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Why We Dev with Alessandra Pigni: Staff care, burnout & more

Why We Dev with Alessandra Pigni: Staff care, burnout & more

For the second edition of Why We Dev, a Q&A feature that allows you ask all your questions to a guest expert, we’re hosting Alessandra Pigni.

Alessandra Pigni.
Alessandra Pigni.

Alessandra is an experienced humanitarian worker, a clinical psychologist, and an academic researcher studying aid workers’ mental health and well-being. She’s also a popular aid blogger.


1. Do you have any suggestions for how an average non-management employee can help shift their organisation’s culture towards placing greater emphasis on worker wellness? I find even when an organisation talks the talk about valuing and investing in their people, there’s often an implicit understanding that the best employees are those who never really stop working.

You’re right, most agencies embrace the principle of humanity, but are not very good when it comes to applying it to their staff.

Let me answer with a personal story. Once an NGO asked me to prepare a retreat for their staff to prevent burnout. The way the office rep dealt with me was a clear indicator of why the people in that NGO were not doing so well. There was a lack of clarity, the information was vague, I had no contract, terms and conditions kept changing, etc. That way of working was considered absolutely normal “because we are an NGO.” Clearly they needed to do something; but rather than ask me to facilitate a retreat on self-care, putting all the responsibility for well being on the individual worker, the management needed to have an honest discussion about their “way of working.” They were looking for the wrong remedy; if you have cancer, you don’t take an aspirin.

So I think first you need to assess whether your organisation is willing to shift. One way to start could be an informal conversation with your manager, to see how they feel about the issues you raise. If there is no tangible interest in staff well being…save your energy for another battle. If there is potential, it may help to frame your concerns under the banner of security–and the reality is that staff welfare does affect security. But you can keep it simple: collect anonymous suggestions from colleagues asking what would improve their work on a day-to-day basis, and then take these suggestions to your manager and act on them, maybe beginning with easy-to-implement suggestions: a weekly meal together, a new coffee machine, shorter and more focused meetings, etc.

I invite you to listen to this inspiring podcast on “dancing the talk” and bringing all our humanity at work. A good work environment boils down to how people treat each other, and I’m not sure it can be engineered…

2. What are practical and low-cost steps organisations can take to create more supportive work environments?

I think this is a question you need to discuss with your colleagues, and then come up with a way to operate that fits your organisation. But from the research, we know that the most effective forms of staff care are peer support, good management and a culture values respect and civility among colleagues and does not tolerate bullying. Action Aid Denmark has developed what seems like a good approach that other agencies can learn from.

A supportive work environment needs respect, responsibility, honesty and kindness–not as pompous mission statements, but in very concrete ways:

  • Get over the “macho culture.” Maybe we need to stop being embarrassed by our own emotions, and open up a space to talk about the real difficulties of humanitarian work. A good book to inspire a culture of learning and care is Getting to maybe: How the world is changed.
  • Acknowledge that most stress is work-related, not trauma-related. I hear this over and over from aid workers: “My organisation stresses me out, not conflict or earthquakes.” Go figure. Aid workers are an odd bunch, but acknowledging that the problem is within is a good start.
  • Educate people on transitions. This is especially true for international staff going to the field and later facing the difficulties of returning home. Developing a peer support scheme is a good way of creating a work environment where we care about each other even when people are not around. And with Skype, this is now much easier.
  • Have line managers who care; recruit and retain managers who can model healthy behaviour. I say “behaviour,” not grand plans or some ideal philosophy of how aid work should be. I had a colleague who was all about yoga and meditation, yet he was stressed out all the time. Another colleague was not doing the self-care talk, but would simply shut her laptop over the weekend and take her team to the swimming pool on Saturday. This is what I mean when I talk about having managers who care.
  • Give people learning and development opportunities. Most aid workers want to learn and grow. Offering professional development through relevant training, conferences, coaching, mentoring, budgets for books, etc., is an intelligent form of staff care and a way to avoid high turnover.

Last point: you do need some budget for this. It’s absurd to think you can have amazing staff and invest next to nothing in their personal and professional development. Staff are not overhead; they are what makes humanitarian work humane (or not).

3. What should we do to help a colleague who seems to be approaching burnout?

Is it actually burnout, or are they just tired and need a rest? The two are not the same. So what is burnout, exactly? Burnout manifests as emotional, physical and mental exhaustion, loss of meaning and purpose, cynicism and numbing out, at times accompanied by substance abuse and generally an inability to see that you’re cracking up.

