Humanitarian aid workers are at significant risk of burnout and trauma. Martina Nicolls explains the challenges unique to aid workers and the fight for recognition and effective change so far.
Humanitarian aid workers worldwide want better work conditions and improved wellbeing in the workplace. Aid workers often work in high-stress situations and environments, including conflict zones. They are expected to be strong, psychologically balanced, and charitable with their time. The downside is that aid workers may be seen to be ‘weak’ or ‘ill-equipped’ for their job if they ask for help. Humanitarians, by nature, focus on other people, and not themselves.
The Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD) compiles information on major incidents of violence against aid workers worldwide, including killings, kidnappings, and armed attacks that result in serious injury. AWSD defines aid workers as both international and national employees of non-profit aid agencies that provide technical and emergency assistance in humanitarian relief contexts. The Humanitarian Outcomes report, using the AWSD, documented 190 major attacks in 2014 against aid operations. In total, 329 aid workers in 27 countries were affected – the second highest number on record. Major incidents are not the sole concern of aid workers. In July 2015, before the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey, about 1,200 aid workers signed an online petition for improved wellbeing in their industry.
The wellbeing factors discussed included: burn-out from long work hours, post-traumatic stress, treatment after critical incidents, psychosocial support, work-life balance, improved security, LGBTI- inclusion, anti-bullying measures, fair contracts, and decent rest and relaxation allowances.
The petition aimed to unify aid workers to get the issue on the table at the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul on 23-24 May 2016, especially to attract the attention of organizations that hire aid workers to consider more effective welfare support. Less than 1% of the estimated 450,000 humanitarian workers across the globe signed the online petition. What would that have hoped to achieve?
There are existing policies and guidelines in place to improve wellbeing issues for aid workers. These include the Antares Foundation Framework, the Interagency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, Sphere Core Standards, and People in Aid Code of Good Practice.
However, there is no universal, industry-wide wellbeing program to support staff. Organizations have a duty of care to ensure the physical and emotional wellbeing of their staff, and each organization is expected to have their own guidelines for support. The reality is that wellbeing is often associated with ‘therapy’ and few agencies have a comprehensive wellbeing program that considers all factors for wellness on a day-to- day basis and for the longer-term. Given the number of global aid agencies, few have even heard of the People in Aid Code.
The 2015 online petition called on the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit to support a commitment to the 8 Core Humanitarian Standard of Quality and Accountability policies that advocate support for aid workers to do their job effectively and to be treated fairly and equitably – i.e. for all humanitarian organizations to commit to an investment in caring for the physical, mental, and psychological wellbeing for aid workers so that they are better able to help others.
What happened next? For the first time in the 70-year history of the United Nations, secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, convened the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit – a summit he had called for since 2012. Hence the summit was now on the world stage, regarded as the first of its kind.
The summit was not without controversy because it was not intergovernmental and it was seen to be just another ‘gigantic jamboree’ resulting in some high-profile non-government organizations (NGOs) pulling out of the proceedings. Nevertheless 9,000 people attended. But aid worker wellbeing was only a minute part of the two-day summit; the issue was presented in only two (out of the 112) ‘side events’ – one by RedR UK and the other by Humanitarian Outcomes. In the UN secretary-general’s report, Outcomes of the World Humanitarian Summit (23 August 2016; A/71/353) there was no mention of aid worker wellbeing programs, initiatives, or codes – nothing. And no future summits have yet been announced.
The failure of the issue of aid worker wellbeing to gain prominence globally means that aid workers still have challenges in amplifying the message. Global campaigns, petitions, and galvanizing advocates for change are still critical avenues to explore.
What can individual aid workers and organizations do? Few organizations have the finance to support wellbeing initiatives, nor creative low-cost strategies to prevent workplace stress. Few organizations consider the health of their own permanent staff, let alone independent aid workers who work on short term assignments. Aid workers are generally concerned about being stigmatized as weak, and are concerned about termination, under-employment, or unemployment. Seeking help and initiating discussions on health and wellbeing, particularly issues such as burn-out and psychological stress, needs to be destigmatized. Talking about issues and strategies for decompression and de-stressing are valid and should be encouraged within organizations and aid agencies.
Importantly, discussions about wellbeing need to separate the issues of major incidents of violence, such as killings, kidnappings, and armed attacks, with ongoing duty of care and wellbeing that enable aid workers to work effectively by reducing stress and promoting work-life balance and fair work contracts. Aid workers employed in aid agencies can advocate to ensure that the agency or organization establishes policies and guidelines that are endorsed and supported by senior management, using the existing guidelines and standards, particularly focusing on mental health and safety issues. Aid workers have the right to expect an enacted duty of care; a readiness program before going to conflict or hardship zones; safety and security procedures in place throughout all assignments – to the level of any anticipated threats; follow-up post-assignment debriefs; psychological support; and other organizational support mechanisms to reduce workloads, stress, mood fluctuations, depression, and other symptoms detrimental to wellbeing.
Open, honest and ongoing dialogue concerning risks to wellbeing should occur at the organizational level – individually, through a buddy-system, or in small groups. Individuals also need their own support mechanisms – partners, family, friends, online and telephone help-desks, and associates – as well as de-stressing activities, such as hiking, exercise, reading, movies, or lunch with friends.
Until the issue of aid worker wellbeing diverts from the current views of stoicism in adversity and strength in silence, there is a critical ongoing need for dialogue at all levels at all times. Conversations about health and wellbeing need to begin in your own organizations and communities, and as an agenda item in virtually every conference, seminar, and workshop that every aid worker attends. To help others effectively, you must have your own wellbeing as a top priority – and aid agencies and organizations must prioritize and support the wellbeing of people they hire to help others.
Martina Nicolls is a Georgia-based Australian writer, peace activist, environmentalist, science communicator, and independent international consultant in evaluations, education, health, human rights, stabilisation, and peace building. She works primarily in post-conflict countries and in countries with transitional governments, such as Somalia and Afghanistan. She is the author of books on Mongolia, Liberia, Kashmir, and South Sudan.