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Published: January 28, 2016

In the news: Psychological Support and Wellbeing for Aid Workers

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It is not breaking news that aid workers are frequently subjected to high levels of stress and pressure. Whether we acknowledge it or not, working in conflict zones, assisting during disasters or vicarious exposure to the effects of extreme poverty all make their mark. Whilst human resource teams are commonly charged with the management of employee health and wellbeing programmes, discussions during the GISF Forum in Berlin last September emphasised the link between staff wellbeing and good risk management practice. Security managers continuously strive to help staff deliver programmes in physical safety; how can we better mitigate the psychological impact of the work that we do?

The Global Development Professional Network (GDPN) survey on mental health and wellbeing reported that 79% of 754 respondents had experienced mental health issues, with 93% stating that these were related to their work in the aid industry. The statistics illustrate an extensive problem but don’t tell the important personal stories. Amy Briathwaite’s ‘Kick at the Darkness’, is an interesting short film exploring the psychosocial issues related to work in high stress emergencies. In the GDPN Guardian series, aid workers recount how their respective organisations mismanaged their personal incidences of psychological injury, and the appalling stories are many and varied. One aid worker was told that a psychiatrists’ medical certificate was not sufficient for health insurance claims, another individual’s requests for counselling were completely ignored. The situation is clear – even where existing, some NGO’s policies on this subject lack teeth and don’t support staff comprehensively.

For the vast majority of organisations, a lack of resources prevents implementation of the distinct and specific staff care policies required to tackle the issue. However, simple measures can begin improvements, and there are many resources available to security and HR managers. Used in a systematic, rather than piecemeal way, these can have a meaningful impact of staff health in the field and headquarters. The Antares Foundation assist with the design of staff care and psychological support systems within humanitarian organisations. A more proactive monitoring system could be an effective way to ensure that mental health issues are being managed, reducing the stigma of seeking help. InterHealth suggest that recruitment policies which include psychological clearance and resilience profiling could potentially reduce the chance of PTSD and other trauma-induced illness, supporting organisations’ long term risk management. They have a range of useful resources available on their website.

An organisational culture where individual staff members are encouraged to reflect on wellbeing is also empowering. The Headington Institute provides free online training with resources on stress, burnout and resilience, which could add to a staff member’s ‘self care toolbox’ as suggested by Emmanuelle Lacroix in an interesting CHS Alliance article. Achilles Resilience Training can assist in trauma management and increase psychological resilience of people working in conflict zones. Staff support surgeries, such as those implemented by British Red Cross HR team, can help create an open discussion on issues affecting aid workers or their colleagues. Building trauma training into management, leadership and team training rather than tackling it as an isolated issue, will better equip staff to identify, support and assist those suffering after traumatic incidences.

A question that resonated during GISF’s September forum must be repeated here. We wouldn’t ignore and step over the injured bodies of our colleagues – why would we ignore their psychological needs? There are clearly moral, financial, reputational and security-related reasons for aid organisations to proactively promote psychological care and resilience amongst employees. To tackle the sector-wide problem, organisational policies and culture should be addressed, and martyr-like attitudes in relation to mental health actively addressed. Organisations have an increasing imperative to recognise wellbeing as a key part of their duty of care to their most valuable resource: their staff.

If you have insights or resources which would be useful for colleagues and GISF members, please send an e-mail to Ruth Quinn (eisf-research@eisf.helpful.ws) with details.


Making Secondary Trauma a Primary Issue: A Study of Eyewitness Media and Vicarious Trauma on the Digital Frontline, Dubberly, S, Griffin, E and Mert Bal, H., accessed 20 January 2016, http://eyewitnessmediahub.com/research/vicarious-trauma/executive-summary

Kick at the Darkness, Braithwaite, A, accessed 20 January 2016, http://www.amybrathwaite.com/kick-at-the-darkness/

Humanitarian agencies need to stop failing their staff on mental health, Brendan McDonald, The Guardian, 31 July 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/jul/31/aid-workers-casualties-mental-health

You can’t fully #ReShapeAid with Sick Aid Workers, Brendan McDonald, 7Pilers, July 2015, http://7piliers.com/post/125334402497/businesscaseforaidworkerwellness

Dealing with Aid Worker Burnout, Ben Cook, The Guardian, 22 February 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2013/feb/22/dealing-with-aid-worker-burnout

Approaches to Staff Care in International NGOs, Benjamin Porter and Ben Emmens, InterHealth and People in Aid, September 2009, http://www.peopleinaid.org/pool/files/pubs/approaches-to-staff-care-in-international-ngos.pdf

What’s the Hard Return on Employment Wellness Programs?, Leonard Berry, Ann Mairabito and WIllian Baun, Harvard Business Review, December 2010, https://hbr.org/2010/12/whats-the-hard-return-on-employee-wellness-programs

Staff care: Why we should all care about mental health, Emmanuelle Lacroix, CHS Alliance, 8 December 2015, http://chsalliance.org/news-events/blog/staff-care-why-we-should-care-about-mental-health

Guardian research suggests mental health crisis among aid workers, Holly Young, The Guardian, 23 November 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/nov/23/guardian-research-suggests-mental-health-crisis-among-aid-workers

Secret aid worker: your stories of mental health, PTSD and burnout, Secret Aid Worker, The Guardian, 23 September 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/sep/23/secret-aid-worker-mental-health-ptsd-and-burnout

Aid workers speak out about metal health: ‘I was afraid they would think I couldn’t handle it’, The Guardian, 23 November 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/nov/23/aid-workers-stories-mental-health

Stigma, guilt and gaps in the system: it’s time for NGOs to step up on staff mental health, Katherine Purvis, The Guardian, 25 November 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/nov/25/mental-health-support-for-frontline-aid-workers-ngos

Traumatic Stress Management Guidance – For organisations whose staff work in high risk environments, UK Psychological Trauma Society, 7 May 2014, http://www.ukpts.co.uk/site/assets/UKPTS-Guidance-Document-120614.pdf


Background Reading

Psychological Distress, Depression, Anxiety, and Burnout among International Humanitarian Aid Workers: A Longitudinal Study, Barbara Lopes Cardozo et al., PLoS ONE, 12 September 2012, http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0044948

Humanitarian Relief Workers and Trauma-related Mental Illness, Ellen Connorton et al., Epidemiological Reviews, 15 December 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22180469

Burnout: Why do people suffer and why do International Relief Workers suffer more than Domestic Response Workers and First Responders?, Susan MacGregor, People in Aid, 1 April 2008, http://www.peopleinaid.org/pool/files/pubs/burnout,-susan-macgregor-april-2008.pdf

Traveling to provide humanitarian air: lessons from Nepal, Ronnie Henry and Megan O’Sullivan, CDC Health Information for International Travel, 31 December 2015, http://blog.oup.com/2015/12/traveling-to-provide-humanitarian-aid/


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