When people are burnt-out, they most likely need to step out of the field. An aid worker told me that in an NGO she worked for, R&R came to stand for “reflect and resign.” I’m not saying the only way out of burnout is quitting, but to recover from burnout, people generally require a serious pause to take stock and reassess their needs and priorities. But this doesn’t mean agencies need to just get rid of staff who are experiencing burnout: staff burnout is a symptom that there is something wrong in this organisation, in this team, in this project.

On a practical level, it’s helpful to show that you care for your colleague, maybe having an informal chat over a coffee. People who burn out feel miserable, but are often the last to see that they need help, and they may be afraid to share how they feel for fear of not being considered fit for humanitarian work.

4. What are the best sources to turn to when you’re in the field and feeling burnt out, but don’t have access to professional help?

You can get support via Skype, but as I wrote above, burnout is not something that gets solved with a counseling session. Burnout affects individuals who operate within a particular work culture (“Work hard and don’t ask for support or rewards.”) and individuals who tend to be perfectionists and lack boundaries with their institutions–the sort of people who can’t say no, who suffer from “presenteeism.” I think aid workers need to start talking about burnout with the same confidence they have when discussing malaria or diarrhea at a dinner party!

You don’t “solve” burnout on your own. If you’re in the field, you will probably need to talk to your manager or a trusted colleague–but only do so if there is a sympathetic ear, and it doesn’t dissipate your energy or frustrate your hopes further.

If talking to your manager is not an option, you can start by setting some healthy boundaries between you and your work. Do you really need to work all weekend or be on that report every night? Rediscover an activity that does you good and do it, regularly, every day. Unplug, and do something away from your computer. Get plenty of sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, download some guided meditations or podcasts–Jon Kabat Zinn’s guided mindfulness and the wonderful podcast On Being are among my favourites.

If they don’t put you to sleep, you’ll at least have done a good mindfulness practice or learned something new. Better than tossing and turning in bed aimlessly. Rest is essential if you’re exhausted, but be mindful that burnout requires more than a good sleep. It requires a serious reassessment of your existential priorities, needs and desires. (An app to beat burnout is not good enough, just in case some agencies were thinking about that for staff care!)

5. Short-term assignments, or long-term? Is there a balance that encourages better mental health in fieldwork?

It depends on your personality, needs and circumstances. I worked with a wonderful field coordinator, and her rule was maximum six-month missions and a long stretch at home for hiking, reading and being with her family. It suited her, and she was a pleasure to work with, because her humanitarian work was not about some kind of “pathological altruism” or a way to fill a void in her life. Her needs mattered, too. It’s important to know oneself. What are your personal needs and your limits? Can you be in the middle of nowhere or in a dangerous place for 12-24 months or longer? Do you have a home to go back to in between short missions? Is R&R enough for you? Can you handle tight security? For how long can you have little privacy, live with your colleagues and do without family, friends or your partner? I realise my answers are sometimes a series of questions, but I think there are no clear-cut answers or one-size-fits-all solutions.

6. I left a job and country I loved because after two years, I was angry all the time. Mostly it was the constant sexual harassment each time I stepped out of the house. I’d like to return to this area of the world, but I don’t know if I’d be able to handle the atmosphere again. Any advice?

What do you love about that part of the world? Could it be that exploring other places may prove as interesting and not as threatening? Sometimes aid workers push themselves so hard to prove that they can do it, that they can take a huge amount of shit before they give up, that they can handle bullying or harassment, that they are tough and don’t quit. For myself, I’m learning that the wise thing to do sometimes is to move on and not get all tangled up in situations that you alone won’t probably change.

7. What is your favorite global development book?

The one that immediately comes to mind is a little book by Jean Sélim Kanaan titled Ma guerre à l’indifférence, which a friend gave me when I went to Palestine for the first time. Before being killed in Iraq in 2003, Kanaan wrote his personal reflections and analysis on the aid industry. There is great clarity in his words and the awareness that the humanitarian sector can make us better or bitter. I admired very much his ability to uncover a “hidden side” of doing good at the personal and organisational level without losing hope or becoming jaded, but rather with a sense of responsibility and humanity.

Before we can encounter the suffering of others, we need to meet it in ourselves. Then it becomes a mutual healing process–I’m helping others, and in that human exchange, they help me. We can pretend aid work is just a job that pays the bills and gets you around the world, but for most humanitarian professionals, it’s much more than that. It’s a kind of existential choice, a choice for which Kanaan paid with his life.

Featured image shows Alessandra Pigni overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo from the author.

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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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