Tag Archives: stress

Burnout and its causes

Burnout is a problem many aid workers face. In this post, psychologist and organisational consultant Alessandra Pigni discusses the causes of burnout and how it differs from stress or PTSD. A follow-up post will appear next week and will look at what (aid) organisations can do to prevent burnout.

Why does burnout, rather than PTSD, seem to be more common among aid workers?

We need to make a clear distinction between the psychological conditions aid workers may experience following traumatic events, and the distress they experience in their day-to-day work. Both can lead to psycho-somatic suffering, but the causes and remedies are different. Aid workers do not experience burnout following the exposure to a traumatic event, but they may experience trauma-related conditions including (but not exclusively) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Instead burnout is related to a way of working and to a particular type of organisational culture that I shall describe.

Research suggests that 5% to 10% of aid workers suffer from PTSD. Between 30% and 50% suffer from moderate to severe levels of emotional distress, and 40% are at high risk of burnout. What we need to understand is that given adequate support, most people have the strength and resilience to overcome a traumatic episode without developing PTSD.

This means that aid organisations need to provide tailored support to those professionals who may need it, offering a range of options and not exclusively trauma counselling. The work of trauma therapist Babette Rothschild is excellent if we want to understand PTSD: the author warns us about avoiding the common mistake of thinking that exposure to a traumatic event equals PTSD, and consequently rushing people into counselling.

Burnout is a different issue and unlike PTSD it is a widespread problem across the aid sector. Burnout is a “man-made” condition over which individuals and mostly organisations have a high degree of control. As burnout experts Prof Maslach and Leiter illustrate, burnout is a condition caused by being exposed to an unhealthy work environment, meaning the internal organisational environment.

So while people need to figure out what they can do on an individual level to prevent burnout and, for example, keep their perfectionism and workaholism in check, change will be limited without a shift in organisational thinking.

Aid workers have a pretty good idea of the challenges that they will face in a humanitarian/developing context: power cuts, at times violent and insecure surroundings, gunshots, checkpoints, etc. Place a group of aid workers around a table and you can almost feel that there is a sort of pride in how much they have endured, they always have a story to tell about showering out of a bucket and having to negotiate with the rebels the access to remote areas!

While these though conditions are far from easy, aid workers make an informed career choice. They know that these ‘rough edges’ come with a job that they expect to be meaningful, and full of action, a job that will allow them to experience the world, while being part of a community of people driven by common values. This is where burnout comes in because often these idealised expectations are betrayed by reality.

In order to understand how burnout is not simply a stress problem over which a single individual can have full control, let me go back to the research by Maslach and Leiter who clarify that “while most people think job burnout is just a matter of working too hard, that’s not necessarily true.”

Stress is to burnout what feeling a little blue is to clinical depression. “Burnout is when you feel overwhelming exhaustion, frustration, cynicism and a sense of ineffectiveness and failure.” The authors list six areas that can result in burnout:

  1. work overload;
  2. lack of control over the work;
  3. insufficient rewards;
  4. workplace community problems, such as incivility and a lack of support among co-workers;
  5. a lack of fairness, such as inequality of pay, promotions or workload;
  6. and a conflict between one’s personal values and the requirements of a job.
If this sounds familiar, that is a bad sign.

Do you recognise any of these traits in your organisation?

This evidence-based understanding of burnout and of its key features is essential to appreciate how this condition is an organisational challenge. Most aid workers do not simply overwork, they may also be immersed in an organisational culture that resembles the points highlighted by Leiter and Maslach. It is not unusual for aid workers to experience a sort of ‘cognitive dissonance’ between what they thought it was going to be and what it is.

This gap between expectations and reality, the mismatch between official mission statements and work on the ground, a defensive culture of overwork and sacrifice, and the lack of rewards and fairness is what leads aid workers to burnout. Burnout feels like falling out of love with your job.

If you are just tired, a break and some self-care will do. Burnout requires a different kind of approach, and the best approach is preventing it at the organisational level by strengthening a supportive and respectful work environment.

[Ed. note – participants in WhyDev’s pilot peer coaching program indicated a range of benefits to participating in the program, including feeling less stressed and isolated. We’re currently fundraising to launch DevPeers, the next iteration of this program. 

For more information and to support our campaign, visit http://www.startsomegood.com/devpeers.]

How I became a yoga convert in Kabul

As aid workers our lives can involve lots of travel, long and irregular hours, exposure to disease, pollutants and violence, stressful work conditions and a general lack of control over diet, sleep patterns and physical activity.

It’s a great life, and we love it. Sometimes, at least. But it also takes a toll.

We all know it, and we do our best to stay healthy and do a good job. But maybe you’re one of the many people looking for more tools to ‘do well and be well’. Maybe you’ve been thinking that yoga might be one of those tools.

These days I’m a yoga convert, a lover of all things yogic, mostly because I’m convinced that yoga is one of the most powerful, transportable and adaptable tools available to help development workers maintain our physical and mental well-being.

