Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Crash and Burn

Humanitarian aid workers and staff of non-government organizations (NGO) are often praised for their selfless devotion in making the world a better place to live in. But put the accolades aside, and the question begging to be asked will surface: who takes care of this sector’s mental health needs?

NGO staff and aid workers are often at the forefront of humanitarian work. It is inevitable that in the course of their work, they are exposed to a dreadful environment where death and suffering are common occurrences. In some instances, they themselves are threatened with bodily harm. In his paper, “Mental Health and Aid Workers: The Case for Collaborative Questioning,” Thomas Ditzler of the Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance, asserts that “the nature of humanitarian assistance puts workers in contact with the local environment in ways that can erode the normal personal / professional boundaries which provide some measure of psychological protection.”

A 2001 study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress showed that 30 percent of returning aid workers reported being stressed, while ten percent could be suffering from PTSD.

Burn out
A humanitarian aid worker need not be exposed to traumatic incidents to be stressed out; the social development scene itself has stressors that can leave a worker feeling immensely frustrated. In development work, sources of stresses vary. One is environmental – it may be within or outside the organization – where desired results are not met. Within the organization, sources of stress may be the lack of policy to respond to the staff needs and the need to address growth and changes.

In addition, development work requires multi-sectoral partnerships which expose the worker to stressors outside the organization. It may be exposure to different personalities, working environment, and demands.

The issues being addressed are stressors themselves, as they continuously evolve and open new avenues to cope with in terms of the need for integration and deepening the understanding on issues. Burn out is an area that needs further studies since there are no data available on this subject matter; this article relies more on anecdotal evidences provided by people who have either left or are contemplating to leave their organizations because of frustration.

One such person, who is involved in an HIV and AIDS intervention program, had to temporarily leave the organization she helped establish because she was frustrated that the injecting drug users (IDU) she was organizing did not show any signs of changing. Fortunately, her time off allowed her to put things in a clearer perspective. When she was persuaded to return, she set a condition that she would not directly handle the program; a partner organization was called in and the IDUs themselves had to take on a more active participation.

In some instances, frustration stems from the fact that despite spending massive amounts of money, time, and effort in a project, it still does not seem to make enough impact. At a certain point, a staff might become disillusioned and ask if the effort is all worth it. On the other side of the pole, there are organizations carrying out effective programs but are hampered by the lack of fund. This is a particular problem among organizations in developing or least developed nations; there is so much work to do, but so little resources to begin with.

Since a large percentage of an organization’s budget is allotted for the actual provision of services or the implementation of a program, some NGOs cannot afford to hire additional staff; multitasking among staff is a reality. This leaves a staff with little time to attend to his or her personal life, or to pursue other things. In the long run, this can leave a staff physically, mentally, and emotionally drained.

A hidden problem?
Mental stress among NGO and humanitarian workers has been acknowledged as a problem, but very little is still being done to address this. This is highlighted by the fact that there are no recent studies being done on the subject matter, even in regions where relatively affluent NGOs already have a mental health program for its staff.

With the lack of data on burn out, for instance, it is hard to qualify its impact on an organization. What is clear though is that staff and workers who are leaving bring with them a wealth of invaluable experience that may be totally lost on an organization. If the extent of the problem is still largely unknown, how can an effective measure be implemented? One cannot simply come up with clear solutions for a vague problem.

Ditzler, Thomas. “Mental Health and Aid Workers: The Case for Collaborative Questioning.”

Stefan Lovgren. “Aid Workers, Too, Suffering Post-Traumatic Stress.”

Original article by Ross mayor and Noemi B. Leis, published in Health Alert Asia Pacific Issue 14. For copies of the newsleter, please write to