Tag Archives: self-care

Wild Zen and a Journey through Aid Worker Archetypes

I recently finished reading the book Wild Zen: An Inner Roadmap to Humanity by Claire Higgins, which charts the experiences of humanitarian workers, including herself, and others who have undergone – and been transformed by – trauma, violence and other forms of extreme suffering.

Claire worked for more than ten years on humanitarian and human rights programmes, and now works as an executive coach. She has tested and trained in many different therapeutic methods as a means to healing herself as well as others; and Carl Jung’s twelve archetypes, which are the guideposts for this book, is one such method. In the book we learn about archetypes such as the Caregiver, the Explorer (also known as the Adventurer or Seeker), the Warrior (also known as the Hero) and the Sage through the eyes of some of the people Clare meets. These include a humanitarian worker who was shot in Chechnya, a bowel cancer survivor, a former political prisoner and several people who now provide healing modalities such as martial arts, yoga and health coaching to others. We each have dominant archetypes in our personality, and whilst there are many positive aspects to all twelve of them, we have to be mindful of the pitfalls that exist when each archetype is in excess.

This is a book about self-development and empowerment. It wasn’t always easy to keep up with where Claire was going with her memories and accounts of her experiences; but nevertheless I felt pretty hooked in from the start, seeing immediately that here was a story – or rather, a compilation of stories with a common thread – that somehow resonated with me and that I could learn from. I am fortunate enough to have never been through anything quite as serious or heart-breaking as some of the real-life characters in this book. But there were moments I could identify with, and I imagine so could many people working in the aid sector.

For example, the propensity for many aid workers to play the role of Caregiver, one of Jung’s archetypes. Caring for others is no bad thing; but for many aid workers this often translates into an abandonment of care of the self. As we hold the space for others, we need to learn more how to hold the space for ourselves. Related to this is the need to be honest with our feelings, which is also acknowledged in the archetype of the Innocent. In Wild Zen, Claire refers to radical truth as part of the Innocent’s journey; the ongoing quest we must all go on for greater self-awareness so we can see where old habits may be damaging us and should be released. This may include unhealthy relationships, or ways of interacting in the world; to change, we may have to be more truthful to others as well as ourselves. The alternative is often to bottle up grievances – a habit which I, and I’m sure many other aid workers, are very familiar with. A lot of the lessons here – relevant to anyone in the helping or caring professions – are about maintaining healthy boundaries, about being able to recognise and respond to our own needs as much as we respond to the needs of another. Being honest with others needn’t be confrontational; it is about allowing ourselves to open our hearts and tell people how we feel.

Another familiar trait in aid workers is the Revolutionary. How many of us prioritise our work over our personal lives, and with such zeal? This is down to the passion and commitment that so many aid workers have in ending war, poverty or injustice; it is what drives their work and their determination to stick with it, no matter how many times they may be forced to question whether there is any hope left. But this commitment often comes at the price of personal relationships; whilst we focus on ending wars on a global scale, we may fail to stop the conflicts that arise under our own roof because we lose connection with those we are closest to. I have seen these problems play out among the aid workers I spoke to during my field research in Kenya, many of whom are struggling in their romantic and family relationships. As aid workers navigate a world that appears to be full of evil and enmity, the anger that forces them into action may not always be productive. We must recognise where – in our own lives and in the working environments we inhabit – we can be more compassionate and encourage dialogue and peace over division and hostility.

This also relates to another archetype, the Ruler, because ultimately we have to decide how we are to live our lives in an authentic way and become masters of our own destiny. This is crucial for aid workers because our professional lives can be so caught up in the expectations of others; whether this be the admiration of our family and friends, the pressures of our employers, or the needs of aid beneficiaries. Amidst all this, aid workers often lose sight of who they really want to be and instead struggle to act out whatever image they think is worthy and honourable. The Ruler archetype helps us to find our place and purpose in life and stick to it. For many aid workers, this may result in leaving the sector altogether, or finding new ways of engaging with it more compassionately.

