Gender, Resilience and Mental Health in the Humanitarian Sector

15 July 2016
Alice Gritti

by Alice Gritti

Alice Gritti, PhD, is an organisational psychologist with seven years of research experience on aid workers.

Organisational resilience is at the heart of the CHS Alliance, as evidenced by the success of the recent Humanitarian Human Resources (HHR) Europe conference 2016 in Barcelona, where panellists and participants shared resources and discussed how to improve the resilience of humanitarian organisations. The conference ended with the aim of taking the discussion further in order to support the sector. There’s a point I would like to add to this important conversation. When talking about humanitarians’ resilience I always stress the need to include the role played by gender in the discussion. Gender is in fact often overlooked in research on aid workers’ resilience. This is surprising – in our work we advocate for a gender-integrated approach to resilient communities. It seems like, again, we are not applying the same lens we use to support our beneficiaries and communities, to ourselves and our staff. This is similar to the way we address – or don’t address – the mental health of humanitarian professionals, as highlighted by Hitendra Solanki in the publication Mindfulness and Wellbeing – Mental Health and Humanitarian Aid Workers: A shift of emphasis from treatment to prevention.

The good news is that compared to the gender-blindness of the past, in more recent years, there are studies gathering data on gender. The bad news is that, from the evidence gathered so far, the relationship between gender and resilience, and more generally, between sex or gender and mental health, appears to be a complex one. We know that in the general population there are gender-specific risk factors of developing mental health problems. For example, women are twice as likely as men to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and are more at risk of suffering from depression and anxiety. On the other hand, substance use disorder and suicide are more common among men. But, can we say the same applies in the humanitarian population?

International staff:

Penelope Curling and Kathleen Simmons studied stress and staff support strategies in a large international aid organisation, and found that female staff reported higher levels of stress arising from conflicting demands of work and family duties. They also found that for international female staff, the security situation surrounding expatriate aid workers was further exacerbated by gender-based discrimination and harassment, as well as by the social restrictions on women that were prevalent in some emergency duty stations.

Similarly, in my doctoral research (Building aid workers’ resilience: why a gendered approach is needed), I found that international female staff, working in the humanitarian sector as well as in development, face gender-specific factors of stress, all posing risks and threats to their wellbeing and performance.

These include:

  1. Situational factors, such as insecurity (real and subjective) linked to gender-based violence and sexual harassment when out in the host country.
  2. Job-related factors, such as tense relationships with national male colleagues, difficulties in being trusted and recognised as leaders and sexual harassment in the workplace.
  3. Organisational factors, linked to a sexist organisational culture (hidden chauvinism and discrimination in hiring practices).
  4. Personal risk factors, such as problems in balancing professional and personal lives.

National staff:

Hannah Strohmeier and Willem F. Scholte (Trauma-related mental health problems among national humanitarian staff: a systematic review of the literature) reviewed the literature on trauma-related mental health problems among national humanitarian staff, and found ambiguous results on sex/gender.

Most studies found that female staff reported more symptoms of PTSD, depression, and anxiety (Ager et al., 2012, on staff in northern Uganda; Eriksson et al., 2013, on national staff in Jordan; Lopes Cardozo et al., 2005, on Kosovar Albanian staff). Humanitarian women face specific challenges: trying to mix income generation with household chores, and care work (Musa and Hamid, 2008), and for their greater exposure to sexual violence (Olff et al., 2007).

Other evidence found that, male staff was instead at greater risk of developing depression (Thormar et al., 2013, in Indonesian Red Cross workers).

Finally, no significant correlation between sex and mental health disorders was registered in national staff in China (Wang, Yip, et al. 2013), nor in national staff in Sri Lanka (Lopes Cardozo et al., 2013).

More research on the relationship between gender and mental health in the humanitarian sector is needed to help us fully understand its nuances. At the same time, humanitarian organisations, should consider implementing gender-relevant prevention practices and gender-relevant trainings to strengthen their staff’s resilience.

What do you think? Can we use sex and/or gender as predictors for mental health problems and resilience in the humanitarian sector? And if so, how can we prevent the developing of such problems and increase our staff resilience? Share your thoughts in the comments sector below.