I have just finished reading The Idealist’s Survival Kit by Alessandra Pigni, a collection of ideas, reflections and tools for understanding and responding to burnout. The book, which is divided into 75 bite-sized chunks containing accounts from aid workers and activists, poetry and passages or quotes from the likes of Brene Brown, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Rachel Naomi Remen, is easy to read and will resonate with anyone in the helping professions.
Although largely gentle and encouraging in tone – and thus a great book to dip in to when in feeling the pressures, fears and self-doubts that often arise when working in emergency settings – Pigni is also attempting to shake us up as aid workers. To hold a mirror in front of us so that we can see that we too – as well as our organisations – are responsible for our mental health.
One question that the book is often asking is: what are our motivations as aid workers? To ‘save the world’ perhaps. To have an adventure. To learn from other cultures and ways of life. To make a difference, have a purpose. But alongside all of that, Pigni – and some of the other aid workers she talks to – also see that this profession can provide an escape. It is a way of retreating from a life of normalcy, with its unemployment, debts and unsatisfactory relationships. It is a way of becoming a ‘somebody’; a person who is seen in the public eye and by their family and peers as being heroic and self-sacrificing. Our work can give us the attention that we often strive for in ‘normal’ life but never quite attain. Perhaps, as Pigni suggests, it is a form of therapy. And when our work is given this value, we at times create an illusion that working for a cause is the panacea for all our mental anguish; rendering home life unimportant and banal. I’ve been through it, and I’ve met others during my field research who are going through it now; losing connection with ‘home’, with the familiar, and instead finding identity and belonging only through the adrenalin rush of humanitarian work. In these instances, we let our work define us, and without it we feel lost and unhinged.
At the same time there is a lot of suffering in in aid work – and not only the suffering of people living in disaster. Aid workers suffer also, but very often do not show it, for fear that their hero identity will be undermined, and that they may even lose their job because they are seen as too weak or incapable. There is a lot of shame around admitting to needing support. Which is ironic, and worrying, in a sector that is built upon being compassionate and responding to the suffering of others.
How has this happened? As the book acknowledges, the professionalisation of the sector has a lot to answer for; in the quest to raise more money and achieve better results, the aid worker has become a cog in a machine rather than a human being with emotions and values which drive what they do. It is no coincidence that terms such as ‘resilience’ and ‘grit’ have become so popular in a sector that encourages people to keep going no matter what. But, as Pigni rightly says, these qualities mean very little if a person has lost a sense of meaning in their work.
This book is about trying to reclaim humanity towards ourselves and each other in the workplace, as we try to do the same with the communities we are assisting. Recovering from, or avoiding burnout, is as much to do with feeling into our emotions, being with them and being vulnerable – learning to grieve, as Rachel Naomi Reiman puts it in Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal – as it is about organisations becoming more caring.
This is not to say that organisations don’t have a responsibility – they do. Pigni uses the example of a woman who feels exhausted and burnt out, and works in a toxic environment where everyone is overworked and under appreciated. She is told by her managers that there is no budget for staff care beyond perhaps doing a stress management workshop. In such instances, of course, simply taking time off to go on a holiday or yoga retreat will not solve the problem.
While the cause we purport to advance may be noble, we need an environment that does not crush our soul while maintaining to “empower” those in need or improve society. Society improves right here, in this office, this community centre, this activist group.
[The Idealist’s Survival Kit: 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout, p. 57]
This book is more about having those difficult conversations – with ourselves, with our colleagues and with our managers – about bringing humanity into the workplace, than it is about suggesting more ‘duty of care’ policies for aid organisations. And a lot of the advice revolves around learning to ‘be’ as well as to ‘do’. In other words, slowing down. It may ultimately mean having to do something dramatic, like leave the toxic environment and take a break from the sector, in order heal oneself before healing others. Or it may simply be spending more time listening and reflecting in order to respond more compassionately.
The idea of stepping away from ‘doing’ and just ‘being’, in the company of others, resonated with me a lot, particularly when considering how we work with ‘aid beneficiaries.’ I remembered how hurried so many interactions were when I was in the field; so focused were my colleagues and I on getting through back-to-back interviews with victims of violence or displacement that we, too, lost our humanity. Under pressure to achieve particular outputs and results, we do not take the time to truly be with someone who is suffering – to share a cup of tea, to visit their home, to ‘break bread’ together. Such small moments can be just as important and meaningful, whether this occurs with colleagues or with aid beneficiaries. They help us to find meaning and beauty in the midst of complexity, confusion, fear, uncertainty and all the other qualities inherent in a world of suffering and violence.
By connecting with oneself, one’s family and loved ones – as well with the communities we are assisting – we learn to become whole; to bridge the ‘cognitive dissonance’, as Pigni describes it, between home and field, between ideals and reality, and to feel into the vulnerability that lies beneath our actions and which makes us truly human. In her words, these moments of humanity can be healing moments in themselves.