Mindfulness for NGOs

Changing the world starts from within

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Burnout is not only stress

Are you Wallander or Blomkvist?

Reading psychological thrillers is one of my ways to chill out. So it should come as no surprise that Scandinavian sagas such as the Millennium Trilogy and Wallander have provided inspiration for some of the reflections on burnout, and self-care that I am about to share with you today.

Burnout and disillusionment

Wallander burnout

Wallander: all work and no play

Invented by the pen of Swedish author Henning Mankell, Kurt Wallander is an investigative cop. He works non-stop, and occasionally drinks too much. An article in the Guardian newspaper describes him as ‘a sad sack, a burnout and a bit of a loser […] indefatigable and relentless’, someone who ‘still clings to a vague belief in the virtue of police work, but he never looks as if he’s having fun’. His daughter encourages him to ‘have a life’ – she buys him a pair of running shoes hoping he’ll get fit again – and his girlfriend urges him to see a counselor. But Kurt is on a mission to eradicate injustice from the world, and has no time for time off. Truth be told, Wallander needs to refocus and find meaning beyond his disillusioned career. Counseling and jogging may help, but what he mainly needs is to stop and consider what really matters to his heart. At work, and beyond it.

Beyond the myth of work-life balance


Blomkvisk: one can fight injustice without becoming a martyr

Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist and the male protagonist of the Millennium Trilogy created by Swedish writer Stieg Larsson. Like Wallander, Blomkvist is a workaholic, but far from being a ‘sad sack’, he has a joie de vivre which saves him. He has little time and interest in the idea of work-life balance. Stress is a given in his job. Nevertheless it does not seem that burnout is looming at the horizon for Blomkvist.

Could one of the reasons be that after many years on the frontline, he still finds his job meaningful and engaging, his ‘calling’ is still alive, his colleagues are supportive of him, and he actually manages, despite it all, to have his good share of fun at work and beyond? I think these elements are what gives Blomkvist resilience and strength. When life is all work and no play, when the office is a battlefield, when ‘a bad boss becomes more stressful than war’, and when disillusionment creeps in, burnout is the wise response of body and mind.


Burnout or the loss of meaning

Wallander and Blomkvist have invested their life in their work, fighting injustice and wanting to make a difference in society. They identify with their work, don’t fit a box, and place individuals’ human rights above power and bureaucracy. Similar to what many aid workers experience, their idealism is constantly being challenged by the tough reality of their work.

These two popular characters show how burnout is not simply a matter of working too much. As Wallander exemplifies, burnout is connected to having lost one’s sense of purpose and meaning, it is linked to forgetting to care for oneself. It is a syndrome that is often nurtured by an organizational culture that champions personal sacrifice over care.

Aid workers burnout when the ideals that drove one into the profession are long gone, when energy and motivation are low, when there is a high sense of guilt for not doing enough. Often all this takes place in organisations that have done nothing to foster a culture of care and support for their staff.

Individuals burnout when life becomes a list of tasks that we have to perform, a list void of things that we want to do. We burnout when there is no room for emotions, no space for mourning and loss, no time for enjoying ourselves. We burnout when the gap between ideals and reality is too wide, and we remain stuck between the pull of what we imagined and idealised, and what is, unable to rethink – and if needed move away from – a lifestyle that we no longer want. When meaning and a sense of purpose are gone, it is very hard to enjoy one’s work, and help or lead others in any way.

Being active is a given in aid work, but how we are active makes all the difference. We can run on empty tank and end up being a ‘sad sack’ like Wallander. Or like Blomkvist we can decide to immerse ourselves in our calling without losing sight of ourselves, those we love, and the many other things that matter in life alongside work.

Burning-out in the name of aid work is unlike to alleviate suffering, in fact it is bound to create more, if not in others, at least in ourselves.


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Think Different: On post-traumatic growth

How trauma and difficulties can sometimes be the springboard to greater well-being


I see it as part of my job to encourage the possibility of transformation that can arise from suffering, rather than pathologising life’s adversities. Though I originally trained as a clinical psychologist, the more I work with staff, volunteers and activists, the more I consider myself as a humanitarian psychologist, moving away from pathology towards resilience.

Humanitarian work is indeed full of pitfalls and frustrations; plus it does not necessarily offer much stability. That’s why building internal resources to deal with the proverbial shit that hits the fan is crucial.

