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Published: January 26, 2022

Security, Resilience, and the Humanitarian Sector

By: Lisa Reilly

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Why is staff resilience crucial to keeping aid workers and programmes safe? In this blog, Lisa Reilly looks at the opportunities within security risk management for building staff resilience.

What is resilience?

Resilience is a term that is increasingly used in the humanitarian sector, whether in relation to security risk management (SRM), staff well-being or business (operational) continuity. However, we rarely discuss what the term actually means. The Oxford English dictionary defines resilience as

The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity’ but this can mean different things to different people.

In security risk management, resilience traditionally applies to systems in terms of business (operational) continuity and is based on infrastructure and process considerations. But can we consider the resilience of systems in isolation from the people we require to implement them?

How resilient am I?

I worked overseas in a variety of humanitarian and development positions for over 13 years and since my last full-time deployment ended 13 years ago, I’ve been trying to better understand resilience on a personal level and the impacts of stress on myself and the humanitarian sector. Up until the last few months of my overseas work, I would have described myself as very resilient. I spent holidays resting and catching up with friends and tackled every crisis with the fervour I believed those impacted deserved. I survived an emergency evacuation due to death threats and my home being caught in the periphery of an IED attack. But apart from a casual reminder that psychosocial support was available and the occasional colleague checking in, there was no systematic support offered – or encouraged.

The realisation that I was ‘not OK’ came after my last deployment (not that I expected it to be my last), when my organisation sent expat staff returning from a high-risk environment for a professional psychosocial de-briefing. This was an ‘opt-out’ rather than ‘opt-in’ process which changed the perception and take up of the service. For me, this 90-minute session opened the flood gates and identified how far from ‘resilient’ I had become.

Up to the end of my posting I was still, generally, performing to a level that met the requirements of the organisation. As a team we continued to deal with internal and external security threats, as well as flood and famine responses. We had systems and processes in place to ensure that as an organisation we were resilient – but at what cost to the individual?

Stress management and security

Many security managers have long recognised the effects of staff stress on their ability to effectively manage security risks, particularly regarding poor decision making on personal and team security matters. But considering stress and SRM from a resilience perspective allows us to consider the impacts of stress on team dynamics, the capacity of staff to implement response systems, as well as the day-to-day decision making of the individual.

For many years, stress management has been an integral part of personal security training in the humanitarian sector and was often the only place within an organisation where the impact of stress on aid workers was considered. However, as the understanding of staff-wellbeing has changed within organisations, stress management may no longer be included in security trainings. But is it clear how the topic is being picked up elsewhere, and is it incorporating broader resilience issues? Some organisations are embracing the challenge and, within crisis management training sessions, have started openly discussing the rupturing effect on teams working in highly stressed situations.

Applying a ‘Sticking Plaster’ for stress management

Many humanitarian organisations now offer an employee assistance programme (EAP), which offers individual staff access to psychological support. While this must be applauded, its limitations must be recognised in terms of language and culture, particularly for national staff. Anecdotal information has highlighted that some staff do not believe in the confidentiality of a service provided by the organisation, especially for those with more diverse personal profile characteristics that they are not comfortable bringing into the workplace. Other criticisms have included a lack of understanding of the humanitarian sector by those answering the calls.

Some occupational health specialists believe that offering an EAP is like trying to ‘fix a broken leg with a sticking plaster’ if you fail to tackle the underlying problems that cause high levels of workplace stress.

Effort-reward imbalance

‘Work-related stress is experienced when the demands of the work environment exceed the workers’ ability to cope with (or control) them’ European Agency for Safety and Health at Work

During the GISF Forum in September 2021, Liza Jachens a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Webster University, Geneva and I facilitated a discussion on stressors, strains and resilience in the humanitarian sector. [Jachens, L., Houdmont, J., & Thomas, R. (2018). Work‐related stress in a humanitarian context: a qualitative investigation. Disasters, 42(4), 619-634.]

Workplace stressors can generally be categorised into two areas:

  • Operational stressors: exposure to danger or trauma as part of their occupation
  • Organisational stressors: concerned with the design, management and organisation of work

Within the humanitarian sector there is a tendency to assume that the operational stressors, particularly in high-risk environments, will have a greater impact than the organisational ones. But researchers and experts in this area tend to disagree.

In the traditional effort-reward balance model for organisational stressors, effort is based on workload, time pressure, responsibilities and overtime and rewards on salary, recognition, promotion prospects and job security. Within the humanitarian sector, the rewards tend to be linked more to the perceived value of work being done and the impact for those we are working for. This is common amongst other human services professionals such as police officers or nurses and means that organisations must be mindful of these characteristics when considering how to reduce stress and build individual, team and organisational resilience.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of mental health. Within the humanitarian sector, this must be of increased concern if we consider the effort-reward model. Covid has reduced travel and contact with teams and affected communities for national and international staff. This is likely to have reduced our ability to see and feel the value of the work we are doing while often increasing efforts as we develop new ways of working and programme delivery.

Building resilience: an opportunity for security risk management

As well as recognising the negative impacts excessive stress can have on the safety and security of teams, particularly when working in high-risk environments, there is an opportunity for improving engagement with SRM as well. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs identifies safety and security as basic needs. Therefore, organisations need to recognise that effective security risk management is essential for minimising stress levels within the team. When staff do not have to worry about their safety, i.e. the operational stressors, they will be less stressed and more effective at their tasks, thereby increasing the resilience of the individual and organisation. Therefore, good security risk management can help to alleviate the economic consequences of excessive stress such as high absenteeism and reduced creativity and efficiency.

This blog is based on a longer GISF article consolidating discussions and notes taken in the 2021 forum resilience session. The article, alongside workshops, will be published later in 2022.

About the Author

Since the start of my therapy journey 13 years ago I have been exploring the links between security and well-being. Five years ago, independently from my role with GISF, I started the process of becoming a psychotherapist.

I am now a qualified counsellor with a private practice offering counselling services, I am in my final year of advanced training (Level 7) for becoming a TA Therapist.  I work with individuals and organisations to support well-being. (www.lisareilly.co.uk).


Image Credits: ChildFund


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