Tag Archives: resilience

Reflections on the Idealist’s Survival Kit

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.

Understanding the Spiritual Lives of Aid Workers

Isn’t it about time aid organisations paid more attention to the spiritual lives of their staff? After all, it is often faith of one sort or another that is guiding the work of aid professionals. With approximately 90% of the aid sector being made up of people from non-western countries, I think it is safe to say that the majority of that 90% would identify themselves with a particular faith. This is in contrast to western aid workers, where I would guess that the percentage who identify with and actively practise a particular religion is much lower. This is a fairly informed guess, given that I used to work for a large Christian charity where about half the number of its UK staff (including myself) did not identify with the Christian faith, nor any other religion.

Religion, and more broadly spirituality, has a bad press in the UK and many other western countries. We often tend to associate Christianity, for instance, with negative tropes such as power, domination (including the colonisation of countries in the global south), conflict and abuse. In the aid sector, we may work with and support faith-based organisations in our development programmes but in the workplace we shy away from discussions around faith and spirituality. The assumption seems to be that those are things for poor people in need, not for us. Development and aid programming is after all built upon rigid, rational formulas and frameworks that do not allow space for the subjective, fluid and hard-to-measure experience of what may be labelled ‘the supernatural’ or ‘occult’.

Yet by dismissing faith-based practice as something irrelevant to aid work we are overlooking the importance of these practices in guiding and supporting aid professionals in the most challenging of circumstances. From my own research in Kenya I have seen that spiritual growth and development has a major role to play in understanding why some people – European and African – overcome, or completely transcend, the challenges of their work in the aid sector.

Being religious or spiritual means many different things, and I am not simply suggesting that going to church can be a panacea for all ills, or a route out of personal suffering. What I believe is that spiritual practice, and faith, is a way in which to make sense of suffering in order to support one’s way of being in the world.

I found the way some of my Kenyan and Somali research participants talked about their faith and their work particularly informative. The Somali aid workers I met were often working in situations of heightened insecurity, where the threat of bombings or gunfire was always nearby. They believed that these were circumstances that had to be accepted as ‘God’s will’, and that rather than dwelling on the challenges it was better to appreciate the life that God had given them. It was this form of faith that enabled the Somali aid workers to laugh and joke about situations that their western counterparts balked at, such as the bombs they could hear outside their offices which the Somalis would say was the ‘popcorn’ starting again.

In a very different context, I remember the calmness and sense of acceptance that emanated from a Kenyan aid worker I spoke to in Nairobi, when she told me about her organisation’s restructuring and the likelihood that she would lose the job she’d been in for over 10 years. She felt strongly that her Christian faith would help her remain self-assured and confident of her abilities despite these circumstances.

‘My faith is more important now than anything else. Mostly because my faith helps me affirm my beliefs of who I am and what I’m capable of doing. Such that, as I step out, whether I’m stepping out or not, or as I face this matter, I face it with confidence. We always say, when one door closes another door opens. So I encourage myself with the word of God!’

Furthermore, aid work enabled some of my research participants to engage in a meaningful occupation that could give them spiritual growth. A number of Kenyan aid professionals I spoke to referred to how their work had given them a sense of purpose by making a difference to the lives of others. Working to assist victims of war, or poor communities, had also helped them to appreciate their own good fortune, in spite of the hardships they too may have experienced when growing up.

Having a sense of purpose is clearly very important for aid work. Loss of purpose, or meaning, is often what leads to disillusionment and burnout in the aid sector. And when faced with immense human suffering, along with the high expectations of aid beneficiaries, employers and donors, it isn’t hard to lose that sense of purpose, if the aid worker feels that their actions can never fully meet the needs of others. Yet faith and spiritual awareness are clearly vital elements in addressing these challenges. Reflecting on my own experience, and on the stories of some of my research participants, I can see that engaging in spiritual practice helps to build an awareness and knowledge of oneself. This may ultimately mean recognising one’s limitations as much as one’s capabilities; seeing that we cannot be all things to all people, and that we too are humans who are vulnerable and imperfect (perfectly imperfect as some spiritualists like to say). But by understanding ourselves better, we can also instil more trust in our abilities to overcome difficult situations – to respond to these situations in a way that helps us grow and learn.