But it was not always so, I was once a yoga-resister.

When I arrived in Kabul, in the last days of 2005, my friend Kate kept inviting me along to the yoga class she attended on Monday night in a hall out the back of a restaurant. I had been doing a little bit of yoga in New Zealand – one class a week to stretch out after my runs – but I struggled with yoga. It moved too slowly for my impatient, busy mind, and I found the relaxation pose at the end especially excruciating.

Left alone, in silence, with my thoughts for ten minutes I would reach a point where I couldn’t stand it any longer. Every week, about mid-way through the relaxation pose at the end of class, I would decide to get up and leave, only to find I was too self-conscious to walk out in front of the rest of the class. I was always so relieved when the teacher rang his little bell to signal that savasana was over.

So in Kabul, I made up excuses not to go to yoga with Kate. But even as I resisted it, a part of me guessed yoga might be exactly what I needed. So one week, about a month after I arrived in Kabul, I went along.

I’m not going to lie and tell you I loved it from the first moment. To start with, I struggled. I’m not naturally flexible, so many of the stretches are uncomfortable for me, and my inability to force my body to stretch further frustrated me. The slow breathing at the beginning of the class, meanwhile, stumped me. I couldn’t seem to make my breath go as slowly as the teacher, leaving me – again – frustrated.

But even through the frustration and the struggle, something was happening. In the relaxation pose at the end, I actually felt myself drop away, for a few moments, from the constant train of worries running through my head. And by the time we came out of savasana I felt more relaxed than I had since landing in Kabul.

Before long, Monday and Thursday night yoga classes became the highlights of my week. As soon as class was over I started looking forward to the next one. Eventually I decided I couldn’t wait three days for my next yoga fix and started teaching myself yoga at home. I’d repeat the poses I was learning in class, working out which poses left me feeling most relaxed, which helped release the most tension from my overwrought body and mind.

Over the two years I spent in Afghanistan, I came to the conclusion that a little bit of yoga every day could make more difference to my well-being than a long class once a week. And that’s what I want to share with you today – a short and simple yoga practice you can do at home every day. Download the free yoga video.

This short video is designed to be accessible to most people, but if you find that any of the poses just don’t work for you, feel free to adjust them so they suit you better. Yoga is not about forcing your body to fit someone else’s standard or ideal, it’s about meeting your body – exactly as it is today – with kindness.

Once you’ve done the practice a few times, you may find that you don’t need to see what we are doing anymore. So I’m including an audio-only version of the practice as well that you can put it on your portable sound device and take it with you wherever you go. And you’ll never have a reason not to do yoga again! Download the audio-only version.

And if you think that you’d benefit from a more regular yoga practice, my friend – fellow aid worker and yoga teacher – Amanda Scothern and I have created an online yoga program specifically designed for aid workers.

Marianne Elliott and Amanda Scothern, creators of “30 Days of Yoga for Aid Workers.”

30 Days of Yoga for Aid Workers is an online program designed to support you to begin or restart a regular practice of yoga. We’ve shaped it specifically to meet the needs of aid workers, which means it’s designed to help you take yoga with you wherever you go, and to adjust to your changing needs.

You can read more and sign up on my website. Registration is open until 7 February and the program begins on 10 February.

Featured image is Marianne practising yoga. Photo from Marianne Elliott.

Heart of darkness: The psychology of an aid worker

The research on stress and mental health problems afflicting aid workers is fragmented and scarce. Those that exist are alarming. They identify a number of health and psychological problems among both national and international aid workers from Sudan to Kosovo: physical illness, distress, alcohol abuse, anxiety, depression, PTSD, risk-taking behaviours, nondirected anger and secondary traumatic stress. (Aka, compassion fatigue).

One study in particular sticks out.

The researchers look at the mental health of 53 aid workers representing 11 NGOs in Darfur. According to the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), a staggering 50% of aid workers could be classified as non-psychotic psychiatric cases. The authors offer three possible reasons for the result, the third being the most intriguing: the tendency of maladjusted individuals to choose to become aid workers.

Jessica Alexander’s story, Chasing Chaos, is both a cautionary tale and a memoir, one that I imagine she would have liked to have read before setting off for Sudan. It is almost laughably typical; a story that is the genesis for stereotypes. A privileged, white American girl goes to Africa to do aid work, (on the most recent episode of the brilliant satire Ja’ime: Private School Girl, Ja’ime, played by Chris Lily, declares that she will take “my gap year to focus on modelling and I’m gonna do aid work in Africa”) falls in love with a black man, returns briefly home, hates questions about her work and her friend’s naive attitudes, goes back to Africa. I almost put the book down at this point, but was both surprised and pleased I didn’t.chasingchaos

It is a deeply honest memoir of the personal and the professional; at times patronising and self-deprecating, Jessica demonstrates both self-awareness and a superiority complex. At times it reads like a giant resume, as she regales the reader with accounts of each of her postings like she is competing with a fellow aid worker in a game of  “Who’s got the Bigger Aid Balls?”. The beginning of Chapter 5 starts with, “I signed my contract to work in Darfur shortly after an American woman stationed there was shot in the face”. Can you beat that?