This has little to do with positive thinking, to which admittedly I am rather allergic. There are times when things are bad and there is no “think positive” attitude that helps out of it. Even trying not to think about problems does not help: ever heard about  the famous psychology experiment where people were asked *NOT* to think about a white bear? If I asked you to do the same now, just pausing for a minute and noticing what is on your mind, what are you thinking about? Probably a white bear. So when one of my favourite bands sings that “the sorrow grows bigger when the sorrow’s denied” they have a point. Positive thinking breeds frustration and denial breeds more sorrow.

Then what helps? What helps is the old Apple adagio “Think different”. That helps.

But how to think different as an aid worker? Often we start out young and brave by wanting to change the world and one mission after the other life takes its toll and we may end up cynical and burnt-out, feeling rather lonely, with no time on our hands to think, let alone “think different”. Do we recognise ourselves in this?

Nevertheless I think that this unusual career choice is also full of great and meaningful opportunities that can transform us, making us more humane, compassionate and at the end of the day happier (because that’s what we all want beyond any grandiose plans to save the planet).

This is where the concept of post-traumatic growth can play a role in our life. It certainly did in mine, allowing me to learn that adversities can make us better, rather than bitter. We all have big or small wounds that we carry within, a traumatic event, a personal crisis which left us shattered. The word trauma itself comes from the Greek meaning wound. No matter how much we play down its impact (as aid workers we must be strong, right?), experiencing scarring (and scaring) experiences is part of the human condition. Trying to glue together the pieces as they (we) were before may be yet another frustrating experience.

So how do we allow ourselves to be touched but not crashed by the difficulties of being a humanitarian? I think the concept of post-traumatic growth can offer some insight into this.

Wait. I’ve heard of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) you may say, but what is Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG)?

The concept was introduced by clinical researchers in the 1990s to illustrate how trauma can sometimes be the springboard to greater well-being. Previously the amazing account of concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl also showed how facing one’s own limits, life’s tragedies and possible death offers the essential opportunity for finding meaning in life. Another amazing story is that of 7-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, who turned his illness into an opportunity for growth and change.

post-traumatic growth and mindfulness

Stress, burnout and trauma can become a wake-up call for aid workers to reflect on what our minds are fixed upon. They can open the way to developing more self-compassion, awareness, acceptance and love. This does not deny the impact of trauma or emotional exhaustion, rather it brings what we too often label as “psychological disorders or conditions” back into the natural cycle of life.

This alternative view of trauma not only resists the tendency to medicalise human experience, but also, and more importantly, places responsibility for the recovery back in the hands of those who have experienced the trauma themselves (Stephen Joseph).

Stephen Joseph, professor of psychology and trauma expert, highlights three existential themes at the core of post-traumatic growth:

  • Life’s uncertainty
  • Mindfulness
  • Personal agency

Post-traumatic growth recognises that life is uncertain and that things change. This amounts to a tolerance of uncertainty that, in turn, reflects the ability to embrace it as a fundamental tenet of human experience. This is one of the core reasons why in my opinion every pre-deployment training could benefit from offering aid workers a copy of Pema Chödrön’s book Comfortable with Uncertainty.

Another theme at the centre of post-traumatic growth is psychological mindfulness which reflects self-awareness and an understanding of how one’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviours are related to each other, as well as a flexible attitude towards personal change. Finally post-traumatic growth highlights the importance of personal agency, which entails a sense of responsibility for the choices one makes in life and an awareness that choices have consequences (Joseph, 2011).

Mindfulness is thus central to building resilience, cultivating meaning and watering the seeds of post-traumatic growth, rather than those of post-traumatic stress. In this respect I think NGOs and humanitarian professionals could find it very valuable to explore mindfulness meditation as a preparation to life in the field, as a support and as a way to approach what comes their way in a mission, and as a tool to be comfortable with uncertainty in the field and beyond.


This post was inspired by a recent book that I read by Stephen Joseph What Doesn’t Kill Us: The new psychology of posttraumatic growth . Joseph grew up in Belfast during the “Troubles” and speaks from a place of personal experience, as well as academic research.

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Mosquitoes and following your bliss

Easter and Passover are upon us and I happen to be in Jerusalem, so when I was invited at an interfaith Seder for Passover near Jericho in Palestine, I took the opportunity to join in. The event itself had something special as it drew both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the odd foreigner like me who is always trying to make sense of the madness and richness of this land. Passover has a powerful symbolic meaning of liberation from slavery and suffering, a very apt opportunity for reflection and awareness for all, whether we are religious, spiritual or none of the above.

