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Staff Care: Economic? Legal? Ethical?

Impressions from the People in Aid 2012 HHR Conference

June 15, 2012

Following 8 months in Palestine and an intense and very interesting Humanitarian HR Conference in Amsterdam, I’m now back in Oxford. Everything is so quiet here. I understand why aid workers get itchy feet. It’s all seems so normal and smooth: the Queen’s Jubilee, the upcoming Olympics, endless days of rain. All normal. Borderline boring one may argue.


I gave myself a couple of weeks to reflect on the content of the HHR People in Aid conference and this is what I’ve come up with. It’s a very personal take that flourished from the discussions I had over a glass of wine with HR colleagues, and from listening to the various opinions expressed by experts in a beautiful learning environment.

First of all I feel we need a better name for this: staff care just doesn’t do it for me. Work-life balance is another one that sounds odd. As Ted Lankester from InterHealth said, aid workers do not operate on work-life balance. I agree. If they did they would have a different job. Nevertheless we all need a break not to burnout.

Here’s where Ted’s model of the pendulum seems interesting: if you can’t have a balanced life during your mission, make sure you have regular breaks. When you work, work hard, and when the time for rest comes, please change gear, switch off all electronic junk and take a good long rest. The pendulum swings from hard work to hard rest.

Ideally R&R should be every six weeks. I know so many aid workers who don’t take R&R and have so many days of annual leave left that they could go round the world in 80 days. I think it has to do with fear of stillness!

So if work-life balance sounds for a later stage in life, at least consider the “pendulum alternative”.

Another point to stress (!): Stress does not spare anyone in the field. Burnout – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual exhaustion – hits around  40-50% of aid workers. One of the conference presenter reminded us that studies show how there is a 30% in stress reduction if we have someone to talk to when needed. But in order to get to this, one must acknowledge that there are unmet psychological needs, that can be easily met.

How to do that?

Culture change: from a macho culture to a culture of resilience and support.

After a wonderful presentation on some of the most dangerous spots in the world, a woman in the audience asked our BBC keynote speaker, what’s his organisation offering in terms of duty of care. It may be interesting for aid workers to know that several in the audience – including myself – were under the impression that the speaker didn’t quiet grasp the meaning of the question, simply because apparently there is no such a thing as duty of care for journalists. Aid workers are not the only ones left to their own device.

Over at Reuters though we hear from former global director Michael Lawrence: a lot of work and resources have been put into changing the culture of the organisation, to go beyond the stigma attached to psychological support.

How did they do it? Leading by examples and starting from the top. Senior management had to take part in a workshop on PTSD like everyone else. And slowly but surely no-one thought it was odd to ask for help.

PTDS. Elsewhere I wrote that it doesn’t really seem to be the main problem. It hits around 5-10% of aid workers. Stress and burnout rate stands closer to 50%. Many participants and speakers at the conference agreed that aid workers need ongoing support in normal field situations, when the challenges come from difficult team dynamics, lack of family and friends, isolation, culture shock, etc. This is summarised by a quote from Chekov that therapist Kate Nowlan shared with us:

“Any idiot can deal with a crisis. It is this day to day living that wears you out”

We cannot stress this enough she continued: “It is cumulative stress and burnout that do us in, not the big crisis”. Sounds familiar?

I found the example of Reuters inspiring. Paraphrasing Michael’s closing words: there are economic, legal and ethical reasons for investing in staff care (for lack of a better name yet). Is it cost-effective? Yes. Is it becoming legally necessary? Probably. But beyond that it is the ethical thing to do. Personally this is also my take.

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