Tag Archives: burnout

The Role of Mindfulness in Aidwork

Using the terms mindfulness or meditation in the work setting of a humanitarian or human rights NGO can often feel inappropriate or irrelevant. In a sector that focuses primarily on caring for others, this method of self-care may seem at best of secondary importance, at worst in contradiction to the principles of selflessness that are associated with aid work. In the wider Western world, these terms also have negative connotations – of being hippie or ‘New Agey,’  therefore only understood and respected by people who have chosen a spiritual path. And a common accusation is that meditation is a navel-gazing exercise, which allows us to be detached from, or to escape, the realities of the world we live in but has no value in bringing any sort of change to those realities. This accusation can be found in, for instance, an article by Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore, which claims that mindfulness is all about self-help, but does nothing to change an unjust world. I would like to take issue with some of these assumptions about mindfulness and meditation, whilst also highlighting and attempting to address the uneasiness that exists towards the practice, both in the humanitarian and human rights sector and the wider world.

But first, what is mindfulness and how can it be distinguished from meditation? I see mindfulness as a practice, or exercise, that can be applied at any point in any day, no matter what we are doing. Meditation is one tool in which to practise mindfulness – a way of stepping out of what one is doing in the day, and dedicating 5, 15, 20 or 50 minutes to simply sitting and being present. Focusing on the breath is a common way of anchoring ourselves in that present moment. Mindfulness, whether through quiet, solitary meditation or otherwise, is an opportunity to transcend the endless chatter in our heads – the grievances about the past, the anxieties about the future – and simply focus on experiences as they happen, in the present. We can practise mindfulness without needing to meditate. The moment may be something as mundane as doing the ironing or as challenging as physical or emotional pain. Or the enjoyment of eating chocolate or walking in the woods. How often do we actually taste the food we are eating, when most of the time we are eating whilst working, or reading, or talking to others? How often do we actually feel our physical pain, when our instinct is to distract ourselves from it or be so consumed in worries about the possible future implications of the pain? Mindfulness puts us in touch with the immediate sensory experience, so that we are able to really feel what is happening, and acknowledge what that feeling is. It helps to deepen our awareness of all the thoughts, feelings and emotions that make up who we are, not only as individuals but as part of the human race.

Relating this back to humanitarian and human rights work, being mindful is a way of ensuring that we are not continuously led by our emotional responses. This is not to say that emotional responses to injustice, or human suffering, are not important. I think the problem that Suzanne Moore and others – including myself at times – have with ‘spiritual’ practice is the notion that it is too inward-looking, and makes robots out of human beings; real, raw emotions may in fact be lost in the search for authentic and transcendental enlightenment.

But mindfulness is as much about connecting with the outer world as it is with navigating our inner world. Both of these are important – we cannot help or show understanding to others if we are unable to help or understand ourselves. This is why compassion plays such an important role in Buddhist teachings of meditation. By exploring what is happening within, we can connect with deeper truths about human existence, consciousness and suffering that we so often overlook, ignore or avoid in everday life. Mindfulness also enables us to take a moment to watch the emotional reactions we have and guage whether they are helpful for us and for others. Anger and rage may be common experiences when working on issues related to oppression and injustice, but they are not always helpful. I have worked in settings where these emotions, displayed bombastically, provocatively and argumentatively serve to alienate the sympathisers to our cause as much as our opponents. Is that what we really want to achieve each time we disagree with something or someone we don’t like? Breathing in to and observing those emotions, instead of always getting lost in them, helps us to gain some clarity over how it is we really wish to respond, and what it is we really wish to convey when we react to human suffering. We are mindful not only in observing our thoughts and emotions, but also in putting those thoughts and emotions into action, for a particular effect or outcome. This is why it is an essential tool to bring into all that we do.

The debate over the relevance of mindfulness in aid work and activism is far from over, and in fact has only just begun, as more and more people take up the practice as a means to relieving stress and burnout. Whilst I try to practise various forms of mindfulness in my everyday life, I also continue to ask myself certain questions about its scope and use in the sector I work in. How can it help aid workers interact more effectively and compassionately with people around them? What role can it play in the quest for social justice? Is it merely a practice for the privileged or can it have meaning for the communities served by aid workers? Perhaps some readers have experiences to share that can help answer these questions.

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.