I see this journey play out in my own life, as I seek to find a role for myself within the aid sector. My new role, yet to be fully defined, may no longer be on the frontline among the populations who are suffering or within the corridors of government power, but will be articulated from a place of deeper inner wisdom, self-acceptance and trust. As Claire says in Wild Zen:

What all this means is that only we can set the standards for our lives. Only we can determine what is good enough in each moment and phase of our journey. We cannot keep measuring ourselves by benchmarks set in place by others who do not know us like we know ourselves. The Ruler understands that he must set his own standards and criteria for living. It isn’t the right or role of others to do that for him.

Wild Zen contains many reflections and lessons for anyone who has struggled to break free of inner suffering as much as for those who have experienced suffering at the hands of others. Ultimately its stories tell us that we are not alone in these experiences. And it also teaches us how storytelling can be healing and transformative.

As I read the book, I took the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator (PMAI) test, the instrument used to identify which of Carl Jung’s twelve archetypes are most dominant in your personality. I’ve learned a lot from that process too, and it’s a helpful way of understanding a little more about the value of this tried and tested psychological modality applied in Wild Zen. The PMAI is also used in psychotherapy and life-coaching, and for some people it may well be better to use it with the support of a therapist rather than taking the test alone.

The PMAI, and Claire Higgins’ book Wild Zen, are not to be taken lightly. Both reveal some of the darker places we all inhabit as human beings, but they also offer hope and tools with which to navigate our way through those places and emerge more courageous and true to ourselves.

The Return Home: The Shared Experiences of Aid Workers and Researchers

It is nearly two weeks since I left Kenya. The feelings I have as I readjust to UK life are very similar to what I’ve been through before when I’ve returned from mission, only this time I’m returning as a doctoral researcher who has just completed her field research. This fuzzy-headedness, lack of clarity, depletion of energy. Wanting to be alone, not finding the words to express how I’m feeling about being back. Questioning whether anyone would understand, or does anyone really care anyway? And also just feeling too tired, confused and disorientated to engage in that conversation.

Tiredness – or what I would actually describe as inertia – is a familiar feeling to me post-mission or field trip. It’s that feeling of returning home where there are lots of things you need to get done, but where there is an inability to move forward. For a while the tasks pile up, and all you can do is sit there and watch it happen as you feel powerless to do anything about it. Much of the time you just want to be somewhere on your own, doing nothing. This state of inertia is usually short-lived, and I’ve learned that I just have to accept it, and all the complicated feelings wrapped up with it, whilst also remaining present to those feelings. Writing often helps in those moments too.

Aid workers and academic researchers share other experiences too. There is that same emotional attachment to friendships and experiences in the field that seemed unique and intense and unlikely to be replicated in any way back home. Perhaps this is part of just being an expat in foreign lands; the friendships we make tend to be of a quality and intensity that is quite different from the steady development of relationships in our home country. And perhaps it is also linked to the nature of our experiences in a country that is so different from our own. Both aid workers and academic researchers are exposed to communities who, in development studies-speak, are seen as ‘subaltern’ – outside of and excluded from the hegemonic power structures of the global north, often rendering them disenfranchised, disempowered and underprivileged. My actual research subjects – unlike those of many anthropologists and ethnographers – do not necessarily fit this category as in many respects they were seen as the elite. Even a Kenyan aid worker from a poor background – and many I spoke to related to me an upbringing of struggle and hardship – is seen as part of the elite as the NGO sector is perceived by the average Kenyan as pretty lucrative; although many I spoke challenged this assumption.

The point is that, whether as a researcher or an aid worker, we are forced to often step way beyond our comfort zone into a world that is unfamiliar to us, where we have to work hard at understanding different social or cultural norms, and where we are often exposed to poverty and suffering on a daily basis of a kind most people in the UK or other wealthy countries could not comprehend. Such moments of exposure – which so quickly become normalised, for both the aid worker and the researcher – nevertheless leave an indelible mark on one’s memory. And such memories are very hard to communicate to others or even make personal sense of back in the comforts of everyday life in the UK. This is partly why the friendships we make in the field are so meaningful, because of that shared, complex experience.

