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How to prevent burnout in aid work

How to prevent burnout in aid work

Earlier, psychologist Alessandra Pigni discussed the difference between burnout and PTSD, and explained how burnout has to do with the quality of the work environment, as well as personal tendencies towards perfectionism and workaholism. In this post she explores what aid workers and aid agencies can do to prevent burnout.

The majority of aid organisations fail to prepare and support their employees and volunteers psychologically. What more could they do to prevent staff burnout?  

In 2011 I initiated a discussion on LinkedIn among humanitarian professionals on the psychological health of aid workers. I simply put out this reflection/question ‘Aid workers are psychologically unprepared for aid work. Any views from field and HQ staff?’.

The response was overwhelming, with over 200 comments pouring in non-stop. I knew from my work in Palestine that aid workers were at high risk of burnout, and I was hoping to gain a more global understanding. I wanted aid workers to speak up, open a space where they could express their needs, which turned out to be remarkably similar no matter where they worked.

It seemed like the discussion I initiated nailed it. Aid workers offered examples of how their organisations failed to provide adequate psychological preparation and support in the field. From being thrown into the field with no pre-departure briefing, to being at the mercy of managers who lacked emotional intelligence and people skills, from self-medicating with alcohol and pills, to suffering in silence because of the stigma attached to asking for help. One contributor summarised it for us: “It would be great to have proactive measures in place such as adequate pre-deployment preparation, ongoing mentoring and coaching, instead of just relying on reactive counselling.”

Humanitarian professionals also gave examples of how small, everyday acts of support and kindness in the workplace made a huge difference. A story that stayed with me is that of an aid worker who had been working in the Balkans nonstop for months during the war. One day his manager told him she had booked a hotel for him and send him off on a well-deserved break. In his words he was “eternally grateful for this.” “Such simple act” he added “made me much more aware of my own stress and stress being felt by team mates.”

Such acts of attention are what help to prevent burnout. They involve mindfulness, empathy and emotional intelligence, and show how managers with people skills make a significant difference.

A little human kindness can make a big difference.
A little human kindness can make a big difference.

Research shows we can learn to care and we adapt to the environment that surrounds us. This brings to mind the famous “broken window theory” which shows that people are less likely to care for a run-down environment than they are for a well attended one. Burnout in organizations is kind of the same: if the dominant tone is disrespectful and toxic, newcomers will follow that trend. Conversely, if it is healthy and caring people will adapt to such culture.

Realistically, there is no recipe to create burnout-proof organisations, but there are some simple ideas that managers can start to implement with the support of headquarters. I find it helpful to remember what Anton Chekhov said: “Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day-to-day living that wears you out.”

So that’s where we can start: caring for ourselves and each other on a day-to-day basis.

Easier said than done. Where to begin? Here are some practices to keep you sane in the field and build healthy organisations.

In terms of personal self-care consider this:

  1. Are you overworking in non-emergency situations? Are you thinking about work when you are not working? Do you have a life outside work?
  2. Are you able to say no to unreasonable work requests and put some healthy boundaries in place? Hard at first, saying no is a sanity factor in aid work.
  3. Can you unplug? Try and go offline one day a week. As hard as it may seem, this is possible even in the field.
  4. Are you making time for physical exercise in the field? Consider what Mandela said: “Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity.”
  5. Can you spend time alone? In a highly active job can you practice doing nothing and just being? Exploring guided meditation or yoga can help.
  6. Are you keeping up with friends and family outside the aid circle? Connecting with people beyond work is essential: sometimes it’s hard in the field but it’s good to remind yourselves that the world does not revolve around your aid project.

In terms of organisational health it can help to reflect on the following:

  1. How is the “headquarters-capital-field dynamics” in your agency? For aid workers navigating the human interaction between HQ demands, capital requests, and field needs represents one of the biggest sources of stress. Issues of responsibility, trust, power and control come into play. These are the very issues that need to be addressed in order to prevent staff burnout and create healthy work environments. 
  2. Is your agency open to learning? Most learning does not happen in a formal training, but rather it is part of a way of working together where employees are encouraged to share ideas, best practices, and skills in a formal and informal way. At times an informal conversation over a coffee means more than a workshop.
  3. How do you give each other feedback? Are employees encouraged to learn from their mistakes? Try and introduce appreciative feedback in the workplace. When used skilfully this practice opens up a whole new way of communicating, allowing people to discuss what works and what doesn’t.
  4. How does your organisation show appreciation and reward staff? Treating people with fairness when it comes for example to salaries, career progression, and job stability/flexibility is a way to improve staff retention. Aid workers’ intrinsic motivation to do good is simply not enough, people need to be rewarded and appreciated.
  5. As a manager, how do you model self-care and leadership? Spending time with your colleagues informally, over lunch for example, helps to create a supportive work environment. Many aid agencies are based in countries where the society values sharing a meal together. We can learn from that instead of exporting the bad habit of eating alone in front of our computer!
  6. How does your organisation take stock? Making time for periodical retreats or reflecting time to pause and explore how to move forward makes individuals and organisations more effective and resilient. No one can drive on an empty tank, no matter how powerful the engine is.

I guess you could say that more than a recipe for success, this is an anti-recipe because its course cannot be charted with a one-size-fits-all intervention. Creating “learning and caring organisations” is certainly not an easy task, but some social purpose organisations are exploring it with promising results, and I think that aid agencies can learn by looking beyond their sector. There’s a certain hubris that needs to be overcome: we can learn from others even if they do not work in war-zones.

A manager with over 20 years of experience working in Palestine shared this powerful thought during a staff meeting: “institutional change and community empowerment can only happen when staff needs and priorities are properly attended to.”

In other words, personal and organisational wellbeing are linked to global wellbeing. By taking care of ourselves and creating healthier organisations, we can better affect change – the reason most of us got into this field in the first place.

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Alessandra Pigni is a clinical psychologist and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Oxford with the Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. Her work is about equipping aid workers and humanitarian organisations with the skills needed to deal with stress and prevent burnout in the field. In the past, she worked with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders and the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, and also taught mindfulness to aid workers in Palestine. She blogs at, and you can follow her on Twitter at @mindfulnext.

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4 thoughts on “How to prevent burnout in aid work

  1. […] Exploring what can be done to prevent and overcome burnout: self-care and organisational mindfulness. […]

  2. Laura

    Thanks for your post. I feel like I have previously dealt with my work-life balance fairly well in the past. Recently however, I have definitely experienced some of the things in your article. I will be taking on your suggestions and trying extra hard to recognise burn out before a crash!

  3. […] illnesses that aid workers are vulnerable to. There are also cumulative stress, depression, guilt, burnout and so on. Aid workers are prone to suffering one or several of these during their […]

  4. […] Alessandra Pigni explains what individuals and what aid agencies can do to make sure the day-to-day realities of working in aid don't lead to burnout.  […]

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