those working in emergency settings, it is also focused too often on expatriate aid workers. Yet, as acknowledged at the PHAP consultation and by others, national aid workers make up approximately 90 per cent of people operating within the aid sector.  They are often the ones exposed to more danger and risk due to their social proximity to communities their organisations are assisting and the fact they receive less security benefits and privileges – such as R&R packages and evacuations – than their expatriate counterparts.

Another important issue to emerge from the PHAP consultation is the aid sector’s organisational culture, which prevents the issue of staff welfare being widely discussed. In a sector that is constantly battling to get funds for its programmes, and where the public image is so focused on helping others, staff care costs are seen as a luxury. The fact that many organisations are not providing enough support or services for people suffering from chronic stress or burnout is obviously a major concern. However, so too is the fact that staff themselves are not admitting they are having difficulties. It’s quite possible that as aid workers, we all know someone who has suffered from chronic stress. But the signs are not always obvious. Aid workers and others within the helping professions are quite good at their emotional labour – a term described by Arlie Hochschild, the person who coined it, as ‘the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display’. In the case of aidworkers, amidst witnessing and responding to human rights violations and humanitarian catastrophes, showing one’s own vulnerability at times feels self-indulgent, or a sign of weakness amongst one’s far tougher colleagues and managers. Marianne Elliott provides some good examples of this in her account of her experiences working for the UN in Afghanistan. As does Kathleen Rodgers in her research into staff at Amnesty International.

Where there is a culture of suppressing difficult emotions it’s hard to know what the best response or form of support can be. Self-organisation among aid workers – seeking out support groups (please refer to my Resources page) – and opening up the discussion among colleagues, is in my view as important as putting pressure on  managers to take more responsibility in duty of care. As another humanitarian blogger has noted, we need to bring our burnout and our breakdowns out of the closet. Staff support and welfare interventions should certainly become more of a priority for aid organisations wishing to address staff burnout and turnover. But we as aid workers should also be willing to engage more directly with our own emotional needs and those of our colleagues. After all, this is part of the compassion that lies at the heart of all humanitarian work.

World Humanitarian Day: Remember the Human Behind the Humanitarian

Welcome to my blog site, Life in Crisis, which I’m launching on the 19 August to mark World Humanitarian Day.

Although I would not strictly call myself a humanitarian worker, I have operated within the humanitarian sphere for many years, in Palestine, Kenya and Uganda among other places. As someone who has worked for human rights and development organisations, and with local communities living in or recovering from conflict, I am fully aware of the challenges of this sort of work. These challenges relate both to our external environment and our internal emotional landscape.

On the one hand, living in unfamiliar terrains, often isolated from close friends and family and exposed to untold suffering on a daily basis takes its toll on even the most hardened aid worker. On the other, we’re often fighting our own inner battles of guilt, anxiety and self-doubt; constantly asking why we’re doing this job, whether we’re making any difference, whether our egos are getting the better of us, whether in fact our presence in the countries we’re operating in is doing more harm than good. We may have our own expectations of what this job was meant to be, or may be frantically trying to meet the expectations of our managers and colleagues. And so often it can feel like we’re failing on both counts, because we simply cannot respond to all the demands that the work places on us. And we cannot solve all the world’s problems, or the problems of the country we’re working in, or even the problems of one person asking for our help.

World Humanitarian Day is important as it forces us to remember the complexities of the challenges faced by aid workers. What do I mean by this? Firstly, that who we call the humanitarian worker encompasses hundreds of thousands of different people, of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. They may currently be working on the Ebola response in West Africa or assisting refugees from Syria, but they were also the first responders during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and are providing food and shelter to people fleeing the ongoing violence in Ukraine. Many are volunteers who have given up their day job to respond to something they feel deeply concerned about; many others are doing this work as a career, within the UN or international NGO sector.

And they are not all white and from the Western world, as one might assume from portrayals in the media. The popular image of the caring and nurturing twenty-something – often female – holding a sick African child, is one snapshot of a far more diverse and complicated sector. An estimated 90 per cent of humanitarian workers are nationals who operate in their own country. In other words, nationals from countries undergoing natural or man-made disasters and conflicts such as Syria, Nepal or Afghanistan are all playing a crucial role in humanitarian interventions, and the chances are they are putting their lives at far greater risk than their expatriate counterparts in doing so.

This is because of the high risks they face of being targeted or attacked in their own environments, and the unfortunate reality that they are unlikely to receive the same sort of support from their employers as would their expatriate colleagues. 

So today is an opportunity to remember the human face of the humanitarian worker, whether they be from the US, Europe or the developing world. It is a chance to recognise the complexity of each and every personality in the sector, and their associated morals, values and motivations.

There are two dominant narratives that describe the humanitarian worker. One is of the selfless hero – the popular image promoted by aid agencies themselves and by the media. The other is the selfish and privileged careerist – portrayed often by aid workers themselves who wish to debunk the selfless hero myth. But neither narrative gives a fair representation of the many thoughts, beliefs, feelings and emotions behind every humanitarian intervention. Aid workers are not always heroes, but they are not villains either. They are often walking a fragile tightrope between responding to the suffering of the communities they are assisting and to their own personal and emotional needs. All too often the latter plays second fiddle to the former and the desire to maintain the facade of the humanitarian hero. And it is this neglect of ‘the self’ – of understanding and working with complicated personal interests, motivations and feelings – that can lead to far greater emotional difficulties such as chronic stress and burnout.

This blog site will be examining and reflecting on these issues in more detail over the coming months. But for now, suffice to say, if we are to really ‘reshape aid’ we need to consider the personal as well as the professional aspects of aid work. We need to remember that feelings and emotions matter for the humanitarian as much as they do for any other human being. They shape their choices and their actions, and therefore have a huge role to play in how humanitarian work is done. This is why the current petition calling for staff welfare to be included on the agenda of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 is so important. It highlights that aid interventions – as flawed as they may be at times – cannot be efficiently administered or improved unless we address the emotional suffering of aid workers and the impact this has on what they do. World Humanitarian Day may seem an uncomfortable way of recognising the existence of this suffering alongside the suffering of the populations receiving aid.  But it’s also an opportunity to keep pushing the issue of staff welfare and self-care onto the agendas of all aid workers – managers and field officers alike; it is a collective responsibility and one that we can start addressing today.