Mindfulness in Palestine

But I really don’t want to write about the Seder itself as it was a rather intimate and private celebration. I don’t think that every moving story of personal and political liberation has to find its way online.

Instead I will write about mosquitoes. As I laid in bed following the meal and the celebration I was reminded of the words of the Dalai Lama: “If you think you are too small to make a difference try sleeping with a mosquito”. The damp hot Jericho climate drew tens of those little creatures around my sleeping bag and led to a sleepless night and countless bites on my hands and arms (I’m still scratching!).

So next time you think you are too small to make a difference, think about mosquitoes feasting over me in the Jericho desert and follow your bliss!

Mindfulness for NGOs

That's me illustrating how small we are on the backdrop of the beautiful Corsican sea...

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PTSD is not the problem. Lack of awareness is.

When I worked for an INGO, I used to carry with me to my missions – and still do – a book called Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chödrön. It was one of my supports when “the shit hit the fan”. I wish all aid workers were given a copy when leaving for a mission as part of their pre-deployment training.

Staffcare for aidworkers

After having invested over a year campaigning for the psychological preparation and awareness for aid worker, spending a good amount of time in Israel and Palestine – a place where uncertainty is the norm – I remain convinced that if we want to change how aid works, we need to change ourselves. Psychological awareness becomes a tool for social and political awareness, but before we get there we need to find ways to manage stress and avoid getting to a place of burnout.

In simple terms, personal psychological health matters, and does have an impact on how we carry ourselves in the world. Which in turns has an impact on our work and on the projects on the ground.

I know that when I am in an unhappy place, I carry with me that gloom and cynical outlook that resembles my inner discontent. Life in the field can be challenging even if we drive a 4×4, have a housekeeper, and can buy cheap wine at the expats’ store.

We are told again and again to be aware of trauma, we hear this word PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) thrown around as soon as disaster strikes, or critical incidents occur. The reality is that PTSD is not the problem.

Staffcare for aidworkers

There are still many misconceptions around the mental health of aid workers. Only between 5-10% develop PTDS following a traumatic event. That’s in line with the average population. This means that more than 90% of aid workers exposed to traumatic events have the resilience to cope. Rushing in with psychological interventions immediately after a critical incident is often unhelpful, this goes for both staff and so-called beneficiaries. So I was relieved to read this in the World bank Blog:

“Blanket intervention in the immediate aftermath of a potentially traumatic may be, at best, mis-targeted and, at worse, distract from more critical aid efforts”.

I would add that when applied to humanitarian professionals, blanket interventions tend to impose a one-size fits all model of talking therapy or verbal debriefing that may not work for everybody.

Staff-care needs to build resilience and help people to make sense not just of shocking or challenging experiences. It also needs to foster self-knowledge, helping us to see strengths as well as shadow aspects of ourselves, acknowledging how messed up we can be as human beings – which often comes out in stinky team dynamics and in passive-aggressive communication –  even when we are trying to do good.

The way I see it is that there is no quick fix approach. Aid work requires heightened psychological awareness. Processing suffering and life’s ups and downs requires time.

In NGOs most people want to do something meaningful, but what is often missing is a crucial step: we cannot heal or help someone else if we are blind to our own inner conflicts and personal issues. We need to take a little care of ourselves and acknowledge our “shadow motivations for doing good”, in order to work with others who may be in need. Then our work may flow from an healthy place, which includes an awareness and an acceptance of my own needs in “helping the poor”, which have often to do with my own feelings of inadequacy, and my own anxiety, as well as with my desire to make a positive contribution to the world. Some of the posts that have been written around the KONY debate have beautifully highlighted this.

Staff-care for aidworkers

I am deeply convinced that the words used by Jon Kabat-Zinn are true for all of us:

“In order to do no harm, you have to be mindful. Without awareness, you are going to do harm right and left, because you will not be able to see what effect you are having on others.”

But, Jon Kabat-Zinn continues, we are often up against this:

“Some people have resistance to the whole idea of taking time for themselves. The Puritan ethic has left a legacy of guilt when we do something for ourselves. […] Even the degree to which you can really be of help to others depends directly on how balanced you are yourself. Taking time to ‘tune’ your own instrument and restore your energy reserves can hardly be considered selfish. Intelligent would be a more apt description.”

