The need for staff support
Managing stress in staff of humanitarian organizations is crucial in two ways. First, managing stress is an important management priority in enabling the organisation to fulfil its field objectives. Second it is necessary to protect the wellbeing of individual staff members, their teams and the communities they work with.
Humanitarian work is stressful. Staff of humanitarian agencies respond to the human costs of disasters such as wars, floods, earthquakes, famines, or refugee crises, or respond to longer term issues such as poverty, hunger, and disease. Some work as rescue or relief workers in the days immediately following a disaster. Others work over longer periods providing humanitarian aid. Still others work in longer term development roles.
Regardless of their specific role, in the field, staff are repeatedly exposed to tales of terror and personal tragedy and they may themselves witness gruesome scenes, have horrific experiences, or be chronically exposed to serious danger. Staff often live and work in physically demanding and / or unpleasant conditions, characterised by heavy workloads, long hours and chronic fatigue, and lack of privacy and personal space. They experience moral anguish over the choices they often have to make. Even having opportunities for learning and growth while carrying out new assignments can be stressful for staff.
Both in the field and back at headquarters, staff of humanitarian agencies also experience stresses common to work in other sectors. However these workplace stresses are often made worse by the emergency conditions and funding constraints under which much humanitarian work is carried out. Staff may lack adequate training or have insufficient time, resources, and support to do the job asked of them. Their job descriptions may be unclear. They may experience inadequate management or supervision or communication difficulties with colleagues and team members or not enough time away from work.
Humanitarian workers, like everyone else, also experience the stresses of everyday life. Some experience separation from family and friends. Others have families nearby and must deal with the demands of daily life in highly stressed communities. Many staff may themselves be survivors of the same events as the people they are helping. These family and community stresses cannot be separated out from work-related stresses.
While stress can be a source of growth and although many humanitarian workers withstand the difficulties of their work without adverse effects, many others do not. Both anecdotal reports and research studies have demonstrated the negative emotional consequences of exposure to these stresses on various groups of humanitarian workers. These adverse consequences may include depression and anxiety, psychosomatic complaints, over-involvement with beneficiaries, callousness, apathy, self destructive behaviours such as drinking and dangerous driving, interpersonal conflicts, or post-traumatic syndromes.
Staff stress is not just the problem of the individual staff member, however. The stress experienced by individuals has a negative effect on the functioning of their team or work group and agency. Staff who are ‘stressed out’ have higher accident rates and higher rates of illness. They are absent more often and use more health services. They show less commitment to their employing agency and have higher rates of turnover. The result is a loss of skilled, experienced staff in the field and increased recruitment and training costs.
Under conditions of chronic stress, staff may be poor decision-makers and may behave in ways that place themselves or others at risk or disrupt the effective functioning of the team. Their own safety and security and that of beneficiaries may be put at risk, and their team may experience internal conflict and scapegoating. ‘Stressed out’ staff members are less efficient and less effective in carrying out their assigned tasks. Stress fundamentally interferes with the ability of the agency to provide services to its supposed beneficiaries.
Although stress among humanitarian workers is unavoidable, some stress can be prevented or reduced and the effects of stress on individual staff members, on their team, and on their agency can be lessened. This requires actions undertaken by individual staff members, by managers and supervisors, by teams, or by the agency as a whole.