Staff Care: Why We Should All Care About Mental Health

8 December 2015
Emmanuelle Lacroix

by Emmanuelle Lacroix

Former HR Services Manager at CHS Alliance

Organisational duty of care and the need to support aid workers’ mental health has hit the news recently, helping to bring attention to these key issues. Moving past the headlines, our People, Capacity and Development Manager, Em Lacroix, explores what it means for the sector, its agencies and its workforce.

Firstly, a recent survey conducted by the Guardian Global Development Professionals Network provided useful insights into mental health issues faced by aid workers. Although the sample of respondents is limited and not representative of the humanitarian sector as a whole, the findings did not come as a surprise  – because it’s not a new issue. A greater number of aid agencies are now addressing these issues that we at the CHS Alliance have been advocating for:  in order to deliver effective humanitarian responses, staff must be competent, well trained, healthy (both physically and mentally) and supported throughout the whole employment life cycle.

Everybody knows that aid work is demanding and stressful. The operating contexts are getting more and more risky and volatile, and access to populations in crisis is often difficult if not impossible.  Nobody is under any naive impression that aid work is going to be a walk in the park, and we know that stress and risks come with the job.

The sector needs to encourage continuous mobilisation for greater focus and support to staff wellbeing by the aid industry, especially those on the “front line” where the risks and impacts on their physical and mental health are even greater. Improved security protocols and psycho-social support is of course part of this:  but for this to be efficient, it also requires organisational culture shift where staff feel safe to reach out for help and where managers and leaders set an example.

The increased attention given to staff care and wellbeing is sometimes in reaction to the news of loss of life, the long term impact of burnout on individuals or issues around duty of care given to individuals such as the recent case in Norway where an organisation was found guilty of gross negligence and failing in its duty of care. More positively, it is also because the level of awareness and interest within the aid sector is increasing and this leads to a greater collective voice pushing for something (much) better. Accountability to communities must also be applied to staff and to (and by) individuals so an organisation can truly be accountable.

The ability to face the increasingly pressurised operational environment must be built on both organisational and individual levels:

  • Agencies need to ensure comprehensive duty of care is applied consistently to all staff to protect them, both in terms of risk mitigation and post-incident appropriate support. This needs to be done whilst enabling teams to continue to reach out to the communities most in need without fear of litigation or constraints on their work in high risk environments. The humanitarian imperative should not be forgotten and this takes the right organisational culture and behaviours to enable it:
  • Physical and mental must be supported in equal manners, through holistic and complementary provisions of support. This also means insurance covers ought to remove that distinction. A silo approach only slows down and undermines any attempt to facilitate the recovery and rebuilding of an individual’s resilience and wellbeing – and ultimately their effectiveness in their role.
  • Likewise, unsupportive work environments and dysfunctional (or lack of) leadership must be addressed through a commitment to effective organisational development. Many human resources departments (for example through exit interviews) have found that poor line management and/or negative team culture often remains a key reason for people leaving their jobs.
  • Individual aid workers need to develop their self-care tool-box and know their limits, regularly reassessing it. Whilst organisations ought to engage with staff to define and embed sustainable ways of working and contextualise health, safety and security protocols and provide access to a variety of support and tools, individuals are also responsible for looking after themselves and each other, and know when to draw the line if they feel unsupported or at risk.
  • Peer support, online communities and other initiatives help share the burden and build a collective voice to ask for stronger organisational support and a shifting in practices. A bit of creative thinking and partnership building can go a long way to change practices.
  • There is no one-size-fits-all solution. And financial considerations are part of the equation. Ultimately, the responsibility to support both resilience and any healing process lies with multiple stakeholders: the sector can’t afford (ethically and more pragmatically) to have staff care seen an overhead.

I was asked about the changes I would like to see in the sector following the publication of the survey: in short it is about psychological support just becoming the norm, so it’s not just a few good agencies who stand up for providing psychological support to aid workers and receiving the right support is not a matter of luck.

Not only would we have that in the “DNA” of how the sector looks after and support our staff, but in an ideal word we can even show the way to other sectors that operate in dangerous areas – it’s not only NGOs that operate in really difficult situations. The sector should lead by example and set the way on what staff care means, what it looks like and what agencies should do for their staff – this is also about living the values and ethics we stand for as a sector.

In the same way that we as a sector want to put communities at the heart of what we do, all actors also need to walk that talk about being accountable to staff and investing in them. By stating that “staff are [our] greatest asset”, agencies need to see how this actually looks in practice when it comes to staff care.

It is time the sector stops making excuses and convince the donors, convince all stakeholders so it becomes just part and package of everything it does.