So I find myself, as a researcher, in that strange transient zone I’ve grown familiar with as an aid worker; where I’m here in the UK, walking through the streets of London or Brighton or sitting at home, but much of the time my mind is elsewhere. It’s with the four year old child that was tugging at my sleeve and begging me for money as I bought groceries in Kakuma town. Or with the young Somali incentive worker (refugees who volunteer for the aid agencies and are paid a stipend) who walked me around Kakuma camp, telling me his life story and how since fleeing Somalia as a young child in 1992 he had grown up in Kenya’s refugee camps. Or with the friends I made in Nairobi, many of whom were aid workers themselves, who were there for me when I felt lonely and isolated. Who I felt so touched by when they opened up to me with such trust, telling me the personal challenges they’ve gone through with their work, and who I hope I helped in some way by just being there for them, listening to their doubts, fears, angers and anxieties.

It won’t be long before I immerse myself fully again in UK life and in the next stages of my Phd – the daunting phase of data analysis and thesis writing. But for now the same rules apply as I have taught myself as an aid worker, and which helped me so much in recent years. Stay present to your feelings. Be gentle on yourself. Spend time doing what you love. And find healthy and nurturing ways to reconnect with friends and family.

We are ultimately so lucky to have these experiences, whether as aid workers or academic researchers, as they enable us to broaden our perspectives and connect with a humanity that is far beyond the limited world view of our upbringing. And there are many ways we can put those experiences to good use, both at home and abroad.

 

What do Stress and Wellbeing mean to Aid Workers?

In the last few weeks I’ve been engaging in discussions that have put the question of how aid workers interpret stress and wellbeing at centre stage. In August I ran a stress management workshop with an Italian NGO in Kenya which was attended by Kenyan, Somali and European staff. Aside from that, I’ve been talking to various people who have an interest in or are working on providing stress relief for aid workers and social change makers.

The question of how stress and wellbeing is understood by different people is important because in a world that is flooded with information about ‘alternative therapies’ such as yoga and meditation, as well as the western psychotherapy models, we can forget the hundreds of cultural traditions around the world that have handled emotional difficulties and mental health problems in their own, localised way. We can also forget that what works for one culture or society may not work for another. And in the aid sector, where the majority of staff are nationals from the southern hemisphere, we perhaps therefore still have a lot to learn about what interventions (if any) are appropriate for dealing with work-related stress.

The tendency is to assume that standard psycho-social models are a sufficient mechanism for addressing staff mental health. But there is a counter-argument that suggests that Western models of trauma healing are not always appropriate, nor healing, for some individuals from post-conflict countries. This has been argued in various literature (for instance, here) and was a point made by an Italian doctor I met recently who was conducting a training for humanitarian workers in body, mind and spirit practices for stress, trauma and compassion fatigue. During the training she related how in previous trainings in Rwanda and Burundi, some of the participants had commented how traumatising they had found the counselling given by Western psychotherapists.

’Stress’ and ’counselling’ are pretty familiar terms in European and American societies. Whilst there is still stigma around issues of mental health – people don’t talk openly about their depression, for instance –  there is an assumption that stress is part of everyday life, and that chronic forms of stress affect some of us and require clinical intervention in the form of one-to-one counselling.

The personal perception of stress and the way one deals with it is, in many ways, culturally and socially rooted. Whilst many NGOs provide some form of counselling for their staff, it would seem that ‘talking therapies’ are not necessarily the answer for a lot of aid workers.

Here are a couple of quotes from my data:

“There are those of us like me who come from nomadic background which thinks that talking about it is…is being a bit of a sissy. But, there are those of us that come from that culture of expressing yourself and you can see that people do grieve with each other, with different cultures.”

Somali UN worker (male)

“They pay for our counselling…but since it’s not so African to go for such things, most people don’t go for…debriefing. You can go during your R and R but nobody seems to ever get to it […] We as Africans we handle our stress differently – everyone has their own issues so why do you think yours is bigger? […] I think people just learn to handle their stress on their own, in case it’s there. Because for one we don’t open up that much, and especially here in Kakuma who would you open up to, especially if stress is work-related [….] basically you have to learn to handle your stress by yourself.”

