How can mindfulness improve humanitarian aid? – Coffee with Hitendra Solanki, Action Against Hunger UK

22 May 2018
Hitendra Solanki

by Hitendra Solanki

Mindfulness and Wellbeing Adviser for Action Against Hunger UK and the Start Network

On the occasion of Mental Health Awareness Week, we caught up with Hitendra to talk about why it is crucial to pay attention to the mental health of humanitarian staff, and how mindfulness and stress management can improve their wellbeing. As the Mindfulness & Wellbeing Adviser for Action Against Hunger UK and the Start Network, Hitendra has led a three-year pilot project for the Start Network’s Transforming Surge Capacity programme, funded by DFID.

In the UK, the week of 14 May was Mental Health Awareness week – what have you been doing to promote wellbeing?

It’s been a very fruitful, packed, and focused period leading up to, during, and beyond Mental Health Awareness Week. I was asked to run numerous ‘Introduction to Mindfulness’ and ‘Managing Stress’ sessions with several agencies and organisations. During the week itself, an invitation from Plan International involved a day of training on mindfulness and stress management, which was based on the Mindfulness & Wellbeing component of the recent Transforming Surge Capacity programme from the Start Network (check the course on Kaya as well). In addition, London South Bank University hosted a week of wellbeing activities and an entire day was dedicated to exploring the technique. This was another powerful and enlightening day to further explore how mindfulness may help to transform lives, through the cultivation of greater self-awareness.

What approaches did you adopt during these events?

Firstly, the mindfulness trainings are delivered with a focus on the individual experience. This experiential understanding of how stress might be affecting an individual directly, can provide a first step, and glimpse, into how we may personally be affected by stress. So, for example, through understanding how we ourselves experience stress in our minds and bodies, and the impact it has on our emotions and behaviours, can provide powerful insights to better manage, and skilfully address stress. Secondly, the focus is on how organisations may better support staff. As such, during the trainings staff and HR personnel are encouraged to explore ways to support staff wellbeing, and to develop processes and systems to ensure an organisational awareness is also nurtured and strategized.

You mentioned that the managing stress training was based on the components of the Transforming Surge Capacity programme. Can you tell us about the work you did as part of the Start Network?

The overall focus for this three-year programme was on advocating and promoting the critical need for agencies to prioritise and address the chronic level of stress, anxiety, burnout, and mental health issues within the development and humanitarian sector. A variety of research in the past few years has revealed the shocking extent to which mental illness and stress are prevalent within our agencies and the work we do. Somehow, we as a sector, are still not addressing this with the urgency and rigour it requires. The question is how are we able to deliver the impact of our programmes, which includes the increased resilience of our target populations, when little or nothing is being done on building the resilience and wellbeing of our own staff?

In addition, the project piloted mindfulness-based approaches to develop and nurture self-awareness amongst surge staff, and to self-manage stress and anxiety. It involved direct training of surge staff in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course and the creation of a series of five 1-hour audio-visual ‘Introduction to Mindfulness’ sessions. At the end of the project, 13 MBSR courses had been successfully delivered, and along with the audio-visual and other short trainings, ultimately, 652 staff were trained, and many more since then. At the organisational level, the work focused on developing and prioritising wellbeing and mental health issues via the creation and piloting of a multi-stakeholder ‘Wellbeing Cluster’. The ongoing pilot, which is based in the Philippines, involves an exploration of how a locally-led, and contextually relevant platform to provide support, services, trainings and resources for wellbeing, before, during, and after an emergency can be incorporated within the humanitarian architecture.

How are you continuing this work?

The Mindfulness & Wellbeing component is indeed continuing, and is now being fully supported by Action Against Hunger UK, with an aim to secure further funding to build on the ongoing work of the project. Several core work elements are currently in progress, these include the development of a (1) ‘Wellbeing App’, which will provide an introduction to mindfulness training, facilitate research and share a vast range of wellbeing resources sourced from across the sector; (2) two wellbeing documentaries exploring the current challenges we face as a sector, the journey of the TSC project and presenting the use of mindfulness through surge personnel who have been trained; (3) and the Wellbeing Cluster piloting in the Philippines, and the creation of another cluster in the UK focusing on advocacy. I am also working with Karen Abbs (ex-InterHeatlh) with whom we are both exploring potential partnerships and developing trainings hoping to be rolled out later this year.

How does this fit into Commitment 8 of the CHS?

The project is inextricably linked with Commitment 8 of the Core Humanitarian Standard, especially with its Quality Criterion, which simply states, ‘staff are supported to do their job effectively, and are treated fairly and equitably’. This criterion resonates intimately with the need for our agencies to be acutely aware of the effects of working in the humanitarian sector, and to genuinely acknowledge its implications on mental health and wellbeing. It suggests that organisations should provide the necessary support to enable us to be effective in our work, and ultimately, for the impact we wish to make for our beneficiaries and target audiences.

Indeed, ‘Key Action 8.3’ takes this responsibility further, and states, ‘staff develop and use the necessary personal, technical and management competencies to fulfil their role and understand how the organisation can support them to do this’. In the light of the overwhelming evidence that stress, anxiety, and burnout are often a knife edge away from many of us, it becomes paramount for our organisations to take responsibility for our development.

In acquiring these necessary core humanitarian competencies, self-awareness is crucial, which can be developed by mindfulness-based approaches. Self-awareness is mentioned as one of the competencies and behaviors in the Core Humanitarian Competency Framework for the ‘demonstrating leadership’ competency domain as it is essential to understand our thought processes, our moods and emotions, as well as our physical sensations. With self-awareness, our capacity to manage and lead others, individually and organisationally, has the potential to be fundamentally transformed and made more effective. This, in essence, means that we embody Commitment 8 of the CHS so that ‘communities and people affected by crisis receive the assistance they require from competent and well-managed staff and volunteers’.

If someone is interested in finding out more about your work, where can they find more information?

It would be wonderful to hear from any individuals, agencies, and organisations, interested wellbeing, and would like to be involved in potential project initiatives, research and training. Or if you wish to trial and pilot the wellbeing app, training resources, and materials, these can be happily shared. In particular, anyone interested in being involved in the creation of the UK Wellbeing Cluster, it would be great to hear from you also if you wish to be a part of it.