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How to beat burnout in NGOs

Mandela on a culture of care

Once again we are discussing staff care and how to create better workplaces over at the Humanitarian Professional Group on Linkedin. If you work for an NGO or UN agency you may want to take a peek at the brilliant conversation that it’s evolving around the question I posed a couple of days ago: “What should NGOs/IGOs make their top priority to prevent serious psychological conditions such as burnout in their staff, and create better work environments?”

Having just come to the end of a process of integrating mindfulness in organisational development with an amazing Palestinian grassroots organisation, let me briefly share some of my reflections on the subject.

Staff care happens while we work together

Staff care is still too often linked to interventions that are somehow disconnected from the daily work life, e.g. counselling or stress management. Staff care needs to be part of a way of working together, e.g.reducing stress by being clear on responsibilities, providing constructive feedback instead of criticism, spending time together informally, integrating moments of mindfulness during the day, etc. People have quite a bit to say about this in the Linkedin forum. It’s obvious that a good workplace is built by creating a healthy organisational culture, which means healthy relations, where people feel seen and appreciated.

Hiring resilient people means having employees who are aware of their strengths and limits, who have healthy boundaries, and do not succumb to overwork and ‘hyper-activism’. Most people simply cannot cope with burnout in the field, because burnout is a syndrome of physical, emotional, mental, existential and relational exhaustion that requires more than R&R and more than ‘stress management’. We are not ‘designed’ to live with burnout.

Burnt-out staff are not only suffering in silence, they are ineffective, difficult to work with, and they pose a danger to themselves and others because they are unable to think clearly. Agencies need to work on building a healthy organisational environment, and rather than hiring ‘tough people’ who can live with burnout, they need to employ those who know how to look after themselves, as a means to care for others.

Mandela said: “Our society needs to re-establish a culture of caring”. NGOs need to do the same if they wish to contribute to the healing of our society.

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Mindfulnext by Alessandra Pigni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.