Maintaining Resilience in the Thick of Emergencies… Practically, How Do You Do That?

Maintaining Resilience in the Thick of Emergencies… Practically, How Do You Do That?

When I train on the theme of relief worker resilience in INGOs, I start by asking participants how they define resilience. Usually more or less two thirds of the room remain silent, slightly puzzled. Participants are usually from 10 to 18 different nationalities and this proportion has remained stable over the years. But when I speak of stress and burnout, everybody seems to know what we are talking about and willingly share their stories.

The Core Humanitarian Competency Framework, which was created by the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies, recently renamed the Start Network, aims at improving humanitarian assistance, in particular through capacity strengthening. Under the heading of resilience, it combines the competencies of adapting and coping skills such as remaining focused on objectives, adapting calmly to changing situations and constraints, taking steps to reduce one’s stress, remaining positive, constructive and tolerant to difficult environments, modeling appropriate self care, prioritizing work load and promoting a culture of well-being.

During recruitment, relief workers should demonstrate the capacity to maintain professionalism in emergencies, such as taking responsibility for one’s impact on work and others, using one’s position responsibly and fairly, countering influences that affect the performance, enabling others to carry out their roles, being transparent and taking time (when?) to learn from experience and feedback and apply the learning to new situations… In other words, HRs should recruit, train and coach future aid workers who adapt, cope and maintain professionalism under any kinds of circumstances. They should have already attained a strong level of resilience and use outstanding life skills to be able to sustain performance and productivity when working for months in the thick of emergency operations.

Ideal versus Reality

Competency models have to do with what we imagine should happen vs. what actually happens. It says how staff should be, which standards and norms should be followed by white anglo-saxon Western expat managers – not how to remain resilient, i.e what is humanly possible to do in the middle of chaos to keep your sanity.

Let us remember that today there are some 274,000 humanitarian staff and 4,400 NGOs worldwide, undertaking humanitarian action on an ongoing basis, with a system however still dominated by a small group of giants, i.e the five international “mega” NGOs, the UN agencies and the Red Cross movement, totaling over 3, 4 billion dollars. They are the ones who set the standards. But what happens to the rest of the middle sized and smaller NGOs? Can organizational core competency models be applied to their field personnel? How do they make staff resilience into a practical, operational tool?

I have been in the trade of humanitarian staff care for the last 19 years. Two decades ago, one would witness an often amateurish way of recruiting and managing field staff. Today, I believe we have gone too far to the other side. The latest surveys and personnel enquiry with important agencies have shown that lately – perhaps 6-7 years – the main stress factors in the field are, in this order: work overload, managerial problems and security. It hasn’t much to do with difficult life conditions, such as climate, bad food, poor accommodation, and last, but not least, living everyday with some of the darkest sides of humanity and trying to make a difference out there in spite of it all.

Exponential Increase in Field Burnouts

How is it that the growing issue for humanitarian HRs is burnout and not trauma? Aren’t we recreating the same issues which plague the Western corporate world today, by translating an ideology of performance and productivity into humanitarian daily tasks, as if contexts of emergencies did not exist? Thus creating the conditions for even more burnouts?

Let us come back to resilience and a more realistic view of what happens in the field. Clinical psychology on resilience is quite clear: it grows over a life time. It takes tremendous maturity to work decently with others. It has nothing to do with patchy life skills, ad hoc team-management, wobbly decision making when fear is controlling everyone. Is business oriented competency frameworks the answer? How does its inherent complexity apply to field work, in the context of already complex emergency operations?

I believe the question is ultimately: understanding how grass root field personnel – international and national – maintain their resilience – or even their sanity – during months of emergencies and perhaps hostile environments? How good is an agency at helping them resist to high levels of stress and how well are the leaders trained in team management in the chaotic world of conflicts and natural disasters?

So many aid workers coming back from distressing missions have said: where is humanness in the humanitarian world?


Author: Claire Colliard is the Executive Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Psychology. She has also been training humaniarian staff for the last 20 years.

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