This type of bravado is contrasted with refreshing honesty. On the night before leaving for Darfur, reflecting with her best friend, Jessica reveals a universal truth of aid work. “Right then, I didn’t feel compelled by them. I didn’t necessarily feel connected to the plight of Darfurians, either. This was what I needed to be doing for my career; it just happened that Darfur was the place I would be doing it” (p.93). Jessica, like all aid workers I believe, is searching for something deeply personal, burrowed somewhere within. Our own heart of darkness. This Personal Truth is in everyone, and each of us takes different paths to try and find it. The maladjusted among us drive that PT boat down the river into aid work. (Or dentistry).

It is never entirely clear what Personal Truth Jessica is searching for. It is not clear what her motivations are, but I suspect it is connected to her late mother. Aid work is essentially about the ‘I'; the ‘You’, the ‘Me’. The effectiveness of aid work, that global catch-word of the next five years, is personal and individual. As Jessica spins the reader through the number of agencies crowding the field and the Discourse of aid work, she nails a key assumption and barrier of program and project success: “It really just depended on who was there” (p.105).

I think that is what Jessica does so well: puts a human face on aid work. And not just her face, but the faces of her international and national colleagues. It is easy to forget amongst all these declarations, international days, proclamations, targets, goals and agendas that at the heart of the international aid and development architecture are humans. Not just on the receiving end, but also on the sending end. Humans Use & Make Aid work Necessary & Successful. HUMANS. Many who are young, unprepared and given a great weight of responsibility. “So maybe we got pissed off and yelled at drivers and ran over people’s possessions, but we were just human, we were good people, some of us too young to know how to deal with what was going on around us” (p.203).

Jessica reveals the inconsistencies, the ambivalence of aid work as she takes us to Sudan, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, New York and Haiti. But, she also offers valuable lessons for the next generation. (And the current). As she was struggling with the decision to leave an Internally Displaced Persons camp in northern Darfur, Jessica’s colleague rebuffed her self-indulgence when she asked: ‘”What about the camp?!” He laughed. “You think being here is going to change that camp? I’m sorry, my dear, but that camp will be here no matter if you are or aren’t”‘ (p.213). Although aid work is about humans, it is also about systems and structures that no amount of one person’s willpower can change. The role of the aid worker, as Jessica puts it, is to “move the bar a mere two inches” (p.217).

Chasing Chaois an enjoyable read; a POV of the subculture that is aid work and a must for any student or early career professional who wants to journey into the heart of darkness. It is also a call for the urgent need for organisational change when it comes to supporting the well-being and health of air workers. Organisations are failing those who put the well being health of others ahead of their own.

“My own stress was starting to show, too. The loneliness of the place was what really had startd to strip me of my sanity…I could feel myself slipping, my irritation mounting, my mental strength withering. I hadn’t actually thrown rocks at children that one morning walk to the office, but that seemed like a trivial distinction: just wanting to was bad enough. I was on the edge of – something – and for what?!” (p.203).

I give it three-and-a-half Blue Helmets.

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I received a free copy of the book, and was under no obligation to write a review.

Last chance to be part of the Peer Coaching Pilot Program!

The response has been overwhelming. As of Thursday 28 November, over 285 people have registered to be part of our Peer Coaching Pilot Program.

Today, we will close registration and begin matching people one-to-one and get them started on their peer coaching partnership. Just to give you an idea of who has registered, here is a snap shot of the peer coaches:

  • Over 70% are women
  • Just shy of 58% are aged between 26-35. Only 17% are older than 36 years of age
  • Almost 75% have 5 years or less experience working in aid/development
  • And, a whopping 91% indicate that they want to be matched with someone in the SAME sector

If you are young and just getting your career moving, then this program is for you. At the same time, we have a small, select group of very experienced professionals who are looking for a peer coach of similar standing. This program is open to everyone working in aid and development and neither age nor experience should discourage you.

In addition, it is not limited to ‘being in the field’ or even in the traditional aid sector. You could be working at community-based organisations in regional Australia or at a social business start-up in Kolkata. If you are working towards social justice, human rights and a more peaceful world, then peer coaching will work for you.

Although we encourage more men to apply (as with dating in the aid world, there seems to be a noticeable lack of men), gender is not an important determinant.

It is also shaping up to be a truly global network of peer coaches. Participants are living in the U.S, Haiti, China, Cambodia, Kenya, Ghana, Laos, Solomon Islands, Belgium, Niger, Uganda, UK, Madagascar and Nicaragua to name just a few.

