Stress in the Aid Sector: Who Suffers Most and Why?

Something in my heart snaps. My hands tremble and my eyes burn. For the first time since arriving here I cry. I cry for the dead boy buried in the cornfield. I cry for the hungry man beaten by the police. I cry for the little boy whose hopes of living with family have been shattered. I cry for the woman who will never recover from the wounds inflicted by her husband…

Miranda Gaanderse, relief worker in Rwamanja refugee camp, south-western Uganda (from Chasing Misery, ed. Kelsey Hoppe, 2014).

Why do some aid workers suffer from stress more than others? How do they cope with their emotional difficulties and what does this tell us about who they are and why they are doing this work? These are some of the questions I will be considering as I conduct field research in Kenya for my doctorate.

My research is inspired by my own experiences and those of my colleagues in the aid sector. Having worked in many different roles and in a variety of contexts – from villages at risk of demolition by Israeli authorities in the West Bank, to communities recovering from conflict and the tsunami in Sri Lanka – I’ve realised that stress and burnout is more complicated in this sector than one may originally assume. It is not merely the consequence of working in emergency or crisis situations, nor is it solely related to insufficient institutional support or the difficulties of working in unfamiliar settings, far away from family and friends. As mentioned in a previous blog piece there is a wealth of literature addressing the possible causes and symptoms of stress and burnout. However, whether it be in academic literature or in NGO/aid agency policy papers, we are told little about who it is specifically that suffers from stress and why. In particular I have found that there is an emphasis on the experiences of people operating in emergency settings – primarily relief workers – and on expats; with little attention paid to the reality that stress and burnout are also problems for other types of aid workers – such as development professionals or human rights activists, and nationals operating in their own countries.

The fact that there are so few studies about national aid workers is of particular concern, given that they make up approximately 90 per cent of the workforce.  They are often at the most risk from the work they do, due to their social proximity to the victims and perpetrators of human rights abuses and the state authorities responsible for addressing such abuses. They are also usually on lower salaries, with less benefits than their expatriate counterparts. They cannot simply leave the country when times get tough, nor do they have the same luxuries as many of their expat colleagues in terms of living arrangements and housing allowances.

Recent, and now increasing, reports of female aid workers being sexually harassed whilst on the job also highlights that women are at times faced with specific challenges and risks that are not fully recognised and no doubt are a serious source of stress.

Although these issues are receiving growing attention, this is not yet being translated into providing better advice and support that acknowledges the complexity of aid workers’ experiences. My research is thus aimed at highlighting that stress among aid workers can only be fully addressed by examining the diversity of personalities and identities within the sector and the influence of these elements on behaviour and experiences.

Motivations are particularly important here; I believe a deeper understanding of these may shine some light on why some people suffer from stress more than others. It is common for aid workers to be perceived as purely altruistic (particularly in the media and indeed by our own family and friends), or the complete opposite; in other words, motivated by what they may gain in terms of personal or professional development and status. Aid workers increasingly try to debunk the image of the altruistic hero by emphasising their primarily selfish motivations. My feeling is motivations are more complicated than this, and may be influenced by one’s background, upbringing and political beliefs. I’m interested to find out what role these motivations play in how aid workers approach and deal with the pressures of their job.

I also hope to reveal how one’s identity – whether this be class, gender, race, sexual orientation, culture or religion – influences the aid worker’s experiences. Whilst aid workers themselves share their experiences of the specific challenges of being, for instance a woman, or gay, far more analysis is needed to understand how these challenges contribute to stress and burnout in the sector.

It is my belief that understanding these issues is vital if organisations are to provide better staff care, and if aid workers are to make sense of the emotional upheavals associated with their jobs. I hope that my research, as well as this blog site, will provide opportunities to share experiences and reflect on how as aid workers we can understand ourselves and each other better.

4 thoughts on “Stress in the Aid Sector: Who Suffers Most and Why?

  1. Nikki

    Interesting stuff, I wonder if transient identity as well as anchored identity has an influence? I’m looking forward to reading more.

    Reply
  2. Michaelh

    It’s a well considered and articulate essay which makes me, as someone not involved in the aid sector, realise what a complex subject this is. There is clearly a need for more and more research and a greater understanding of the reason for stress and burnt out, particularly amongst nationals as well as expats; and like Nikki, I’m intrigued by the whole question of identity and gender.

    Reply
    1. AidSoulSearch Post author

      Thanks for your commment. As I begin to talk to people here in Nairobi about my research, I realise that very little thought is given to some of the issues around identity raised in my blog piece, either by staff or by managers. It will be interesting to see what emerges in indepth interviews, where I hope to give people the space to reflect on how they perceive themselves and their colleagues.

      Reply

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