Self-care in aid organisations: "As helpers, we also need help."
What types of stress are experienced by specialist staff in women’s rights and aid organisations?
Staff in relief organisations are often subject to very high levels of stress. For example, our colleagues in the women’s rights organisation Medica Afghanistan often receive SMS text messages with death threats. Staff members generally also experience the conditions of war and violence, which means they experience traumatic stress. Furthermore, it places a high emotional stress on us when in the course of our work we are regularly confronted with the traumatic experiences of other people. This applies to interpreters as well as human rights activists.
What effect does this have on their everyday working life?
Dealing with traumatic experiences and supporting survivors can also lead to staff developing inner strength, for example by developing a deeper awareness of the importance of human life. However, our experience shows that specialist staff in the field of development cooperation are frequently overworked and exhausted in face of strenuous job requirements and the seemingly insurmountable problems they are tackling, especially in crisis regions. Without appropriate support, this easily leads to excessive demands, conflicts within teams, sinking motivation and, in the end, long-term exhaustion or burn-out.
When did the women’s rights organisation medica mondiale begin to address these issues?
For 25 years we have been actively supporting women and girls in war zones and crisis areas who were raped. By providing psychosocial counselling, medical care and legal assistance, we help those affected to deal with their traumatic experiences. Over the years, we realised that we, the helpers, were also in need of assistance to keep carrying out this work. So in 2013, medica mondiale worked together with a consultant on trauma work, Maria Zemp, to develop the project “Mindful Organisational Culture ©“. This is intended to enhance the stability and personal development of our staff, but also of the organisation as a whole.
What can each individual do and how can the organisation be proactive?
Am I sleeping badly? Do I have difficulties concentrating? Am I tense or overly sensitive? Am I still not rested even though I just had a holiday? Answering yes to any of these can be a sign of overload. Ideally, our HR departments should be implementing policy to ensure it never gets as bad as this. This could include ensuring there is time and space for sharing experience and feelings with each other about feelings of pain and powerlessness, for example. It can also help to organise training sessions on trauma dynamics or self-care techniques. The key here is to become aware of our own limits and learn how to establish a balance between tension and rest or release. This is why Mindful Organisational Culture © includes both the level of the individual staff member and the level of stress- and trauma-sensitive procedures and structures.
How important is self-care for staff working in relief organisations?
I would like to answer that with a quote from the psychologist Yael Danieli, who works with Holocaust survivors: “Being kind to oneself and feeling free to have fun and joy is not a frivolity in this field but a necessity without which one cannot fulfil one's professional obligations.”
Glossary: Mindful Organisational Culture
Glossary: Coping with trauma