This is your last chance to be part of this innovative, experimental and career-changing program. You will be matched with a peer of similar professional background and experience, and given extensive support from the team at WhyDev on how to get the most out of your peer coaching partnership.

Don’t miss out. Register here.


Welcome to the launch of our Peer Coaching Pilot Program!

Update 26/11/12 – Registration for the Pilot Program closes Friday 30 November, 2012

It’s been a great year for WhyDev. We redesigned our website, have a new logo and added some invaluable team members – Allison and Daniel. We also wrote a post on why aid workers make great lovers and over 25,000 aid workers with self esteem issues clicked through and read it.

And then, there’s peer coaching. To get more background information, we suggest you start by reading these previous posts.

Back in February, with the help of our partner, Shana Montesol Johnson, a certified executive coach who blogs at Development Crossroads, we introduced the concept of peer coaching for aid workers. We put out a survey to see whether or not there would be interest in being part of a peer coaching program. Within a matter of weeks, we had over 350 people respond to tell us that they wanted to be part of our program.

In June, with the support of over 76 generous people, we raised funds to develop a professional and comprehensive peer coaching program. We’ve been hard at work getting the pilot program going, and we think you’re going to be impressed with how it has turned out.

To understand how the peer coaching system works, you can view the video we used to gather support :

To give you an idea of what we’ve been hard at work doing, we worked remotely with a professional from South Africa in creating an algorithm to match aid workers from different parts of the world. In partnership with Shana, we formulated guidelines, terms and conditions, coaching agreements, risk management strategies and other resources to give participants the best possible experience.

And now, after many months of hard work, we are pleased to announce that we are ready to accept registration for our pilot program.

We have already contacted those who signed up on our original expression of interest survey back in February and if they contact us in time, they will get priority. But in total, for our pilot program, there are only 400 spots available. That’s right, only 400.

How will the Pilot Program work?

We will gather information about you and what your expectations of peer coaching are. Once registration is complete, we will start to match peer coaches together. We will have a bunch of resources to give you including a Peer Coaching Agreement that you and your peer will complete. This will be used as a contract between peer coaches to negotiate and make clear expectations.

Throughout the program, we will be monitoring your peer coaching relationship and checking in on you to see what is and isn’t working.

After a period of four months, we will end the pilot and re-evaluate how it all went down. This will help us to develop the program in full for next year.

If you are one of the first 400 people who manage to sign up to enter our program, you will receive a full pack of resources detailing further how peer coaching will work.

The cost of the pilot program is 100% free. All that we ask is that you work with us to help us to improve what we are trying to achieve. This means participating in evaluation activities, such as a post-program survey so we know what went well and what didn’t.

So what are you waiting for? Sign up here!


Should aid workers live comfortable lives?

By Terence Wood

Photo credit: Alex Jameson, whydev.org.

In May last year a friend lent me their jeep while they went home to Australia for a holiday. Large and white, it was a development archetype – one of the famed vehicles that signal the arrival of aid workers everywhere on Earth. It was also a god-send. At the time I was in the process of organising permissions for my PhD research, which meant shuttling from office to office and from one end of town to the other. I had been travelling by bus, taxi and on foot, which was rapidly wearing me out. Upon the arrival of the jeep, slow, stop-start commutes were replaced by air-conditioned travel into town in under 10 minutes. Hillside suburbs were now easily accessible and, all of a sudden, I could get several things done in a morning.

And yet, at the same time the jeep created barriers. Instead of saying good morning to the street sellers who I walked past on the way to the bus stop, I now trundled past them encased in a vehicle they could never afford. I’m not going to pretend that before the jeep I was living as the locals do. I wasn’t. But, for all the comfort it brought, my newfound private motor vehicle did, at the very least, contribute to the gulf that existed between my life and theirs.

Nowadays, I’m back on the bus, with all the additional tiredness that this brings to my life, but I was reminded of my jeep driving days when reading of the recent furore associated with Oxfam closing the pool in its guesthouse in Nairobi. The guest house is run on a for-profit basis by Oxfam (who then use the profits to fund aid work) and its clientele is predominantly aid workers. The pool wasn’t custom fitted by Oxfam – it came with the guest house property. On one hand Nairobi is hot and dry, and having a pool to soak in must make aid workers’ lives somewhat more pleasant. On the other hand Nairobi is hot and dry, so hot and so dry that it has been in the middle of a drought. The water used to fill the pool has no material impact on the drought itself but it was thought that aid workers soaking while the rest of the country baked would be a bad look, and so the pool was closed.

And in their different ways, my jeep and Oxfam’s pool tap into an aspect of aid work that is rarely talked about but also the subject of profound discomfort amongst many aid workers: the difference in living standards between aid workers (at least most of the time) and the people who they work with.