Kenyan humanitarian NGO worker (male) (Kakuma)

Stress is not only culturally rooted; it is a gendered concept too. In the stress management workshop I recently ran, the Kenyan women remarked that stress in their society is largely seen as a women’s issue and associated with marital pressures, and with being of the ‘weaker sex’. This not only denigrates stress to the female experience, it also sends out the message that men do not suffer from stress, and therefore should certainly not talk about it.

I have been wondering about self-care practices too. ‘Self-care’ is in itself a dirty word for some aid workers. If it’s not seen as a bit ’new age’ or ‘hippy’, it’s seen as self-indulgent and completely at odds with a sector supposedly focused solely on helping others, not oneself.

There is a growing interest in yoga, meditation and similar self-care practices as a means to relieve stress, build resilience and encourage deeper self-awareness and compassion among aid workers and other social change makers. Regular yoga and mindfulness practices have certainly helped me in the last few years; the way I approach my work as a human rights defender has been transformed by following a daily practice that cultivates presence and a more mindful response to my own emotions and to the challenges around me.  And I continue to explore these further as a means to engage more fully in the world as well as to bring inner wellbeing.

But can these sorts of practices be adapted, and adopted, in African cultures? Are there traditions within African cultures which in fact use some of these practices already but give them a different name? I’m conscious that here in Kenya, for instance, trying to impose yoga or mindfulness as a stress relief tool may be seen as an effort to convert people to Hindu or Buddhist religions. Yet some of the techniques used in both these practices can probably be found in many other ancient cultures, including in Africa.

There are examples where the use of yoga and mindfulness have been introduced in different cultures, among aid workers and the communities they serve, with positive results – as this video from a woman who worked in Afghanistan suggests. Capacitar training also uses yoga, tai chi and other practices for trauma healing in communities that may be otherwise unaware of these traditions.

Self-care needn’t require a commitment to these increasingly popular practices however. As this blog by an Afrofeminist writer eloquently describes, there are many ways of practising self-care without having to devote oneself to yoga, and without necessarily having to completely change one’s lifestyle. Spending more time with family and loved ones is  important for aid workers and any other social change makers; because one of the big symptoms of stress and burnout is social detachment and disengagement, triggered by repeated exposure to the brutality and injustice that represent the darkest elements of human behaviour.  After such exposure, it is vital to seek out community and friendship. This can restore one’s faith in humanity and help cultivate compassion in a working environment that can be susceptible to ‘compassion fatigue.’ This video by the Headington Institute provides some advice to aid workers on how to maintain relationships with loved ones as a means of self-care.

Stress and how one responds to it is in some ways a complex matter. In the aid sector, both the individual and the organisation need to listen more – to themselves, to their staff, and what forms of support and healing are appropriate. It could take some time before aid agencies  go beyond a ‘one size fits all’ approach to staff care, but in the meantime there is a lot aid workers can do to help themselves. The starting point is that old adage, ‘Know Thyself’. What is your body trying to tell you and are you willing to stop and listen?

 

 

Unpacking the Personal in Aid Work

A six week break in the UK has meant the Life in Crisis blog site has been a bit neglected lately. Meanwhile, debates and discussions concerning aid worker wellbeing continue to grow and have become more widely recognised, thanks partly to the spotlight shone by the Guardian and by new blog sites such as Christopher Hensch’s Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers. Aid worker wellbeing is now so prevalent a topic within aid circles that it’s being satirised . It remains to be seen how far this growing recognition will translate into better policies and approaches by aid organisations, or contribute to a change in an organisational culture that continues to stigmatise the vulnerabilities and mental health needs of aid workers. Encouraging steps are meanwhile being taken by others such as International Location Safety and Interhealth to integrate this issue into the trainings and preparation of humanitarian workers entering the field.

