What Can We Do to Really Improve Staff Care of Aid Workers?

Alessandra Pigni

by Alessandra Pigni

Alessandra Pigni is a licensed psychologist and researcher.

Now that Steve Dennis’ case against the Norwegian Refugee Council no longer makes headlines, we can begin to address what caring for staff really means, beyond “duty of care” policies and guidelines. Because the truth is, the vast majority of humanitarian agencies have improved.

Now that Steve Dennis’ case against the Norwegian Refugee Council no longer makes headlines, we can begin to address what caring for staff really means, beyond “duty of care” policies and guidelines. Because the truth is, the vast majority of humanitarian agencies have improved, and now have those policies in place. Yet from conversations with aid workers in the field, I wonder if their mental health is benefitting from such policies or whether there is something subtler that we need to address when it comes to aid workers’ wellbeing.

What I gather from the many aid workers I talk to is that the essence of staff care does not simply lie in the formal support staff get from an organisation, e.g. the counselling sessions or the pre-deployment preparation, but is about the culture and values that are lived out in the workplace from headquarters to the field. Here are four suggestions to tackle staff care in your organisation.

1. Staff care is a culture that cares

“Staff care is about small things,” according to an aid worker serving refugees from the Turkish border town of Gaziantep, a stone-throw from Aleppo, across the border from the Syrian conflict. “It’s about the phone call you receive from colleagues who want to check how you are, not because they have to, but because they care.”

Hugo Slim in his recent book on humanitarian ethics wrote about the importance of the “organisational conscience”. In other words, international aid agencies need to cultivate an organisational culture where staff can embody as best they can the values and virtues that they purport to “export” to those they aim to assist. That’s a key factor to creating healthy work environments.

2. Staff care has to do with fair and professional work conditions

“I’m a person,” another humanitarian tells me. “I’m not a channel for donors to translate requests into proposals.” Much of what aid workers perceive as staff care boils down to fair contracts, respect in the office, and managers who relate to staff as human beings, not just as tools to get a job done.

Burnout experts Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter have repeatedly shown that people burnout not simply because they work long hours, but because of a lack of recognition, appreciation, and fair working conditions.

3. Self-sacrifice is not a virtue per se

“When people in crisis are worse off than us, what right do we have to worry about our own mental health?” commented a senior aid worker. To think this way misses the point: firstly, like it or not, humanitarian work is more and more a job, not a saint-type calling. Secondly, breeding dissatisfied staff means more burnout, more turnover, less commitment, and less effective aid.

In some circles, the aid sector being one of them, grit and personal sacrifice are considered the ultimate virtues. Grit is defined “as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress”. When failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress are what we get day in and day out, grit is more a sign of rigid stubbornness, than of character. It’s time to get over the idea that the more we endure and sacrifice, the more effective we are in our job.

4. Practicing our core values in the office may be the key to effective staff care

“How am I supposed to stand for people’s rights, when my rights in the office are ignored?” asks a Syrian programme manager. Aid workers need respect, to give respect. Participation in the field, develops from participation in the office. And so does empowerment, sustainability, accountability. The paternalism, harassment, impunity, racism, homophobia, and unfairness that we hear from some field operations may in the end come from an organisational culture that tolerates them.

Again burnout experts Leiter and Maslach address the role that values, civility and respect play when it comes to preventing burnout and engaging staff.

A programme manager working with Syrian refugees in south-eastern Turkey explained what makes her NGO a “staff caring” environment.

“The care and respect for the individual is very obvious, there is openness, transparency and trust, we have a very collaborative senior management team, decisions are not forced on us and there is a sense that staff at all levels are empowered. And we have a lot of laughs in the office which helps.”

In a separate interview her colleague provided a similar take: “We have a friendly environment inside the office which helps to get rid of stress, there is no discrimination. Unless it’s an emergency, we don’t want staff to stay in the office until 7-8pm or work over the weekend. We tell people “leave on time, see your family”. He concluded “I’m happy to come to work every morning.”

Staff care is about a creating a caring and learning work environment where people trust and respect each other, where aid workers receive fair contracts regardless of their nationality and where dissenting voices have a forum. Counselling sessions and stress reduction through mindfulness, yoga or other forms of care are important add-ons, but they are by no means the core of staff care in spite of what we may be led to believe. Because it’s the day-in and day-out stress that wears us down, not necessarily the potentially traumatic event.

There is no standard recipe to make staff care work. Yet, what seems obvious is that the baseline needs to be a respectful and transparent work environment. We can’t simply exhaust and demotivate aid workers, then fly in a counsellor and call that staff care. That’s like putting a cherry on a burnt (out) cake and still expecting it to taste good.