In May I attended the HHR People in Aid Conference in Amsterdam. After several months in Israel and Palestine, being in such a laid-back city was wonderful. It made me think how easy it is to forget that humanitarian contexts are not ‘normal’, though they can become the norm for many aid workers, leading to burnout as something that comes with the territory. It doesn’t have to be so.
At the conference I followed with much interest the intervention by the ex global editor at Reuters, Michael Lawrence. His story highlighted the involvement of Reuters’ senior management in bringing about a change in the organisational culture in relation to staff care: from a “macho culture”, to a culture of resilience, working towards “de-stigmatising” the need for psychological support.
In order to do so, senior management led by example by attending psychological training that became mandatory for everyone in the agency prior to field assignments, and by accessing counselling in the field with no shame or guilt attached.
I feel that this can be a good way to break the stigma around the psychological health of aid workers. Nevertheless, as one of the contributors to the LinkedIn discussion says, let’s remember that ‘each of us is a unique tapestry! People react differently in different situations’, which means that there is no “one size fits all” training, or universal staff care format that can be equally applied to everyone.
With respect to this, the words of Stephen Blakemore, trainer and conference facilitator, remind us all of the risks of turning staff care into a bureaucratic task:
Safety and security guidelines will count for nothing if they are not integrated with our day-to-day activities. […] In NGOs (as with any other organisation), the lines and divisions of responsibility are often blurred. Roles can be unclear and people’s expectations unspoken. Staff care is not something that can ever sit with one department, nor is it a single activity that we can put a tick against as having completed. It requires an integrated approach, minimum standards and, sometimes, a shift in attitude and organisational culture (from the conference briefing pack).
I like to think that staff care is not simply about introducing new guidelines. It is about relations, trust and connections. It is about putting ideals into practice within our organisation, before taking them out to the field. This is no small matter, when professionals themselves stress how we all have a tipping point, and empathy and support among team members need to become part of the culture of agencies that strive to make the world a better place.
As I write I wonder: when are we going to see heads of mission brief new aid workers on the risks of burnout, telling their story of post-burnout growth?