Amidst this heightened interest in aid worker wellbeing I find myself still asking the same questions that I started out with three months ago when I began my field research in Kenya: why is it that some people suffer from the challenges of this work more than others? And what do we understand about the specific challenges and difficulties faced by national aid workers? It still feels that in many of the findings of recent surveys (such as the Guardian’s, which I commented on in my previous blog post) we are not getting the full, and complex, picture. Expatriate – and of these, mainly American or European – aid workers dominate the discussions. And although their concerns – about security risks, about living in unfamiliar and at times hostile environments, about the difficulties of articulating experiences to friends and families back home, to name a few – are legitimate and understandable, I’m still left wondering how national aid workers relate to these concerns.

Furthermore, I’m not fully convinced that it is the security incident, or the suffering one witnesses on a day to day basis as an aid worker, that is the direct cause of all the stress and anxiety within the sector. We have to understand what else is going on in a person’s life if we are to fully understand why they are struggling with their work. The degree of support provided by their employers, and to what extent they feel able to ask for it, are obviously important issues. But whether an aid worker is experiencing particular challenges may also be related to their gender, sexuality or nationality. We are seeing already that being a woman in the aid sector, for instance, has had unpleasant and discriminatory repercussions for many (if you can relate to this, you may wish to fill in this survey aimed at highlighting the extent of sexual abuse and discrimination in the sector). More generally, the aid worker’s personal landscape – how they understand their feelings, how they are able to communicate these feelings with others and express themselves – are factors which will make one person’s experience in the sector very different from another.

This has led me to wonder how stress – and more generally, the emotional impact of aid work – may be a relational issue; something that is determined by our relationship to others around us. How do aid workers articulate and talk about their emotions? What role do friends, family and loved ones play in helping or hindering one’s capacity or willingness to express difficult emotions associated with aid work, such as guilt, fear, anger or sadness? To what extent do aid workers feel able to reveal these emotions when in the company of those they feel are far worse off than them, or among their colleagues? And does the suppression of these emotions prompt the detachment and disillusionment that so often arises after years of working in difficult environments?

I find these questions interesting as my own experiences in the aid sector have shown me that it can be very easy to spend years concealing the most difficult emotions that arise, even from oneself. Likewise it can take years to realise that such emotions, if buried and unprocessed, can become your demons one day. In my case there was no ‘critical incident’, no specific traumatic event that prompted my emotional bloodletting. What happened was far more ambiguous and cannot simply be explained through the narrow focus of working conditions or challenging environments.

The questions I’m considering do not point directly to the external factors such as security and levels of institutional support which are so often referred to as indicators of stress in the sector. Instead they highlight how the challenges of aid work can be a deeply personal, and complex, experience requiring self-reflection and care as much as gentle, open-minded support from others. Emotions may ebb and flow according to specific social norms, interactions and memories. I wonder also what role cultural values and assumptions have to play in how one deals with difficult emotions. These issues are important to the aid sector as they highlight there is no easy, one-size-fits all answer to addressing aid worker health and wellbeing. Uncovering and untangling the complicated, emotional aspects of aid work isn’t easy, and I wonder myself what success I’ll have in the remainder of my field work in Kenya; but this work, and the questions I’ve raised, are an essential element in the ongoing efforts to highlight and respond to aid worker stress and burnout.

Aid Worker Wellbeing: Reflections on the Guardian Survey and Steve Dennis case

This past week has seen a real shake-up in the aid sector. First last Monday the publication of the Guardian’s survey on aid worker wellbeing, which found that 79% of its 754 respondents claimed to suffer from mental health problems, including diagnosed depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Then on Wednesday came the news that an Oslo court had found the humanitarian organisation Norwegian Refugee Council guilty of ‘gross negligence’ in the treatment of former employee Steve Dennis and others who were kidnapped by armed groups in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya in 2012. Steve Dennis was awarded $500,000 in compensation plus costs.

Both pieces of news point to the same issue – that aid organisations are not giving nearly enough attention to the wellbeing of their staff, particularly those who are doing the frontline relief work in emergency areas, and that individuals are not getting the support they need when they experience serious stress and mental health conditions such as burnout and PTSD.