In Honiara the differences are readily apparent: while much of the city lives crowded into informal settlements, most aid agency staff enjoy comfortable residences nestled the various hillside suburbs nestled behind the town (for the record this PhD student hasn’t quite made it into the hills but can be found in a very comfortable room, just a short dash from the cooling Pacific ocean).

There are three reasons why I think we find aid opulence discomforting.

The first is financial: every dollar that is spent on residences for aid agency staff could, in theory, be spent on vaccinations, or roads, or nurses, or teachers or other actual end products.

The second reason is to do with information: isolated in enclaves it can be hard for aid workers to stay in touch with the real needs of the people they work with.

The third is to do with local perceptions: aid discourse may be all about partnership and this may be genuinely intended by aid agencies, but when aid staff lead isolated and lives of astounding affluence (by local standards) this would seem likely to undermine ideals of equal partnership, at least in the minds of aid recipients.

Above and beyond this, I think a lot of people feel uncomfortable, simply because it feels wrong to be experiencing comfort in the midst of such profound lack. These are all good reasons for concern. But on the other hand, there are also very good explanations for why the discrepancies exist. There’s safety for a start: Honiara’s not particularly dangerous, but home invasions occur and expats have been murdered over the years. And other aid destinations (think the large cities of Africa or Latin America or Port Moresby) are often very dangerous. Safety necessitates enclave living.

There’s also exhaustion. People living in the comfortable, orderly, temperate cities of the average donor country may scoff at this. But the fact of the matter is that aid work is often hard work. And living in most developing countries can be profoundly exhausting. Although, as I learnt, creature comforts can ease this to some extent. And, given how hard most aid workers work, it seems unfair, not to mention ultimately inefficient, to expect aid workers to spend their entire careers in a state of uncomfortable exhaustion.

Finally, urban areas in most developing countries are often cleaved by deep economic inequality. There often isn’t much in the way of middle class living for aid workers to be inserted into. Meaning, that affording aid workers some degree of comfort and safety often requires going all the way to affluence.

This doesn’t excuse every excess that occurs in the world of aid. Some consultants are paid far too much for example. Or, in the case of Honiara, a reasonable number of short term aid workers end up in the city’s most expensive hotel, when they could be accommodated just fine in other nearby hotels for quite a lot less.

Nor do my justifications in the second half of this article mean that the sources of discomfort that I raised aren’t real. They are. But I guess that this is – for the most part – an inescapable aspect of the deeply unequal world that we live in: the fact that even attempts at doing good often bring with them huge inequalities of their own.


Terence Wood is a PhD student at ANU. Prior to commencing study he worked for the New Zealand government aid programme. You can find his own blog here. This is a crosspost from the DevPolicy blog. Thanks to them for allowing us to repost this here.

Are you psychologically equipped for working in aid and development?

White Paper Series by Alessandra Pigni

“The idea that psychological well-being is a luxury is right at the root of the problem. The mental health of field staff is every bit as important as their physical health. Proper preparation for the psychological stresses of field life should be taken as seriously as pre-mission medical assessments and associated measures to prevent/treat illness in the field.”

(Robyn Kerrison – human rights/protection advisor, currently working in Haiti) 

Over the last months I have been collecting stories, reflections and suggestions from humanitarian professionals on the importance of staff-care, pre-deployment psychological preparation, burnout prevention training, field support, coaching and mentoring and post-deployment care. HQ and field-staff have lent their voice to this white paper series, which provides an analysis of the needs in the field, as well as the types of interventions that could be of help, including mindfulness training.

Encouraged by my dear friend Jennifer Lentfer at how-matters.org the first chapter of the White Paper Series on the psychological health of the precious people who work in aid is now out! It provides the background and purpose of the whole series. I have chosen to release the twelve papers over several weeks, in order to give readers the time and space to process the material and reflect upon it.

Below is an overview of the series:

  1. Provides the background and purpose of the white paper series.
  2. Offers an overview of the issues in psychological health faced by aid workers before, during, and after field deployment.
  3. Gives an overview of the concepts of mindfulness and how they may apply to aid work.
  4. Focuses on the recruitment and hiring processes of aid workers.
  5. Focuses on the pre-deployment phase, and the type of psychological preparation required.
  6. Focuses on the importance of personal awareness in the field.
  7. Explores the role of teams and team conflicts in staffʼs psychological well-being.
  8. Examines the organisational culture that permeates humanitarian agencies.
  9. Focuses on burnout and reaching ʻa breaking pointʼ.
  10. Examines practices that support aid workers while in the field.
  11. Provides an open conclusion with recommendations for action.
  12. Offers a list of useful resources on staff care, psychological support and mindfulness-based interventions.

In each of the papers, the voices of aid workers in the field are included (always in italics), along with their personal stories. They discuss the staff-care needs that arise during a mission, often describing the predominantly tough “humanitarian culture” that permeates agencies. But these papers do not only collect, describe and analyse the evidence offered by frontline professionals and volunteers. Each paper also provides conclusions and suggested interventions: action points, priorities and policy changes, highlighting how the lack of training and staff-care in humanitarian programmes can turn into an occupational hazard for employees and their agencies.

