The Vulnerable Humanitarian: Ending Burnout Culture in the Aid Sector

6 December 2021

by Dr. Gemma Houldey

Author, Advisor & Facilitator on Well-being in the Aid Sector

It is common these days within aid organisations to hear the words ‘culture change’ as a way of addressing burnout and problems of abuse and discrimination. But what does culture change mean? This is what Gemma Houldey explores in her book, The Vulnerable Humanitarian: Ending Burnout Culture in the Aid Sector. Here she discusses why this book is important and what it can offer you and your organisation.

In these times of a pandemic, of increased separation and endless pressure to keep going and keep producing results, what does it mean to be human? Our humanness, and our humanity, are – strangely – often forgotten in the day to day operations of humanitarian organisations. We can be so focused on the needs of others that we forget ourselves, and we forget that we too are vulnerable.

My new book, The Vulnerable Humanitarian: Ending Burnout Culture in the Aid Sector, brings together my research on stress among aid workers in Kenya, and practices that explore stress, mental health, and well-being – and the working cultures that make us ill and those that makes us thrive. It contains stories from national and international staff on the frontline of humanitarian, development, and human rights interventions, as well as those who work in management or administrative support, and highlights the pervasive problems of bullying, discrimination and division that beset so many organisations whose primary goal is to do good.

Beyond quick-fix solutions to staff care

In my work as a well-being advisor and facilitator in the aid sector, and in the book, I do not try to point fingers or hold any one group of people responsible for these problems. Nor do I suggest quick-fix solutions, or assume that new policies alone will resolve burnout, staff absenteeism and turnover. Instead I encourage the reader – whether you are a manager, or a staff member – to consider what changes you can make, for yourself and for others, that will transform unhealthy organisational cultures. These include guideposts to assess your decision-making processes and well-being strategies in your workplace – and the degree to which they cultivate psychological safety, inclusivity and equity. And self- and collective care practices aimed at bringing you back to a state of wholeness and human connection.

Discussing the undiscussibles

The Vulnerable Humanitarian is also an opportunity to lean into discomfort and to find a way through it to create more compassionate working environments. I discuss the need for us all to reflect on power dynamics within and around us, and how we may dismantle systems and processes at work that benefit some whilst marginalising others. Ending burnout culture means systematising wellbeing from the ground up, it means cultivating brave spaces to explore mental health challenges and the discrimination and abuses that affect some staff every day. And it means recognising our shared humanness as well as our different lived realities in the struggle to make the world a safer and more equitable place.

Whether it’s a particular story from one of the humanitarians featured in the book, or a change in behaviour or approach at work, or a specific self-care practice – I do hope The Vulnerable Humanitarian leaves you feeling optimistic and confident that you too can create a healthier work space and routine for yourself, and for others.

To buy the book at 30% off, please go to the Routledge website and use the discount code ADC21 at checkout. Please share this widely within your teams! For more information about my offerings, including workshops and trainings on staff well-being and culture change, please go to my website, and feel free to get in touch!

To hear more about Gemma’s perspective on being a vulnerable humanitarian listen our interview with her on the Embodying Change podcast.

Find out more about CHS Alliance’s work to change organisational cultures to better live our values in aid work.