But before aid organisations quickly rush to demonstrate that they have all the right policies and structures in place to support their staff (I’m sure this is happening already, particularly given the legal implications of the Steve Dennis case) it’s worth reflecting on a few issues that are relevant but have not been so highly pronounced or exposed in these two pieces of news.

Which aid workers are being referred to in the Guardian’s survey? We are given little detail about who the 754 respondents are, except that most of them were female and expatriate. This in itself is hardly an accurate reflection of the broader aid sector, in which approximately 90% are nationals. I am also interested to know who these ‘aid workers’ were exactly. Only those working in disaster areas? Or development workers? They may not be exposed to the acute suffering that one witnesses in a disaster area, but are certainly likely to witness the human misery that arises from extreme poverty. Or human rights workers? They too are bearing witness to ongoing injustices. The survey did not make clear what jobs these 754 respondents were doing. For me this is of interest because the assumption is often that it is humanitarian workers who suffer the most from the work they do. And yet my own research is already demonstrating that you don’t have to be on the frontlines of war and disaster to suffer from burnout or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Can the causes of mental health problems be so easily defined? The main factors contributing to serious mental health conditions according to the Guardian survey were security incidents and the witnessing of human tragedy. Yet it is also becoming clear, in the Guardian’s own reports and elsewhere, that different people – women and nationals in particular – experience different challenges in this work. Given the Guardian’s own reporting on sexual assaults within the aid industry, a question we should be asking when addressing aid worker wellbeing is what specific challenges have women faced and what sort of support do they need? The same could be said about nationals. It is quite possible that some nationals are directly affected by the issues their organisations are working on; perhaps they are refugees themselves, or they or their family have been victims of domestic violence. These factors are important as mental health conditions cannot be fully understood unless we consider the individual’s background and identity and how these impact on their experiences in the workplace.

What are aid workers doing to address their challenges and difficulties? Both the Guardian survey and the Steve Dennis case may provide damning evidence that aid organisations need to be doing more to support their staff. And certainly the survey findings are pretty critical about the insufficient response given by aid organisations to staff who have suffered from mental health issues. But tightened security procedures, regular debriefings and staff counselling are not the only solutions aid organisations should be seeking. Staff themselves need to be considering what they must do to address the challenges they face in their work. As aid workers, we all like to moan about how our managers don’t have time for us and aren’t supporting us enough – and this may well be accurate a lot of the time – but are we also giving time and support to ourselves? In a culture that can often seem competitive and macho in its pressure to work the longest hours and be the most dedicated, what role can we play in caring for ourselves and stepping back, or seeking help, when we need to? With any big emotional challenges in our lives, it can be far easier to point fingers and blame situations or other people. It is harder, but just as important, to reflect on who we are and how we approach our work as possible factors in why we struggle in certain ways. As aid workers, our personal motivations, expectations and approach to work may say a lot about whether we eventually suffer disillusionment, guilt or burnout. And likewise reflecting on these and what needs to change within ourselves may help overcome some of our darkest moments.

These comments are not seeking to belittle individual experiences, nor undermine the serious mental health conditions that many are suffering in this work, including the staff of Norwegian Refugee Council who were kidnapped and those who responded to the Guardian survey. But I do believe we need a more nuanced approach to aid worker wellbeing that recognises that the challenges of this work are not simply related to security incidents and operating within conflict settings; I believe the experiences within the sector are far more complex. Nor are better security procedures or counselling services the only solutions. As the Guardian survey recognises, the culture within aid organisations must change. This not only means creating a space where it is safe and acceptable to admit you are struggling or not coping; it also means cultivating an environment in which people continue to feel valued and maintain a sense of purpose and meaning in what they do. This is the work of everybody – organisations and staff – who have an interest in reducing serious mental health and stress conditions and the resulting staff absenteeism and turnover; and who wish to encourage a spirit of humanity – not only in the field but also in the office.

 

 

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.

World Humanitarian Day: Remember the Human Behind the Humanitarian

Welcome to my blog site, Life in Crisis, which I’m launching on the 19 August to mark World Humanitarian Day.

