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Published: June 14, 2019

Aid Worker Wellbeing and Security Risk Management

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Hélène Cardona-Welstead is GISF’s Projects and Membership Officer. She is part of the NGO Staff Wellbeing Network hosted by CAFOD and has been increasingly focused on supporting GISF members with employee wellbeing best practice. She will soon be leaving GISF to take up a role as a Wellbeing Adviser.

Increasingly NGOs are investing resources in the growing trend of employee wellbeing. This might not be the primary responsibility of security risk management (SRM) professionals in the aid sector, as it is often under the remit of human resources, but unwell colleagues can become a cause for concern for them and their organisation due, for example, to poor decision-making or long periods of absence. In this blog, aimed at those with a responsibility for staff safety and security and anyone else interested in employee wellbeing, I discuss the state of aid worker wellbeing, how it relates to the role of a Security Adviser, initiatives responding to a growing concern about stress levels, and next steps.

The state of employee wellbeing

It should not come as a surprise to read that today’s employees often face debilitating levels of stress. In 2017 and 2018, in the UK alone, there were 595,000 employees suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety and 15.4 million working days lost as a result. The causes of this stress epidemic are varied, often interconnected and dependent on each individual. Work-related stress can be caused by one or several of the following issues: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. Stress from our personal lives and world news adds to the stress we might already be feeling at work.

Similarly, the impact of stress also varies in the ways it can compromise a person’s wellbeing. While most definitions are wide-ranging and can cover a person’s physical, mental and emotional state as well as social relationships, financial security and more, there is no singular understanding of wellbeing. Organisations seeking to promote wellbeing should therefore take time to devise the most appropriate definition for what they want to achieve for their staff.

The aid sector adds a layer of complexity to an already complicated issue due to the working environment and the number of people that can be exposed to trauma as a result of their work. The recent scandals linked to safeguarding issues, sexual harassment, and employee suicides point towards an unhealthy culture in many organisations. Research concludes that the majority of aid workers report both high levels of stress and poor overall wellbeing. Despite undeniable progress, stigma is still widespread when it comes to discussing mental health – a fundamental aspect of wellbeing – especially in a sector where many want to be seen as able to cope with anything. This creates an explosive situation for aid workers’ wellbeing.


Why does this matter for security risk management (SRM) professionals?

Not surprising is the negative impact that unwell employees can have on the workplace, with lack of productivity often cited as a pressing issue. There are many other issues that can hinder SRM efforts, resulting in security incidents and an increased reputational risk for your organisation. When employees are unwell they can:

  • Make poor decisions
  • Take more risks or become overly risk-averse
  • Rely on unhelpful coping mechanisms such as drugs and alcohol
  • Be in poor physical health resulting in an inability to cope with demands in the field
  • Be absent for long periods of time, putting added pressure on colleagues covering their role
  • Be disengaged from their work and ignore SRM policies
  • Be unable to cope with the demands of being part of a crisis management team

Crucially, employee wellbeing is a central aspect of any organisation’s duty of care. If it is easy to understand that organisations must prevent employees from being physically injured as a result of their jobs, then it should be equally simple to understand that the same applies to mental and emotional injuries. At GISF, we are committed to breaking down silos and supporting organisations to integrate SRM into all parts of an aid organisation. Because we view the role of SRM professionals holistically, we believe awareness of employee wellbeing should form part of their responsibilities, as it should form part of everyone’s responsibilities. Improving employee wellbeing is a collective effort that SRM professionals should contribute to, and support organisation-wide initiatives. 

Employee wellbeing initiatives

The good news is that many organisations in the aid sector and beyond have developed wellbeing initiatives that we can learn from.  A number of these organisations are referenced in this blog piece as examples, and a more extensive list can be found here under the theme ‘Health and Wellbeing’.

1. Empowering aid workers to look after their own wellbeing

  • Clarity: the words used to talk about wellbeing need to be clear. It can be helpful to define terms to ensure that everyone is on the same page when discussing wellbeing. Other words can be used to describe wellbeing if they work better for your organisation. The concept of wellbeing (i.e. being well) is universal, and cultural differences should not be used as a reason to avoid the discussion.
  • Signposting: do employees know about the resources available in your organisation and how to access them? This information should be given to employees as part of their induction and should be shared often through reminders and updates.
  • Self-assessment: many tools exist to help individuals assess their stress levels. This is a great way for people to regularly check-in with themselves, and prevent – rather than cure – ill-health.


