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Published: February 7, 2023

Burnout and Security Risk Management: creating more caring and inclusive workplaces

By: Gemma Houldey

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Pressure to get the job done and suppress emotions in the face of immense suffering can negatively impact aid workers' wellbeing and, consequently, their security. In this blog, Gemma Houldey explores the implications of burnout for security and how organisations can help staff feel safe to speak up.

When I worked on humanitarian and development programmes, I was acutely aware of two things: that most of us were perfectionists, and that most of us were very good at suppressing or overriding our emotional struggles to get the job done.

Of course, there are valid reasons for this behaviour. In a sector whose ethos is ‘do no harm’, we feel a certain responsibility not to make mistakes. And showing too much emotional distress may seem self-indulgent in the face of the immense suffering we witness in the communities we serve.

Yet this behaviour carries a degree of risk – to one’s security, as well as to one’s health.

‘The perfect humanitarian’

In my book, The Vulnerable Humanitarian: Ending Burnout Culture in the Aid Sector, I describe some of the expectations of the ‘perfect humanitarian’. Among these are the need to appear unbreakable and be heroic in one’s endeavours. An interviewee told me, ‘There’s a very, very macho culture….My boss is like, until you get your first [metaphorical] bullet wound, until you’ve been through your first crisis, you ain’t worth shit here.’

There are consequences to these expectations. It becomes difficult to share fears, doubts, or what may have been a traumatising experience – whether related to a critical incident, or more insidious working conditions and practices. Difficult emotions instead get stored up and pushed away – and can show up sometimes months or years later in the form of burnout, chronic fatigue, or post-traumatic stress disorder. When there isn’t the space to process one’s experiences, emotional exhaustion or detachment might set in. This can lead to reduced cognitive capacity, poor decision-making and disconnection from colleagues; particularly worrying symptoms when dealing with a security situation that requires a quick mind and teamwork. Instead of seeking professional help for their mental health – which staff may fear will expose them as incompetent – many humanitarian workers cope through unhealthy measures such as excessive drinking or drug-taking. This can cloud a person’s judgement and pre-dispose them to taking greater risks, against the security protocols of their organisation.

There are also specific consequences for women and people from marginalised groups. In a working environment where everyone is expected to face their fears, overcome their emotional upheavals, and get on with the job, women are likely to find it harder to discuss their particular concerns around menstruation, menopause or harassment. Women interviewed for my book shared how they would mask these lived experiences to prove themselves as capable. For the same reason, someone identifying as LGBTQ+ may also withhold fears about their security.

Three steps to avoid burnout culture  

For humanitarian organisations to avoid increased absenteeism or unhealthy and risky behaviour from their staff, it’s essential that everyone feels safe to speak up about their problems and is heard when they do. Here are three suggestions for how managers and staff can prevent burnout before it becomes a security risk:

  1. Create intentional, dedicated spaces that welcome conversations about personal struggles.

In perfectionist working cultures, it can be difficult to share personal struggles – even with a counsellor. I recommend the creation of ‘brave spaces’, which can be integrated into the workplace, enabling struggles to be addressed collectively rather than individually. This could take the form of, for instance, ‘honest check-ins’: time set aside at the beginning of a meeting to share what is affecting each person’s mental health and what support they would like to receive. Or it could be listening partnerships (or groups) – where you and a ‘partner[s]’ within your team or organisation take turns sharing and listening for 15-20 minutes at an allocated time each week. No feedback, comments, or judgment – just holding space for each other and for whatever emotions arise.

  1. Encourage and explore healthier work routines that are appropriate for your particular context.

Given the huge diversity within the humanitarian sector and the increased commitment by INGOs and aid agencies to localisation, we must understand more about the nuances of people’s struggles and the type of help they need. One way of doing this is through the Wellness Action Plan, a personalised and practical tool from the UK charity Mind, which supports managers and staff in holding conversations about mental health and establishing the practices and routines that support staff according to their particular context or lived experience.

  1. Ensure diversity within your security and staff care providers.

Historically, security policies and staff care mechanisms have been developed by head offices in the global north. Likewise, the security officers themselves, and in-house counsellors, are very often from the global north; and in the case of security officers, usually men. This will have some bearing on a staff member’s willingness and sense of safety to share their specific challenges; particularly if they are from a marginalised group. Staff security and wellbeing mechanisms – and the providers themselves – must be more representative of the workforce and their particular needs in order to play a greater role in preventing and responding to staff health and security challenges.

About the Author

Dr. Gemma Houldey offers one-to-one mentoring, group workshops and advisory services for humanitarian leaders and staff seeking to end burnout and cultivate healthier, more inclusive work environments. She is the author of The Vulnerable Humanitarian: Ending Burnout Culture in the Aid Sector and runs a regular book club to explore the book’s practices and recommendations collectively. Details of the next book club starting in late February 2023 can be found here. Further details about her work can be found on her website www.gemmahouldey.com.


Image Credit: Samir Jung/UN Women


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