In particular, the concepts and practices of mindfulness are introduced in their relevance to the problems that may arise in the field, highlighting the significant difference that they can make to standard NGO training, procedures and management. Recommendations for developing psychological awareness, better staff retention, care and support before, during and after the mission, as well as a list of useful resources can also be found in a separate section of the white paper series.

Donors and HQ staff may be particularly interested in following this white paper series. Frontline professionals who know all about burnout, stress, trauma, loneliness, isolation and depression in the field, and the urgent need of doing something about it, may recognise their voices in it. I am convinced that “changing the world starts from within”, and that successful projects on the ground derive not only from professionally competent, but also psychologically healthy staff. How we feel within ourselves has an impact on how we engage with the world. This is no small matter.

Much is to be discussed, changed and improved in our aid community around staff-care. Starting from ourselves I feel is a good place of enquiry. Feedback and comments are most welcome, and so is your participation in the Frontline Burnout Prevention Group on LinkedIn.

To download the first paper of the series please click below (the bibliography is available for download as well so you can refer back to the various sources)

#1 – Background and purpose of the white paper series.

Bibliography – A List of Useful Resources

The remainder of the series will be updated section by section and downloadable from Mindfulness for NGOs.


This is a reposting of an original post on Mindfulness for NGOs.


Why mindfulness is essential for development workers


“A psychological quality of bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Several week ago, I was sitting on a train in China’s rural south, talking to an elderly Chinese couple who were traveling to Hong Kong to visit their son. Our carriage had been infiltrated by about 40 young people, all in their early twenties, who were on a team-bonding excursion with their workplace.

After about two or more hours of conversation, I had started to get pretty familiar with the lives of this elderly couple. Despite neither of them being able to speak English, and my less than fluent Mandarin, we had managed reasonably well thus far. The father had been a neurologist during his career days, while the mother had spent most of her time raising their children. Even though their son had moved to Hong Kong and raised a family more than twenty years ago, they were unable to move over there permanently, even though they both told me that the quality of life was immeasurably better there than on the mainland.

Perhaps because they feel more comfortable talking to foreigners about such topics, discussions with Chinese people often turn towards the ills of the Chinese government. This conversation also began to move in this direction. The elderly man started talking about how he didn’t trust what was written in the Chinese media, as it was too tightly controlled. He then lamented the state of censorship in China, in particular, that people could not get on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube (without a VPN). And yes, he actually used the English words for those three services.

I started to realise that I was so engrossed in our conversation that I hadn’t noticed what was going on around me. Virtually every one of the young twenty-somethings was tapped into some sort of electronic device. If they were not playing Angry Birds on their smartphones, they were instead playing Angry Birds on their tablets, or, even rarer, reading on their e-book readers. I started to realise how much more I had in common with this elderly couple, deep in conversation, than I had with any of the other younger people who were closer to my age.

Being this engrossed in conversation, and being able to cope with a long conversation that was not in my mother tongue, I owe completely to mindfulness.

I first heard about mindfulness from a close friend when perhaps I was in the worst position to practice it, even if at that time I needed it more than ever. I was in the midst of completing a Masters part time, while also working full time, and training for a 210 km bike ride, which often involved spending Saturdays riding around my hometown for ten-hour stretches. I was a busy boy.

Often when I was at university, I was thinking about work. When I was work, I was thinking about university. When I was talking to friends and family, my mind was elsewhere. I couldn’t be where I wanted to be at any one given time. I simply had stacked far too many bangers and too much mash on my miniscule plate.

Mindfulness is particularly relevant in our lives now because we are busier than ever before, and we need to be able to keep our minds on more than one task at one time. As Bonnie Koenig over at Engaging Internationally wrote, being able to translate complexity into manageable action is crucial in development. From a career point of view, this is becoming increasingly an asset. I have seen many job descriptions where “ability to multitask” or “ability to balance a high workload with competing demands” is a requirement. However, mindfulness tells us that despite all these pressures from outside, competing for our attention, we need to be present now. In essence, it means that we need to be able to let go of the other thoughts that are running through our mind, and focus on the immediate.

Mindfulness makes an incredible amount of sense to me personally, because if you are unable to focus on the present at any given time, then why are you alive? If you aren’t listening to your partner when they are talking to you, and I mean truly listening and taking in every word, then why are you with them?

The same goes for development work. One of the fundamental principles of good development is the ability to listen to people. It involves ridding yourself of preconceptions about a particular situation and possible solutions, and instead being able to truly focus on what local people are telling you. Mindfulness makes you a better listener, which makes you a better communicator, and hence a better development worker.

Furthermore, for men like me, who are abysmal multi-taskers, the idea that mindfulness is good is an absolute blessing! No longer do we need to fool people into thinking we have a good “ability to multitask”. We only need to single-task.

