Thanks Flavia, it’s wonderful to know that the blog resonates and it’s helpful
Pleased to have found your blog via Fifty Shades of Aid on FB. I commend you for your insights and thank you for your work on burnout prevention/recovery.
Thanks Jack, yes making a transition into a more “ordinary life” is not easy, mostly because aid workers invest so much of their identity in their job. But as I like to remind myself and others: “I am not my job”. Best of luck!
Thank you very much for writing about your own experience and giving these magnificent advises. I pass my previous 8 years as an aid worker in many countries around the world. One year ago I decided to stop and coming back home. It has been a very hard decision, sometime I freak out because I don’t feel part of this new environment where I’m living now. However, I will follow your recommendations in order to route my life as comfortable as possible doing something else extremely different. Thank you again. Cheers.
Nice article – and yes, at its very core who we are does not often change, but maybe what life draws out of us or asks of us at any one point does change – and that, in turn, changes what we put out into the world :)
Great article, thank you! The seriousness and absurdity definitely chimes, what was that novel you read by the way?
This is fabulous. May I share through social media?
Thank you for this very helpful article. Your advice is most appreciated.
lovely, it changed my mentality now. the world could have been best if we see quitting as leadership. the piece is great
Really love this article as it expresses where I feel I also sit. I wonder how many more of us ‘in betweeners’ are out there…
Thank you for sharing this, and the work you do Alessandra. No doubt the writer has reflected deeply and these words are just a small part of their journey. Almost four years out of the “field” (and divorced), I can relate to the challenges of re-integration, particularly on the work front, and the hero/heroine’s label. I also notice how the same story can be told from different perspectives, particularly as time goes on. Dropping the idea that humanitarian work requires a contract or “mission”, and working through the negative emergency-driven mindset that is so pervasive and subtle at the same time, was of value to me. So too was separating my identity from work (which ironically freed up more opportunities for work). It takes time to mend and find our feet again, and we will each have to travel a different path of our own. I think many of us don’t feel or truly understand the complexity of the situations we are in at the time. There are things we may not see or grasp for a very long time, and we may need to make peace or come to terms with that which we do not yet know and can’t yet be certain of. The inner fight or struggle is perhaps the last remnant left behind – did we do enough? That is not an easy question to sit with without spiritual values or beliefs or practices to anchor us, and remind us that we too are human.
Your article describes exactly how I am feeling after 4 years in the aid business (Palestine, South Sudan, Afghanistan). It’s like you are inside my head reading my thoughts. Somehow it feels better to know that I’m not the only one. When we’re on posting, we never talk openly about these things.
Excellent information about the Tibetan meaning behind meditation. Thank you so much! I’m looking forward to more of your writes ~ keep up the good work
Thank you so much for writing this article. I have felt quite drained from doing aid work and trying to decide whether I really am in a place to continue doing it while still struggling with the restlessness of having a ‘stable’ job in a first world country. You summed up that feeling of being torn so well. Thank you. My soul felt affirmed reading others feel this way too.
An a current UNHCR intern, I just wanted to comment/perk your interest. There seems to be little to no counseling services for intern with unhcr, at least from my perspective. Interns tend to be treated like staff, but without the benefits. It would be interesting if an organization did some research on the burnout rates/stress management techniques of interns.
It’s going to be a mix between serious and light reflections on aid, I hope you’ll find something useful in it.
I look forward to receiving the Aid workers
‘survival kit’ it sounds as if it will be a useful reference guide.
I’ve been working in the humanitarian sector in Uganda for 9 years. Randomly, I just learned the term ‘Compassion Fatigue” yesterday from a therapist in a meeting with international donors.
This explains A LOT and it is actually comforting to see that it is common and that people both deal with it, and get through it. I’ve actually been treating mine with a mix of Prozac and Valium, a mix that well over half the long-term aid workers I know use to help function in everyday life.
Dear Nora, thank you for this comment, I agree with you.
For me the post is an indicator of the vast and unsettling gap that there is between what many aid workers imagine they will do and be able to contribute through their profession, and what they actually end up doing.
I will be very happy to host a post by you if you feel moved to write something on this important subject and give your view from Palestine.
The idea that aid work is good but we need to protect space for activism in our personal lives is disappointing at best. What does it mean to have a “professional” life that is distinct from our personal values anyway? And how can we claim that “aid” is “helping” if it doesn’t address root causes and improve the world?
Thank you for sharing! So refreshing to see someone write from this angle. I wrote in my blog about the same topic, greetings from Ethiopia!
