Staff care to reshape aid?
Dear aid worker,
I have this curious idea that reshaping aid starts with the people who “do aid”, with the aid workers. What if we brought back humanity inside humanitarian organisations, revamping those values that sometimes lie forgotten in a corner: humanity, participation, empowerment, care? Aid work is emotional work, and no one can do that amount of labour without support. We need work environments that support aid workers before we go into meltdown.
Staff care is not what you think
When I started advocating for staff care back in 2011, there were some established organisations providing psychological services for humanitarians, but on the whole it was difficult even to explain what my work was about and why the psychological health of aid workers mattered.
My specific interest was to connect personal and organisational health to serving well, what is generally called “effectiveness”. I had been there myself and I knew that it was the daily grind that caused aid workers suffering and lead to poor work, not simply the “critical incidents”.
I never viewed staff wellbeing as a pampering initiative. My concern laid with those who received assistance from people who simply were too wounded themselves to serve well. After years on the move, with no home, maybe a broken marriage, problems of addiction and poor working relations, I could not see how some aid workers could be effective and humane with people in need. I simply felt that refugees did not deserve dysfunctional aid workers, they did not deserve our “neurosis” dumped on them. The work of refugee scholar Prof Harrell-Bond taught me a lot on this.
My insight then was that staff care was not simply about providing counselling after a critical incident. Personal wellbeing cannot be an individualistic enterprise. That’s why self-care is not enough. Staff welfare needs to address power, it needs community and peer support. I still stand by the idea that staff care happens in the everyday interactions at work. It is not simply a policy and it has to factor in an ethical dimension.
Humanity as the way to reshape aid
Aid work calls us to our edge, personally and professionally. This can be both exciting, dangerous and damaging. Not surprisingly the scholar Silke Roth calls aid work “edgework”.
Aid workers experience a series of “edge states” such as burnout, that can have a deep psychological impact. Not only they leave us wounded, but can also lead to poor humanitarian assistance, to a degree of cynicism and grit that is pathological.
In the process of reshaping aid we need to bring humanity close to home: humanity needs to start inside our humanitarian organisations. That’s staff welfare. It’s cheaper than an army of counsellors and change consultants, and probably more effective.
Organisational values are there for a reason, and trying to live them in the workplace may be the least expensive and most effective way to provide staff care. It’s really about caring for your staff, for each other. It may be the most innovative thing we can do on the road to reshape aid.
Are you an aid worker or recovering aid worker? If you’d like to share your experience (anonymously) and contribute to my ongoing research on aid workers’ mental health please send me a note. I never publish the name of people and organisations unless agreed.