(The Humanitarian Social Network)
Burnout is the term used to describe the physical, emotional and mental exhaustion felt by any ‘human service’ professionals – carers, doctors, teachers. There is little written about burnout among development and NGO workers. My aim is to bridge this gap in an accessible way and hopefully generate some discussion around what we as development workers mean by burnout.
There is much analysis and debate about the development sector – whether it is effective; whether it is actually more the development worker that benefits as opposed to the communities they are supposedly trying to help; whether the needs of people living in poverty or victims of human rights abuses are really being met. Furthermore, entire narratives are constructed and deconstructed concerning who we mean by ‘the poor’ or ‘victims’.
But what of the development workers themselves? How much do we know about them? There are two common interpretations – one that is the general public perception, that they are doing a good - or even heroic - job under difficult circumstances; the other, more academic and critical, that their ideals, actions and interventions are doing more harm than good. But rarely are their personal and individual identities acknowledged or assessed. There is much analysis about those at the receiving end of international aid, but little with regard to the ‘aid giver’ – their background, family history, or the expectations which lead them into development work and their particular job. Some go into this kind of work with idealism – because they studied development at University or have been politically active on different causes. Others want the adventure of living and working in challenging contexts, and would rather be ‘on the frontline’ than in an office. And there are some who, much to the surprise of those who praise our heroism, are simply doing development work with career interests in mind; who seek managerial positions in head offices of big charities and at the United Nations where they’ll secure a hefty salary plus considerable benefits.
Is our level of burnout determined by our reasons for doing this kind of work? Some would say that the more idealistic we are, the greater the chance of burnout. That is because if we enter the development sector with too much self-righteousness and confidence that we can make a difference, we’re likely to be sorely disappointed in our achievements after a year or so. Conflicts will still rage on, poverty will still surround us, and human rights abuses will continue – and meanwhile we’ll have been reduced to half our former selves. With this in mind, those with a concern for the coping strategies of NGO workers, particularly those working in the field, have emphasised the importance of self-reflection and knowing oneself and both one’s limits and limitations.
‘Those who want to heal the world may need healing in the first place. By not acknowledging this, we risk projecting all our vulnerabilities, and unwanted “shadow aspects” onto others (the poor, the oppressed, the sick etc.)….for many healing oneself and others can truly happen only when we look within, before we plunge into action.’
Alessandra Pigni, Psychologically Equipped: Practical Recommendations to Better Prepa...
Burnout can manifest itself in various ways: ‘physical depletion and fatigue, (..) feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, (…) emotional drain, (…) the development of negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people (Combatting Burnout, Ayala Pines and Elliott Aronson, 1983). It can be a daily struggle to fight against these feelings, especially when up against poor work practices, long hours and heavy workloads with little appreciation from managers; let alone the challenging environments that one finds oneself in when working in conflict or poverty-stricken areas.
It is not unusual for foreigners, particularly development workers, to be disliked by the local population. And this is no surprise, when people living on a dollar a day are watching white folk drive around in large land rovers and dine in fancy restaurants whilst discussing how best to help the poor communities around them. With more aid money each year apparently disappearing down a black hole and never reaching its intended recipients, and with our national identities often associated (sometimes mistakenly) with our own Western Governments’ disastrous foreign policies, we are not necessarily seen as heroes in the politically volatile environments we work in, even if we are among our friends and families. Whilst our job may be campaigner, humanitarian officer or programme manager, our task is also to build trust with the communities we work with, and this can be a major challenge in itself.
Burnout then, is as much to do with the disappointment and disillusionment we feel when we realise that our good intentions are not always fully appreciated, or even appropriate, as it is to do with exhaustion. We have to learn each day about the people we are living amongst, and how they view us. And in order to learn about others, we have to learn about ourselves – to question why we have chosen this type of work, and what we hope to achieve from it, and what our insecurities are and why we have them. Can we give as much time to understanding ourselves as we do to trying to understand others? Our motives and intentions when doing development work need to come from a place of love, not just for others but for who we are, warts and all.
What are your perceptions of the work you do and why you do it? What emotional challenges do you find yourself up against when doing your work? I’d love to hear your comments!