Wait, what just happened? Aid workers who are reading this, how often have you had this feeling after returning from field work, or completing an intense and all-consuming job? That feeling that something that gave you purpose, that helped to define your life for much of the time, has come to an end…..and now you have entered the void, the unknown. Not entirely sure what comes next, and too tired and discombobulated to move in any meaningful direction.
I’ve been there before. And to some extent I am there now, although not because of any humanitarian activity. Just a few weeks ago I submitted the final final, this-is-truly-it (I think) version of my Phd thesis, entitled The Vulnerable Humanitarian: Discourses of Stress and Meaning-Making Among Aid Workers in Kenya. I say ‘final-final’ because what no one tells you when embarking on a Phd is that a good few months are spent producing what you assume to be the final draft of your thesis, only to go through a prolonged process of revisions following what is supposedly the pinnacle of your efforts: the viva, or oral examination where you defend what you have written. This means that ending the Phd often lacks finality, or closure. It is hard to be sure where the end-point actually lies: when you submit your thesis for review by your examiners, when you have the viva, when you submit the corrections suggested by your examiners, or when they approve your corrections (I’m still waiting for this last part). And during this time we are left in limbo, wondering what has just happened and what is ahead of us.
Back to the parallels with aid workers, and the re-entry into ‘normal life’. Particularly when you are not sure of what you want to do next, or you are hoping for an adjustment in career aspirations or work-life balance but are not quite sure yet what that means – and I know there are many aid workers out there having this experience – there follows a period of uncertainty, and possibly panic. And the human instinct often appears to be one of FOMO, the fear of missing out, or of failure, if we allow ourselves to stop for just one minute and take a breath from our life aspirations.
The problem also for those of us who are taking the route of addressing wellbeing in the aid sector, the success of such initiatives largely depends on us being able to commodify what we believe is vital to this industry; to prove to aid organisations that it makes financial sense to look after staff. Many of us need to be self-starters, good at networking and with the right jargon and tactics to access, and persuade, the sector’s managers and gatekeepers. Although recent events, including the suicides of two members of staff at Amnesty International and the allegations of sexual harassment in various organisations has shone a light on wellbeing in the sector, these issues are largely still not a priority when resources are scarce and the needs of populations in war zones and disaster areas ever-greater. It thus remains a huge effort to make ourselves heard in a sector that largely wants to maintain the status quo of pushing staff beyond their capacities until they can no longer function, and who are easily dispensed of because some other idealist can easily take their place.
Individual and collective wellbeing in the aid sector nevertheless remains my passion, after having spent over four years studying stress among aid workers in Kenya, and having worked in many organisations where lack of attention to staff care has had negative implications for my health and the health of my colleagues. So although I’m in the transition phase of finishing my Phd, waking each day with some inertia and indeed some emotion as I let go of this last chapter of my life, I also know there is much work to be done in challenging organisational cultures and practices that not only damage staff but the very humanitarian ethos and caring aspirations of the aid sector. I am thus striking a delicate balance between resting, enjoying a life that goes beyond the mental angst and solitude of academia, and of connecting my ideas and values with meaningful action.
In the next few weeks, as I gather my own inner resources for the struggles ahead (because challenging the injustices and mental and emotional health implications of the aid system’s patriarchal and colonial structure is a struggle) I will also be sharing some of what I have learned in the last few years. At my university, Sussex, with support from Project U-DOC I am facilitating a series of workshops on the mental health and wellbeing of doctoral researchers in June and July. These will take an intersectional approach that recognises that wellbeing is a collective, not just an individual, endeavour that cannot be seen in isolation from, or merely as an add-on to, problematic systems of power and hierarchy.
In the aid sector, I will be writing regular updates on humanitarian health and wellbeing for the Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection network (PHAP); with the first one likely to address the findings of Amnesty International’s Wellbeing Review and upcoming initiatives arising out of the Healing Solidarity conference in September last year, including a new online platform you can join.
And, finally, at long last – I will get to work on sharing my research findings more widely, via this blog site and other channels. This includes the publication of an article for Gender and Development in June/July, which addresses power and privilege in the aid sector and the gendered and racialised problems of stress among my research participants in Kenya.
So please do watch this space and I look forward to sharing ideas and getting your feedback in the months ahead!