Debriefing toolkit for humanitarian workers

By Dr Debbie Hawker
Dr Debbie Hawker is a clinical psychologist with over 25 years of experience in the humanitarian sector. She has worked in over 30 countries. She offers debriefing and therapy for humanitarian workers, and training for humanitarian organisations.

The Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) aims to improve the quality and accountability of humanitarian action by setting up indicators and identifying key areas for organisations to invest in. One of these areas is staff wellbeing, which is listed under commitment eight of the CHS.

According to the CHS Verification Data hosted by the CHS Alliance, the sector only complies with commitment six by meeting the desired score of three out of five. The numbers for all the other commitments are lagging behind. More specifically, at the time of writing, indicator 8.9 measuring staff wellbeing and security stands at 2.8 (January 2019). One aspect of better alignment with commitment eight is to ensure that effective debriefing is available.

Why offer debriefing?

Without debriefing, 25% of humanitarian workers show significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress 18 months after returning home. With good debriefing, this can be reduced to 7%.[i]

Although most expatriate humanitarian workers experience an operational debriefing at the end of their assignment, many still report receiving no or inadequate personal debriefing. For international staff, the proportion receiving adequate personal debriefing has increased over the past 30 years, from under 25% to over 50%.[ii]  However, fewer than 3% of locally employed (national) staff receive personal debriefing after an assignment.[iii]

“I was desperate to talk to someone who I knew would be able to handle extremely traumatic experiences. I had shared some of it with others, but most people could not cope, which left me worse off.”  - quotation from a humanitarian worker.

The vast majority of humanitarian workers who receive debriefing are finding it helpful[iv], and so nowadays, many humanitarian workers request debriefing. However, when debriefers do not follow appropriate steps, debriefing may be ineffective or problematic. Therefore, it is extremely important that debriefing is offered to humanitarian workers by trained debriefers and good practice is followed. These include:

  • Offer debriefing as an opt-out (rather than opt-in) service, as some people do not realise how helpful it is until afterwards,
  • The debriefer should be trained in the steps of debriefing humanitarian workers, and should have a good understanding of the sector,
  • Debriefing should not take place in the first 24 hours after a critical incident, or before a worker is ready (e.g. if they have just travelled),
  • Adequate time should be available for the debriefing. This should certainly be over an hour, and often two-three hours,
  • Follow-up should be offered,
  • Workers who require more help than can be offered in debriefing should be informed about counselling or other options.

 “I have been debriefed twice. The first time was less than helpful. I had no reaction from the debriefer, felt unaffirmed, felt the debriefer had no concept of the depth and confusion of my struggles. The second time, six months later, with a different person, was excellent … we were not rushed and spent all day talking. The debriefer acknowledged the depth of pain and confusion ...” - quotation from a humanitarian worker.

Introducing the toolkit – what’s new?

The Debriefing Toolkit for Humanitarian Workers is now in its thirteenth edition and packed with over 100 pages of information and resources. It has been updated to help humanitarian agencies to offer debriefing which follows the latest good practice guidelines for this sector. The toolkit outlines steps for debriefing, whether after a traumatic incident, during an assignment, or at the end of assignment. The debriefing may be done for groups or on an individual basis. The toolkit also includes information sheets which can be given out, as well as lists of relevant websites for further information.

Furthermore, the updated version now refers to confidentiality, note-taking and note-keeping making reference to data protection laws (GDPR). There is a section on debriefing at a distance, and an additional focus on the needs of national staff.

The toolkit also emphasizes the role of debriefers in encouraging whistle-blowing and reporting any safeguarding concerns. This is especially relevant in the light of the recent awareness of PSEA (Protection against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse). For example, in a recent debriefing session, a humanitarian worker reported a case of sexual harassment. The debriefer then worked with the debriefee to ensure that this was not only reported but appropriately dealt with, encouraging members of staff to attend a safeguarding course and to revise policies on sexual harassment.

Opportunities for further training

Although the toolkit is self-explanatory, many organisations request practical training in how to implement the debriefing steps. For any further enquires or information about training, please do not hesitate to get in touch via the contact page at www.resilientexpat.co.uk

[i] Lovell, D. M. (1999). Evaluation of Tearfund’s critical incident debriefing process. Internal paper produced for Tearfund, Teddington, England.

[ii] McConnan, I. (1992). Recruiting Health Workers or Emergencies and Disaster Relief in Developing Countries. London, England: International Health Exchange; Hawker, D. (2018). The debriefing toolkit for humanitarian workers (Thirteenth edition). London: CHSAlliance.

[iii] Lopes Cardozo, B. & Salama, P. (2002). Mental health of humanitarian aid workers in complex emergencies. In Danieli, Y. (Ed.),  Sharing the Front Lines and the Back Hills, pp. 242-255. New York: Baywood Publishers.

[iv] Lovell, D. M. (1999). Evaluation of Tearfund’s critical incident debriefing process. Internal paper produced for Tearfund, Teddington, England.