The Dalai Lama, when asked what most surprises him about man, replied that man “sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

Without mindfulness, you’re not really living in the present, and as such, you’re not really living at all.

Here are some preliminary tips on how to apply mindfulness to your work:

1) Do less. Easier said than done, right? But, if your mind is constantly wandering over the things that you need to do in your lunch break, after you clock off, or the next day before work, it might be difficult for you to be truly mindful with so many things on your plate.

2) In the words of Dr. Srikumar Rao – “swap multitasking for mindfulness” in the workplace. That means actively working towards eliminating distractions as much as is humanly possible. If you are constantly flicking around between your work, Facebook and Twitter on your Mac – you could try using SelfControl, an application that blacklists certain websites for you so that while the timer is still running, you simply cannot access those sites.

3) Be mindful in every interaction with every single person, regardless of whether they are at the level of government, or from a local farming cooperative. Doing this, I think, requires getting in touch with your inner “everyman”, and not putting value or importance on other people arbitrarily, but seeing them as equals with something to contribute. I wrote more on this issue in this piece about David Foster Wallace.

4) Take a break from being around people, if you need it. If you’re tired from being around people all the time, recognise and care for your inner introvert. Disengage for a little while, so that when it is time to listen and interact again, you’re reared up and ready to go. This might mean taking the odd lunch alone, out of the office with a good book to keep you company.

5) Try harder. If at first you’re finding it difficult to do one thing at a time, persist. We live in an age where doing more than one thing at a time is seen as vital skill, so you might need to actively work at restricting yourself to one activity only, in many different aspects of your life. Start running without earphones in for a change. Don’t talk on your phone when you’re driving. Talk to your partner, without playing Angry Birds at the same time. Or, if you prefer, play Angry Birds, but don’t let your partner interrupt your quest for world domination. You get my drift.


Have you heard about mindfulness before? If so, have you found it helpful in your own life? If not, how do you think it could impact your work?



This post is about my own experiences with mindfulness. While I can’t profess to be an expert on this topic, there are many resources written by those who are. I suggest you check out Mindfulness for NGOs as a good starting point.

You can follow this author on Twitter here.

How to stay in love with your job in aid and development

There was probably a moment when you knew you wanted to do this. For me, it was listening to my mother talk about dengue epidemics and child survival at the dinner table. From when I was very small, I never doubted that I’d do work that made a difference in people’s lives who were poorer or less resourced than I was. Even as a four year-old in India, I saw the gap; I knew it wasn’t fair, and I wanted my life’s work to do something about it.

So, here we are. You’ve got the job, the places you like to hang out on the weekend. Hopefully, you’ve got friends to hang out and explore with. But maybe you’re working late hours more often than not. Maybe you don’t get out into the field anymore and don’t have the time or inclination to go see how your projects are working, and more importantly, to get to know the people they serve.

Don’t feel guilty. Jobs are like any relationship. Sometimes they work out. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, they work out for awhile and then, just like that, they don’t. Things change. Communities change. Projects change. So do we. Staying in one place requires work, especially for those of us who move around a lot. It’s up to you do put your time in and to do the work, but at the end of the day, how things work out is beyond your control.

Nurture your relationship.

I love being a consultant and getting to decide what I work on. I follow what interests me. But it also means I’m responsible for my own professional development. I spend time each day reading widely about public health and tech4dev innovations and initiatives on the Internet. For me to stay engaged and interested in my job, I need to be constantly learning and trying new things.

We all have this innate love of learning in us. Linking what we do to that inner joy reminds us of why we got into this line of work in the first place and makes us better and what we do. Although there’s a difference between aid workers and missionaries, we both identify the work we do with a higher goal, a vision, a cause. As aid workers, we just have a harder time remembering it.

If you’re feeling connected to your job and your sense of purpose, great. Take time, every now and again, to check in with yourself, to make sure what you’re doing matches up with your vision, and that you’re doing what you love. Life’s too short not to.

Put time into mastering your job, getting to know your stakeholders and colleagues, and learning the language and context you live and work it. Differentiate between short-term discontent during rough or busy spots, and the more pervasive sense of dissatisfaction that points towards a need for change. If you’ve tried and tried, and it just doesn’t feel like a good fit, don’t be hard on yourself.

Maybe you’re not in love anymore. That’s okay. Move on.

I remember at summer camp, we’d have to choose each morning’s craft or activity and the feeling of exhilaration and crisis it forced upon me: candle-making or sailing? Why couldn’t I do both? Formal education, especially as we get older, makes us do that. Year after year, with exams and degrees, we’re forced to specialise, get practical, and narrow our focus, at the risk of excluding parallel interests we also love.

