(The Humanitarian Social Network)
Stress: The Good, The Bad, and the Funny?
Musings from my research journey into families, resilience and humanitarian work….
Impact of stress on an individual (Blanchetière, 2006, p.5) (2006, p. 5)
The above figure is taken directly from Pascale Blanchetière’s (2006) work on resilience and humanitarian workers. Based on a review of the literature as well as interviews with actual aid workers, she does an excellent job at synthesising the relevant existing material on the subject. The figure highlights that stress has both positive and negative effects.
Too often the discussion of stress only emphasises the negative side effects – you know the usual consequences such as:
Physical: tiredness, inability to relax, greater vulnerability to illness
Emotional: mood swings, guilt and shame, depression
Behavioural: irritability, increased drug use (inc. alcohol and tobacco), conflict with co-workers, family or friends
Mental/thought patterns: indecisiveness, self‐critical thoughts.
Spiritual/philosophical: loss of purpose, loss of hope, cynicism.
These symptoms may generate different types of traumatic stress (acute, secondary or vicarious and cumulative). All three types of traumatic stress can be problematic for humanitarian workers (Headington Institute, 2007).
Significantly however, when overcome the impact of stress may also be positive and considered a personal development, such as a new sense of purpose in life or the discovery of new strengths (Antares Foundation, 2008). In understanding our weaknesses and vulnerabilities better (knowledge generally only gained through difficult times of struggling) we become more able to cope the next time we are facing similar challenges. Talk to any long-term seasoned humanitarian worker and they will have stories to share of their early years in which they learnt the hard way about issues such as work-life balance, maintaining healthy relationships with friends or family, or the importance of finding a meaningful stress release (be it running, blogging, knitting, whatever!). Whether the ‘hard way’ is viewed as a right of passage for new workers these days, or efforts should be made for it to be avoided, is another issue. The main point is that stress is not all bad – recognised for what it is, it can be a catalyst for change and self-growth.
So that is the bad and the good.
What about the funny, or should I say more aptly, the ironic? Nothing written in the above paragraphs is slightly new or cutting edge, this stuff has been known for ages, and it is well documented specifically in the humanitarian literature (Ehrenreich & Elliott, 2004; Gushulak, 2012; Leggat, 2005; Palmer, 2005; Walsh, 2009). Despite this, agencies still often struggle to support staff affected by the long-term negative effects of stress. Often those at the front line of complex humanitarian responses are let go once signs of burnout or mental health issues become known. Or if not encouraged to pursue another role, labelled within organisations with affirming terms like “special needs kids”. Somehow the very organisations that seek to alleviate suffering in general seem to lack the capacity to support their own staff when needed.
Obviously in such circumstances, it is not wise for individuals to remain in such roles. However, though organisations like the Antares Foundation advocate for support at all stages of the deployment cycle, including post-deployment – how often does this really happen? For how long do agencies care for staff after they return home from an assignment, for example ongoing medical insurance or ongoing access to counselling services? If they did, might they benefit more from experienced staff that have been supported and given adequate time to work through their stressful experiences? And lastly (a crazy thought to end with I admit), imagine if humanitarian workers could access entitlements such as workers compensation.
What do you think?
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Antares Foundation. (2008). Managing stress in humanitarian work: A systems approach to risk reduction Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Retrieved from http://www.antaresfoundation.org/download/risk_reduction_booklet.pdf
Blachetière, P. (2006). Resilience of humanitarian workers. Retrieved from http://www.peopleinaid.org/pool/files/publications/resilience-of-aid-workers-article.pdf
Ehrenreich, J. H., & Elliott, T. (2004). Managing stress in humanitarian aid workers: A survey of humanitarian aid agencies' psychosocial training and support of staff. Peace and Conflict, 10(1), 53-66.
Gushulak, B. D. (2012). Chapter 8: Advising Travelers with Specific Needs / Humanitarian Aid Workers. In G. W. Brunette & Centers for Disease Control Prevention (Eds.), CDC health information for international travel: The Yellow Book 2012. New York: Oxford University.
Headington Institute. (2007). Stress and Working in Non-Governmental Organisations. (Retrieved from)
Leggat, P. A. (2005). Ensuring the health and safety of humanitarian aid workers. Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, 3(3), 119-122.
Palmer, I. (2005). ABC of conflict and disaster. Psychological aspects of providing medical humanitarian aid. British Medical Journal, 331(7509), 152-154.
Walsh, D. S. (2009). Interventions to reduce psychosocial disturbance following humanitarian relief efforts involving natural disasters: An integrative review. International Journal of Nursing Practice, 15(4), 231-240.
By AidSource member, Elisa