A guest post by Weh Yeoh.
Generally speaking, it doesn’t matter how large or how small the organisation you work for is. If you work in aid and development, it’s up to you to look after yourself.
Sure, there are exceptions out there. Anecdotally, Save the Children and MSF are both large organisations that are investing time and money into the mental health of their staff.
But the reality is, for the bulk of them, the onus is still on the individual to take care of their emotional and mental wellbeing.
For example, a volunteer in a large government volunteer program was working in an area of considerable stress, dealing with victims of sexual violence on a daily basis. She had put in an application to continue her association with this small local organisation, through another volunteer scheme managed by the same company. After she experienced mental health issues, however, she informed her employer that she was struggling and needed help.
The response that she was given was that she was jeopardising future placements through this company by requesting help. Quite simply, she was showing that she was not of the right fortitude to deal with the requirements of the job. They did however tell her that she was entitled to 3 hours of free counselling services…over the 12 month period of her contract.
We put people in places where we demand a great deal from them, and expect our pound of flesh. But rather than give them the tools to do the job that is needed, we treat them with suspicion that they are incapable or weak when they need help. Early results of the largest survey of humanitarian workers ever show that burnout is a key issue.
How did it get like this?
Two years ago, WhyDev ran its first pilot program into peer support, aiming to match isolated aid workers around the world together, to support each others mental, emotional and professional well-being. Back then, the idea that aid workers were able to reach out for this kind of support was something of a novelty in itself, even more so than it is now.
An older man who had worked in the aid and development sector for a couple of decades felt the urge to write to me out of the blue. His email started politely, though (unsurprisingly perhaps) condescendingly.
“I am sure that you are a nice and well intentioned chap”, he wrote, much like the old uncle with a pipe in one hand and a cricket bat in the other, poised to strike you on the bottom just as you think you’re getting off with only a verbal warning. He continued to tell me how in his considerable experience working in conflict and post conflict areas, he was yet to meet anybody who could benefit from this kind of support. What we were doing at WhyDev was, in his own words, “creating yet another coffee-club for people who ought to pull themselves together and stop whinging.” [JKL: That's "whining" for all you US English speakers.] He urged that I “should put my considerable energy and brainpower into something worthwhile.”
It speaks volumes about the capacity of someone to provide support and empathy when their solution to a problem is to grin and bear it. It also says more about the aid and development sector when people who we can assume are in higher management positions have this attitude. When they were our age, they toughed it out, and learnt how to “stop whinging.” The younger generation simply needs to do the same.
It is for this very reason that progress from organisations towards true comprehensive mental and emotional support for aid workers is slow. Look at an example of who is green lighting them (or not, in this case).
I have two simple suggestions on how we can start to improve the situation from an organisational point of view:
1) The first is employ more women in management positions. The science has shown again and again, that on balance, women have more characteristics than men that are suitable for management. Humility, sensitivity and emotional intelligence, just to name a few. Surely these sorts of characteristics, not the overconfidence that male managers tend to display in their own opinions, are more likely to result in organisations that know how to care for their employees’ mental and emotional health. Not only care, mind you, but give them the right tools to do the job.
2) The second comes back to title of this piece. Realise that, for now, organisations are generally not going to provide staff with the sort of support that they need. This doesn’t exonerate them of their responsibility to do so. It means individuals who work in aid and development need to let them know that it is something valuable to them. And support each other.
Changing the perception of mental and emotional needs of aid workers will take a long time. But collectively, it is possible.
John Steinbeck’s quintessential bromance novel, Of Mice and Men, contains one of my favourite passages that encapsulates what working in isolation feels like:
A guy sets alone out here at night, maybe readin’ books or thinkin’ or stuff like that. Sometimes he gets thinkin’, an’ he got nothing to tell him what’s so an’ what ain’t so. Maybe if he sees somethin’, he don’t know whether it’s right or not. He can’t turn to some other guy and ast him if he sees it too. He can’t tell. He got nothing to measure by. I seen things out here. I wasn’t drunk. I don’t know if I was asleep. If some guy was with me, he could tell me I was asleep, an’ then it would be all right. But I jus’ don’t know.
Crooks, a stable hand with a physical disability, is always someone who is on the periphery of everything. He has no measuring stick to which he can exist in his life. It’s just him. But we can help each other, by first helping ourselves.
WhyDev is currently aiming to combat such problems through crowdfunding for the next iteration of their peer support program: DevPeers. We are currently less than 1/6th towards what we need to get the program launched. Without it, we cannot support the hundreds and thousands of aid workers out there. All help is appreciated. You can also register your interest in DevPeers as a participant here.
Weh Yeoh is the co-founder of whydev.org and is a professionally trained physiotherapist. He has a MA in Development Studies from the University of New South Wales and experience in the NGO sector in Australia and China and is currently working in Cambodia. (For peanuts!)