Life doesn’t have to be like that, though. Neither does your job. Careers these days aren’t expected to offer us the long-term stability they offered to our parents’ generation. I think that’s a good thing. It’s energising for me to always be learning and actively pursuing my interests, especially when they’re things that can help me earn a living by helping people. Constantly expanding my professional and personal skills makes me a more integrated, resilient, engaged member of my community. It means the work I do is more interesting, more innovative, more informed by what academics call ‘cross-disciplinary’ influences.

If you’re falling out of love with your current topic area, start to read widely in your field and see what grabs your attention. As long as you’re not changing entire career silos every five years and are willing to put your time in, it’s easy to strategically transition to a slightly different line of work that’s more focused on your interests. This is particularly true if you’re genuinely and deeply engaged in what you want to be working on next and have cultivated some expertise in the area.

Maintain healthy boundaries.

At the end of the day, a job is a lot like a relationship. Because aid and development jobs involve an element of social justice, it’s easy to give them a sense of urgency that is often absent in other career paths (e.g. ones that aren’t trying to change the world). We can over-identify with our jobs, obsess over whether they– or we–are good enough, and struggle to try to make things work in environments that are already extremely challenging.

Occupational studies on aid and development workers’ mental health have found that our stress and perceived isolation levels are very high. Part of the reason is that we don’t differentiate from our jobs enough and we work too hard.

If you’re doing something you like, keep it that way. Don’t make your job your life. Have friends inside and outside your professional circles, and be sure to explore where you’re living and nurture lots of outside interests. Put your time in during working hours, but after you’re done, give yourself a break.

Let yourself explore widely, diving into learning about what interests you. Even if there’s no apparent link with your job right now, pursue learning for the joy of learning. You’ll be surprised where it takes you.

Reflection and action

“Learning to live the paradox of action as reflection, and reflection as action”

– Westley et al., Getting to Maybe. How the World is Changed.

"We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves." — Dalai Lama XIV

Supposedly carved into the temple of Apollo in Delphi was the phrase ’Know Thyself”. I often wondered if in itself self-knowledge holds the risk of turning into self-obsession. And whereas the risk is there, knowing oneself – understood as cultivating self-awareness – holds immense possibilities of change: within, and outside in the world. No effective change is brought about without a degree of self-reflection and self-awareness. Great leaders and social innovators from Nelson Mandela, to Aung San Suu Kyi, Thich Nhat Han, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, all have held together the paradox of action and reflection, they all seem to have started their engagement in/with the world as an inside out process. This because we cannot just expect others to change: ‘wanting to change others means accepting a profound change in oneself. Self-reflection and self-revelation are necessary’. To me there seems to be a link between psychological/personal awareness and social/political awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn himself, the founder of the mindfulness-based stress reduction programme, emphasises how a reflective practice such as mindfulness has wide effects in the body-politic (see ‘Healing the body politic’ from the his book Coming to Our Senses). So it comes as no surprise that for social innovators ‘there is gold in a reflective practice’, and ‘it is essential to understand that there is a connection between self-knowledge and worldly knowledge’. Self-knowledge as self-awareness requires us to get out of the constant ‘doing mode’, to cultivate who we are. Which, in my opinion, is what makes all the difference when it comes to serving as an aid worker, a volunteer or an NGO manager. Nevertheless what prompts many into aid work is activism, the desire to make a difference, ‘to do’ things that matter. It is somehow a quest for a meaningful life. Here reflection should not be understood as a state of passivity, but as moment of ‘being’, where we nurture those qualities that will inform our ‘doing’. Reflection becomes important because the way we think about the world, and how we understand it frames our actions. So it is of no secondary importance to learn the art of standing still, seeing that the world is not simply acted upon, but rather it interacts with us, with who we are. To paraphrase the work of my friend and colleague Jennifer Lentfer‘it is not what we do, but HOW we do it’ that matters. Engaging in personal enquiry and reflection is therefore part of the action, it becomes an essential component of how we do things and who we are. Learning to standstill helps us to take stock and move forward effectively.

'Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself'. — Leo Tolstoy

The story of the woodcutter from The Barefoot Guide to working with Organisations and Social Change (a wonderful, inspiring guide) conveys the message of why learning to pause is crucial:

‘Once upon a time an old woman was walking through the forest near her home when she came across a man chopping down a tree. They exchanged brief greetings but he continued chopping. He was working very hard, determined to complete the job and see results before sundown. She watched him a while and then disappeared. A little later she returned, bearing a stone and a small bucket of water. When he paused in his work to wipe his brow she handed these to him and said, “Sir, I see that you are very busy. But, to put it bluntly, it looks to me like you need to pause a while, take a breath and sharpen your axe.” “Go away, woman, I am too busy I don’t have time for this!”’

When do we sharpen our own axes? Do we take the time to standstill, take a breath, reflect? How many of us are just too busy for that?     For further reading, check out: The Barefoot Guide to working with Organisations and Social Change (free download); Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness

This is a reposting of an original post on Mindfulness for NGOs.