Nice one, Alexandra,
As a DDR guy for the past 13 years , this rings home. I think I was that guy in Haiti in 2007. Realising that it was time to quit saved me… and probably many of my staff.
I’ll be following your writing from now on.
I agree Alessandra. While there has been some progress from Laurie Ann Pearlman of the Headington Institute in Calif. and the KonTerra folks in Washington. So much remains to be done in both individual self-care planning support and agency support-Board-HR policy & practice. There are staff suicides in Dev workers. I have a one day Compassion Fatigue-Suicide Alertness workshop I would like to send you in doc and ppt. Tell me how. very best- Bill
This is all soo true. I am half way through and all you say is accurate. A tough but effective way to leave is to actually get a burnout! Time in a nice recreational facility back in the normal world with other normal (but also burned out people) may open your eyes for many things mentioned in your article.
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This completely aligns with my experiences. Thank you
While doing humanitarian work many forget that aid workers are also human. They are equally exposed to harm, vulnerable to stress and trauma once they indulge with disaster victims. There are many standards for ensuring the quality of humanitarian/relief services but none deal with the overall safety and security of aid workers. Though every organization has its own framework that is itself a discriminatory practice among humanitarian professional world. Some are very good in supporting their humanitarian staff but they turn their eyes when their partners’ staff is at stake.
I think Viktor E. Frankl expressed it magnificently in his Man’s Search for Meaning (see for an extract: http://www.panarchy.org/frankl/meaning.html)
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Loved it … no other words to say
Alessandra, thank you. Loved your recap of 2014 inspiring Blogs. Great question to us all — now that we are more informed, critical, and aware, what’s next? Makes me want to focus my energy and commit to action behind social innovation.
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Yes! I was there trying to get to the field, now I am here trying to get out… Thanks for tips!
Good stuff – all very true, I have been through it. Keep writing. It’s an interesting and understudied area.
A very well written article. I wish to commend you for the good work here. I think it also good to reflect on the contribution your work has made in making a difference in the lives of the needy. This enables you to be more couragious while planning your exit.
It is always helpful to remember that before you joined aidwork, you had a life and your life will not stop simply because you have left. It is to me all about managing change.
Keep on writing. This is a very interesting area.
I still feel what is lacking after 50 years of IDev are the reintegration resources to make sense of the experience, optimize learning and allow application, intervention and rest wherever the worker is from, goes to and returns.
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Thanks Liz this is very interesting. Organisations need to do more to implement a culture of care.
A sense of humour is essential in the field, but it is rather sad to see that the (only) culturally accepted coping strategies are gallows humour, stoicism, emotional detachment and the likes.
Individuals have the power to put in place healthier coping strategies for themselves if they are strong enough to go against the ‘mainstream’ humanitarian culture.
But it’s for organisations to change the ‘structural culture’ from within, and develop ‘healthy empathy’, rather than a compulsory need to fix ‘the other’, while neglecting their very own staff, who are humans too.
Brilliant, I also resigned my job 7 years ago,very frightening very lonely, but there is life outside of work and we all need to have a life, too much pressure put on people and family life is being lost.
This is as summary of my recently completed MA thesis. I wonder what you think?
Working in the field of international development assistance and humanitarian aid can impact a person’s mental health. Individuals have reported a range of somatic and psychological effects of their work. Traditionally, organisations have concentrated their resources on the physical security and health of their staff but more recently have begun to pay attention to the effects of both trauma and burn out.
This Interpretative Phenomenological study explored the individual experiences of four aid workers currently at post in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this was done by carrying out semi-structured interviews with the workers in Kinshasa in the DRC. The aim was to get closer to understanding how these individual workers perceive the threats to their psychological well-being and mental health.
The study shows that these aid workers are acutely aware of the effects of their work and that they draw on culturally accepted coping strategies, including gallows humour, stoicism, emotional detachment and adhering to a group identity. The culture of coping can be a barrier to care seeking; this barrier can have a detrimental effect on the mental health of those aid workers who may want additional support but feel prevented from accessing it.
Therapists working with aid workers may find it useful to work from an existential perspective which aims at encouraging clients to explore their own unique combination of life’s givens and which facilitates an exploration of the paradoxes that they may encounter as part of this lifestyle. This approach can help clients come to know and understand the values by which they want to live their lives. When aid workers question the value of their work it can create a destabilisation in their sense of self and a crisis of identity. Facilitating individuals to make sense of their experiences by contextualizing them within their physical, cultural and psychological life may prevent distress from escalating into mental ill health.
Tips, ideas and support for aid workers to keep sane back home and in the field
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