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.

6 thoughts on “Burnout in the Aid Sector: Debates and Emerging Issues”

  1. Excellent summary Gemma. And definitely an issue that needs attention but I wonder reading this if it also stems from our culture of not admitting we are not coping, or swamped with work etc on a professional and emotional level. Sometimes it’s hard to recognise that everything is building up. And that’s without the difficult and challenging conditions of aid work. Interesting stuff! Can’t wait to follow you more on this subject. Good luck 🙂

    • You do have a point there – a lot of what I’m talking about is not unique to aid work. A lot of people and cultures also find it difficult in any situation to talk about their feelings or admit they are struggling. I do think this is partly linked to the society we live in; one that encourages us to be the best at everything, and to juggle work and family/private life, and where giving up the former in order to focus on the latter is often regarded with disapproval. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in different cultures and contexts. Thank you for some thought-provoking input!

  2. Great post Gemma, and I agree with the comment above. Burnout is everywhere, but what I think makes it more dangerous in the ‘doing good’ professions is that since we see others suffering from bigger hardship it leads us to think that our suffering and problems don’t matter. In fact, we feel guilty for just thinking about ourselves and our needs – it feels selfish and indulgent. I agree with your comment related to “coming out of the closet” which is why I started doing my interview series on burnout. Let me know if you’re interested in sharing a story!

    • Thank you for your comment Catarina – and it sounds like interesting work that you’re doing! Guilt and suppression of emotions are definitely a big issue for people in the helping professions. Even when we admit we need a break and go on one, we may spend half that time feeling guilty about having the privilege of being able to take such a break from the suffering around us. I’d be interested to learn more about the interview series you’re doing. In the meantime, do return to this blog site over the coming weeks as I’ll be discussing some of my personal experiences in more detail.


Leave a comment