Although I would not strictly call myself a humanitarian worker, I have operated within the humanitarian sphere for many years, in Palestine, Kenya and Uganda among other places. As someone who has worked for human rights and development organisations, and with local communities living in or recovering from conflict, I am fully aware of the challenges of this sort of work. These challenges relate both to our external environment and our internal emotional landscape.

On the one hand, living in unfamiliar terrains, often isolated from close friends and family and exposed to untold suffering on a daily basis takes its toll on even the most hardened aid worker. On the other, we’re often fighting our own inner battles of guilt, anxiety and self-doubt; constantly asking why we’re doing this job, whether we’re making any difference, whether our egos are getting the better of us, whether in fact our presence in the countries we’re operating in is doing more harm than good. We may have our own expectations of what this job was meant to be, or may be frantically trying to meet the expectations of our managers and colleagues. And so often it can feel like we’re failing on both counts, because we simply cannot respond to all the demands that the work places on us. And we cannot solve all the world’s problems, or the problems of the country we’re working in, or even the problems of one person asking for our help.

World Humanitarian Day is important as it forces us to remember the complexities of the challenges faced by aid workers. What do I mean by this? Firstly, that who we call the humanitarian worker encompasses hundreds of thousands of different people, of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds. They may currently be working on the Ebola response in West Africa or assisting refugees from Syria, but they were also the first responders during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and are providing food and shelter to people fleeing the ongoing violence in Ukraine. Many are volunteers who have given up their day job to respond to something they feel deeply concerned about; many others are doing this work as a career, within the UN or international NGO sector.

And they are not all white and from the Western world, as one might assume from portrayals in the media. The popular image of the caring and nurturing twenty-something – often female – holding a sick African child, is one snapshot of a far more diverse and complicated sector. An estimated 90 per cent of humanitarian workers are nationals who operate in their own country. In other words, nationals from countries undergoing natural or man-made disasters and conflicts such as Syria, Nepal or Afghanistan are all playing a crucial role in humanitarian interventions, and the chances are they are putting their lives at far greater risk than their expatriate counterparts in doing so.

This is because of the high risks they face of being targeted or attacked in their own environments, and the unfortunate reality that they are unlikely to receive the same sort of support from their employers as would their expatriate colleagues. 

So today is an opportunity to remember the human face of the humanitarian worker, whether they be from the US, Europe or the developing world. It is a chance to recognise the complexity of each and every personality in the sector, and their associated morals, values and motivations.

There are two dominant narratives that describe the humanitarian worker. One is of the selfless hero – the popular image promoted by aid agencies themselves and by the media. The other is the selfish and privileged careerist – portrayed often by aid workers themselves who wish to debunk the selfless hero myth. But neither narrative gives a fair representation of the many thoughts, beliefs, feelings and emotions behind every humanitarian intervention. Aid workers are not always heroes, but they are not villains either. They are often walking a fragile tightrope between responding to the suffering of the communities they are assisting and to their own personal and emotional needs. All too often the latter plays second fiddle to the former and the desire to maintain the facade of the humanitarian hero. And it is this neglect of ‘the self’ – of understanding and working with complicated personal interests, motivations and feelings – that can lead to far greater emotional difficulties such as chronic stress and burnout.

This blog site will be examining and reflecting on these issues in more detail over the coming months. But for now, suffice to say, if we are to really ‘reshape aid’ we need to consider the personal as well as the professional aspects of aid work. We need to remember that feelings and emotions matter for the humanitarian as much as they do for any other human being. They shape their choices and their actions, and therefore have a huge role to play in how humanitarian work is done. This is why the current petition calling for staff welfare to be included on the agenda of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 is so important. It highlights that aid interventions – as flawed as they may be at times – cannot be efficiently administered or improved unless we address the emotional suffering of aid workers and the impact this has on what they do. World Humanitarian Day may seem an uncomfortable way of recognising the existence of this suffering alongside the suffering of the populations receiving aid.  But it’s also an opportunity to keep pushing the issue of staff welfare and self-care onto the agendas of all aid workers – managers and field officers alike; it is a collective responsibility and one that we can start addressing today.