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.
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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.

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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.