‘The mission is very interesting’ tells me an aid worker ‘but I will not extend, there are too many problems in the expat team, plus I have to juggle a million tasks which have nothing to do with my job’.
The majority of aid professionals who share stories about their difficulties in the field, hardly ever talk about the stress of working in an unstable and challenging context. In fact, most find the work with local communities engaging and fulfilling. What leads to a ‘breaking point’ are the difficult team dynamics, the lack of privacy, the disappointing politics of aid, the lack of support, the loneliness and isolation.
Aid workers are incredibly resilient when it comes to dealing with war and natural disasters. They tend to be risk-takers and crave the adrenaline of the field. Studies show that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) only affects about 5-10% of them. Chekhov reminds us that “any idiot can deal with a crisis. It is this day-to-day living that wears you out”. To paraphrase the great Russian author, we could say that for relief workers it is the day-to-day frustration and stress that leads to burnout.
Aid workers are fit for emergencies – their career choice in itself shows a desire to go beyond what’s safe and secure. But the bread and butter of life in the field are human relations, not emergencies, and very little is done to prepare and support aid workers day in and day out.
The skills that are needed in the field have more to do with emotional intelligence, self-knowledge and communication skills than with preparing for traumatic events. Some of the challenges that aid workers face on a daily basis are around boundaries, which in this line of work are often non-existent (and not encouraged). This means that the requests to work more are ongoing, with the expectation that aid workers will always comply (after all there is nothing else to do in the field except work). This strategy is the royal road to burnout.
Though some may find solace in self-help books such as ‘The Power of Now’, I think that humanitarians could do with a manual called “The power of NO!”. Putting in place healthy boundaries – which at times means saying no to requests you cannot or do not want to fulfill – is one of the best ways I know to deal with stress and prevent burnout. You may feel a little guilty at first, but will gain in health, both mental and physical.
So not to lose it in the field, let’s remember Chekhov’s words, and wisely practice ‘the power of no’.