This past week has seen a real shake-up in the aid sector. First last Monday the publication of the Guardian’s survey on aid worker wellbeing, which found that 79% of its 754 respondents claimed to suffer from mental health problems, including diagnosed depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Then on Wednesday came the news that an Oslo court had found the humanitarian organisation Norwegian Refugee Council guilty of ‘gross negligence’ in the treatment of former employee Steve Dennis and others who were kidnapped by armed groups in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya in 2012. Steve Dennis was awarded $500,000 in compensation plus costs.
Both pieces of news point to the same issue – that aid organisations are not giving nearly enough attention to the wellbeing of their staff, particularly those who are doing the frontline relief work in emergency areas, and that individuals are not getting the support they need when they experience serious stress and mental health conditions such as burnout and PTSD.
But before aid organisations quickly rush to demonstrate that they have all the right policies and structures in place to support their staff (I’m sure this is happening already, particularly given the legal implications of the Steve Dennis case) it’s worth reflecting on a few issues that are relevant but have not been so highly pronounced or exposed in these two pieces of news.
Which aid workers are being referred to in the Guardian’s survey? We are given little detail about who the 754 respondents are, except that most of them were female and expatriate. This in itself is hardly an accurate reflection of the broader aid sector, in which approximately 90% are nationals. I am also interested to know who these ‘aid workers’ were exactly. Only those working in disaster areas? Or development workers? They may not be exposed to the acute suffering that one witnesses in a disaster area, but are certainly likely to witness the human misery that arises from extreme poverty. Or human rights workers? They too are bearing witness to ongoing injustices. The survey did not make clear what jobs these 754 respondents were doing. For me this is of interest because the assumption is often that it is humanitarian workers who suffer the most from the work they do. And yet my own research is already demonstrating that you don’t have to be on the frontlines of war and disaster to suffer from burnout or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Can the causes of mental health problems be so easily defined? The main factors contributing to serious mental health conditions according to the Guardian survey were security incidents and the witnessing of human tragedy. Yet it is also becoming clear, in the Guardian’s own reports and elsewhere, that different people – women and nationals in particular – experience different challenges in this work. Given the Guardian’s own reporting on sexual assaults within the aid industry, a question we should be asking when addressing aid worker wellbeing is what specific challenges have women faced and what sort of support do they need? The same could be said about nationals. It is quite possible that some nationals are directly affected by the issues their organisations are working on; perhaps they are refugees themselves, or they or their family have been victims of domestic violence. These factors are important as mental health conditions cannot be fully understood unless we consider the individual’s background and identity and how these impact on their experiences in the workplace.
What are aid workers doing to address their challenges and difficulties? Both the Guardian survey and the Steve Dennis case may provide damning evidence that aid organisations need to be doing more to support their staff. And certainly the survey findings are pretty critical about the insufficient response given by aid organisations to staff who have suffered from mental health issues. But tightened security procedures, regular debriefings and staff counselling are not the only solutions aid organisations should be seeking. Staff themselves need to be considering what they must do to address the challenges they face in their work. As aid workers, we all like to moan about how our managers don’t have time for us and aren’t supporting us enough – and this may well be accurate a lot of the time – but are we also giving time and support to ourselves? In a culture that can often seem competitive and macho in its pressure to work the longest hours and be the most dedicated, what role can we play in caring for ourselves and stepping back, or seeking help, when we need to? With any big emotional challenges in our lives, it can be far easier to point fingers and blame situations or other people. It is harder, but just as important, to reflect on who we are and how we approach our work as possible factors in why we struggle in certain ways. As aid workers, our personal motivations, expectations and approach to work may say a lot about whether we eventually suffer disillusionment, guilt or burnout. And likewise reflecting on these and what needs to change within ourselves may help overcome some of our darkest moments.
These comments are not seeking to belittle individual experiences, nor undermine the serious mental health conditions that many are suffering in this work, including the staff of Norwegian Refugee Council who were kidnapped and those who responded to the Guardian survey. But I do believe we need a more nuanced approach to aid worker wellbeing that recognises that the challenges of this work are not simply related to security incidents and operating within conflict settings; I believe the experiences within the sector are far more complex. Nor are better security procedures or counselling services the only solutions. As the Guardian survey recognises, the culture within aid organisations must change. This not only means creating a space where it is safe and acceptable to admit you are struggling or not coping; it also means cultivating an environment in which people continue to feel valued and maintain a sense of purpose and meaning in what they do. This is the work of everybody – organisations and staff – who have an interest in reducing serious mental health and stress conditions and the resulting staff absenteeism and turnover; and who wish to encourage a spirit of humanity – not only in the field but also in the office.