2. Supporting managers to support others

  • Guidance: organisations should look to develop a step-by-step guide for managers responding to employee wellbeing issues, which they can then refer to for specific scenarios. Such guides should be organisation-specific and should consider multiple scenarios and the referral systems in place.
  • One-to-one: it should be common practice for managers to discuss wellbeing with the people they supervise. Managers should be able to make time for this type of conversation daily. A sincere ‘how are you?’ will help managers to spot warning signs early, and will normalise wellbeing discussions in the workplace.
  • Training: managers should be supported to identify and respond to wellbeing issues. If your organisation does not provide in-house training for this, there are options to explore externally. It is also important for managers to know that employee wellbeing does not have to be complicated, formalised or expensive. Often just showing that employee wellbeing is taken seriously by talking about it meaningfully results in hugely positive outcomes.


3. Peer-to-peer support

  • In-house: some organisations have developed in-house peer-to-peer programmes so that employees can feel comfortable reaching out to their colleagues for support. Some of these programmes take inspiration from the TRiM system, which is used by the British military.
  • External: the most common practice when formalising peer-to-peer support is to use external training courses. For organisations operating internationally, a familiar issue is standardising employee training across multiple locations. To counter this, they can seek a provider with an international presence, such as Mental Health First Aid, which has offices in more than twenty-five countries.


4. Addressing the organisational culture

  • Leading from the top: having wellbeing champions at the senior leadership level is a good way to ensure that everyone feels confident to discuss wellbeing issues in the workplace.
  • Surveys: wellbeing surveys can help to find out more about employee wellbeing in your organisation. Thrive Worldwide and The KonTerra Group can support organisations interested in developing wellbeing surveys. Another option is a climate survey, which can be conducted by external providers like the Headington Institute. This is a broader survey that can unearth unhealthy cultural climates in organisations. Alternatively, some organisations have developed their own surveys and might be willing to share.
  • Network: many organisations have varied networks with different themes like wellbeing, LGBT+, disability, women in the workplace and gender. Organisations should promote these networks and the opportunity for staff to participate in them when they exist, or start a network if they are not already in place. Participating in an informal wellbeing network can be a powerful way for staff to start a conversation about employee wellbeing.
  • Wellbeing week: offering activities like talks and workshops about resilience or nutrition and healthy social activities have proven successful for organisations experimenting with an annual wellbeing week. It can also be another opportunity to remind employees about the support services available to them. Human resources teams (or wellbeing advisers when they exist) are usually responsible for organising wellbeing week and they are often open to topic suggestions. Universities are great places to find ideas for wellbeing weeks aimed at students and staff that can be adapted to your organisation.
  • Diversity and inclusion: there is a strong link between employees feeling well and feeling that they can bring their whole self to work. Better diversity and inclusion in organisations results in better wellbeing, and efforts should be equally invested in both. The GISF research paper Managing the Security of Aid Workers with Diverse Profiles is a great resource to start thinking about this issue. Having a conversation with colleagues responsible for diversity and inclusion in your organisation is another step in the right direction.


Next steps

SRM professionals can play a crucial role in improving aid workers’ wellbeing. Some work side-by-side with their colleagues in human resources, while others seek to integrate wellbeing into SRM trainings and policies. Some become wellbeing champions, and advocate for better practices across their organisations. Whatever you decide to do to support your colleagues and their wellbeing, your efforts will be an integral part of your work to protect the safety and security of your colleagues. A final message to remember while thinking about all of this is that, whatever your role, looking after your own wellbeing is always paramount. As cabin crew say, ‘put on your own oxygen mask before helping others’.



Well-being: A strategy and a responsibility, Deloitte, 2018

Work related stress depression or anxiety statistics in Great Britain, 2018, Health and Safety Executive, 2018

Health and Well-being at Work Survey 2019, CIPD, 2019

Causes of stress at work, Health and Safety Executive, accessed in 2019

‘All I hear is anger and frustration’: how Brexit is affecting our mental health, The Guardian, 2019

Amnesty International has toxic culture, report finds, The Guardian, 2019

Mindfulness and stress management for aid workers, the Start Network, 2015

PDFs self-tests, The Headington Institute, 2019

‘Stress Bucket’ explainer animation, YouTube, 2016

Preventing burnout (part 1), The Headington Institute, 2013

How to help your team thrive at work, CIPD, 2019

Resources and downloads, FD Consultants, accessed in 2019

MHFA For Workplaces, MHFA England, accessed in 2019

Psychological first aid: Guide for field workers, WHO, 2011

Trauma risk management (TRiM), March on stress, 2019

Workplace MHFA Two Day, MHFA England, 2019

Essential Principles of Staff Care, The KonTerra Group, 2017

International Mental Health First Aid Programs, Mental Health First Aid International, accessed in 2019

Wellbeing Survey, Thrive Worldwide, accessed in 2019

Evaluation and Organizational Learning, The KonTerra Group, accessed in 2019

Managing Sexual Violence against Aid Workers: prevention, preparedness, response and aftercare, GISF, 2019 

Programme of events – Wellbeing week (4-8 February 2019), Warwick University, accessed in 2019

Managing the Security of Aid Workers with Diverse Profiles, GISF, 2018


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