Spiritual and religious practices are also a way of fostering greater connection with others. Prayer and meditation often takes place in a collective space, where people feel sufficiently safe to share their innermost feelings and vulnerabilities. These spaces are vital in the aid sector as its organisational culture so often stigmatises mental health and shuts out emotional expression. Whilst many western cultures may consider counselling and talking therapies to be the solution for mental health problems, we forget that there are other important spaces that exist in cultures different from our own. African aid workers, for instance, may feel more comfortable opening up to known and trusted faith-based or traditional healers than to a professional psychotherapist coming from a European country.

As I have said before, there can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to staff care. But at least acknowledging and working with these alternative forms of healing and self-care could serve two related purposes: of understanding better the spiritual lives of aid workers – as multi-faceted human beings rather than mere aid delivery robots – and of providing them with support that is grounded in their own cultures and belief systems.

 

 

 

 

 

How to be Vulnerable in Research and Aid Work

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability lately, as I spend the first days in Nairobi figuring out what I’m really doing here and how I should spend my time.

Whilst I’m here with a purpose – to conduct field research on stress and burnout in the aid sector – the actual reality of what this entails for me as a doctoral researcher, with no person or organisation here to guide me, is hard to grasp. I’ve come here alone and it is only I who can make my time here successful. When a doctoral researcher arrives to conduct their field research, there is no great fanfare or welcoming party, nor a fixed agenda with specific deadlines. We simply have to get on with it, whatever ‘it’ may be.

For me this has meant setting up several meetings and networking with aid workers. This side of things is in itself a bit nerve-wracking; working out when it is I’m being a researcher and when it is I’m just being ‘me’ – a new arrival to Nairobi (although I have the advantage of having lived here before), who is genuinely wanting to meet people and make friends.

The challenge I’m describing will be familiar to anyone doing ‘insider research’ – in other words, researching one’s own social or professional community. Putting aside the debate as to whether any researcher, given their status, can ever truly be an insider, I do think having experience in the community one is researching brings its own dilemmas and difficulties. We do not want to appear a fraud in our relationships with research participants, and the chances are as an insider we are sympathetic towards their cause. Yet at the same time we are aware of the ulterior motives that often lie behind each interaction with individuals who may be both friends or colleagues and potential informants. This becomes even more problematic if informants who we have a relationship with outside the research open up emotionally in an interview in a way they haven’t done in normal friendship conversations. How do we respond? As a researcher or as a friend or confidant?

This potential challenge in my research highlights how vulnerability is at the heart of the interaction between researcher and informant, and none more so than in my chosen study topic. I do suspect that for some aid workers, who operate in an organisational culture that discourages the display of too much raw emotion, speaking to a researcher about their feelings may be easier than revealing them to their friends or colleagues. Many aid workers avoid showing their emotional discomfort when assisting poor or war-affected populations or documenting human rights abuses. To do so seems inappropriate in the face of far greater human suffering. And in this way vulnerability is repeatedly pushed aside and denied. This denial becomes so commonplace that it can at times seep into friendship interactions as well, so that when asked how you feel about the work you are doing it is difficult to articulate in a genuine, emotional way.

Being vulnerable is difficult for everybody, not just aid workers. As Brené Brown, vulnerability ‘expert’ says,

The difficult thing is that vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.

And it’s difficult for researchers too. Like aid workers, researchers feel they must maintain a level of professionalism that hides vulnerabilities such as self-doubt and guilt over not ever doing ‘enough’, over not meeting our own expectations or those of our informants.

I have a growing belief that recognising and working with these vulnerabilities rather than pushing them aside has value both for aid work and the Phd research process. Staying with our emotions as they arise can help us gain insight into the emotional behaviour of others. Mindfulness, which I discussed in more detail in another blog post, is one tool with which to practise this emotional presence and awareness. Through mindfulness we can observe without judgement our emotions as they come and go in the present moment. By recognising our own suffering, we become more in tune with and compassionate about the suffering of others – whether these are friends, colleagues, research informants or populations being assisted by aid workers. At the same time, acknowledging emotions as they arise through the practice of mindfulness may be an important way of developing resilience in the field, as an aid worker or as a researcher.

Being emotionally engaged – and vulnerable – can deepen researchers’ understanding of themselves, including their status and position in relation to those they are researching. For researchers of development and aid, this level of emotional awareness may enrich their insights into the hopes, passions and desire for justice that underscore much aid practice. It is these same emotional states that are often the drivers for academic research and which should be integral to understanding how data is collected, generated and ultimately used for constructive ends.