So if PTSD is not the problem, what is the problem?

Lack of awareness. That is the problem.

Stress which leads to burnout. That is the second problem.

The solution? For sure there is no one-size fits all. I have some suggestions that work for me when life does not go my way, when I get stressed, sad and lose sight of what’s meaningful in my work:

Searching within, taking some time alone, slowing down, having more fun and a sense of humor, relying on the friendship, support and feedback of loved ones, trying not to take myself so seriously, knowing that there is no quick fix and maybe no solution. Learning to be comfortable with uncertainty.

“We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is we can never avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure.”  ~ Pema Chödrön

Staff-care for aidworkers

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Psychologically Equipped? – White Paper Series #2

White Paper Series by Alessandra Pigni www.mindfunessforngos.org


Issues in Psychological Health and Self-Care Faced by Humanitarian Professionals and the Role of Organisations in Staff-Care

“Many organisations need to start recognising that the well-being of their staff is of equal importance to the well-being of the beneficiaries they are trying to support. It can never be acceptable to allow staff to reach the point of burnout.” (From a humanitarian professional) 

Original mindfulness illustration by Mug Studio for Mindfulness for NGOs

In this section of the White Paper Series I will address the psychological issues encountered by several humanitarian and development professionals, and briefly illustrate the human resources and staff-care dilemmas faced by their agencies both in the pre-deployment phase, and during the field missions.

Drawing on the material offered by the humanitarian professionals in the LinkedIn discussion, I will be providing a frame for a picture that others have eloquently taken, backing up the aid workers’ reflections with literature, and research on humanitarian psychology and staff-care. I will look into “the helper’s psychology”’ which is crucial in the pre-deployment phase screening. I shall explore the idea that aid workers may be greatly supported by practical psychological tools of self-awareness and by mindfulness practices that can help them to more fully know themselves, before they are exposed to trauma, crises and intense external stress. In the words of Jon-Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme:

“In order to do no harm, you have to be mindful. Without awareness, you are going to do harm right and left, because you will not be able to see what effect you are having on others”.

I will then address the common psychological conditions that may arise in the field for several professionals, such as burnout, compassion fatigue and trauma, and for each one of them offer a very brief practical and common sense self-care guide to recovery and prevention. I shall conclude by discussing the current impasse that many NGOs/IGOs are facing when it comes to staff-care, and point to the insights offered by aid workers themselves.

Action points and the “ABC of self-care” can be found at the end of the chapter, together with supplementary resources. Subsequent chapters in the White Paper Series will look more closely at the material introduced in this section.


To download chapter 2 please click below 

Chapter 1 and the bibliography can be downloaded here

I aim to publish a chapter every 2 weeks, I appreciate your patience if it takes a bit longer. If you would like to receive the next chapters directly in your inbox, please follow my blog or sign-up to receive freshly pressed notifications (no spam!). Thank you!


About this white paper series:

This series by Alessandra Pigni is based on a 2011 Humanitarian Professionals’ LinkedIn group discussion. Over a six month period, more than 80 comments, stories, and reflections coming from humanitarian personnel were offered in response to the question: “Humanitarian aid workers are often psychologically unprepared for field missions. Any views on this from field and headquarters staff?” The resulting papers offer an account and analysis of the numerous contributions, highlighting the concepts and cost-effective practices of mindfulness-based training that can offer support to aid workers to reduce stress and prevent burnout.

Mindfulness for NGOs (http://mindfulnessforngos.org/) works in partnership with The Oxford Mindfulness Centre (Oxford University) and was founded by Alessandra Pigni. The aim of the project is to bring Mindfulness-Based Burnout Prevention training, and psychological care to humanitarian professionals and volunteers back home and in the field promoting personal awareness, resilience and well-being. Alessandra is currently implementing Mindfulness for NGOs in Israel/Palestine.


If you would like to take part in the online discussion and submit your contribution for the upcoming chapters of this White Paper Series please join the Frontline Prevention Group, the Humanitarian Professionals Group, and Devex on LinkedIn or email info@mindfulnessforngos.org. Contributions used in the White Paper Series will be published anonymously to respect confidentiality.

Next in the white paper series:

No. 3 Overview of the concepts of mindfulness and how they may apply to humanitarian professionals


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