What causes stress in humanitarian field life?

Very often humanitarian workers leaving on their first mission are not well informed about the actual difficulties they may encounter. The CPH has made a list of them, helped by hundreds of humanitarian workers met in the course of trainings or debriefings, as well as through hundreds of e-mails which our Support Team has received in recent years on the hotline.

According to the country, the programme, the cultural context… the degree of stress may range from minimal to more serious and even dangerous. Nevertheless the aim of such a list is to give an awareness of the potential stress factors faced by a humanitarian aid worker.

Difficult life conditions

  • Climate, diet, uncomfortable accommodation, lack of space and intimacy, lack of activity, leisure or social and cultural life

Personal balance and health risks

  • Constraints due to security reasons
  • Anxiety and fear of the after effects of a disaster
  • Risk of accidents and illness (road accident – malaria – HIV/AIDS)
  • Lack of medical infrastructure
  • No proper insurance

Tensions in the team

  • Too much work versus enforced inactivity
  • Bad communication system (radio, computers…)
  • Managerial problems

Relational and communication problems

  • Cultural differences
  • Personality conflicts amongst colleagues
  • Jealousy on the part of the population
  • Belonging to or representing an NGO not well thought of by the population
  • Sexual or moral harassment


  • War situation
  • Security incidents
  • High risk of aggression and/or robbery
  • Movement restrictions due to anti-personal mines
  • Threats from the local authorities
  • Curfew
  • Mine fields

Situations questioning values and beliefs of aid workers

  • Exposure to acute consequences of a war, a disaster or a massacre
  • Constant exposure to the sufferings of traumatized beneficiaries
  • Corruption, ambiguous situations or motivations
  • Unmet needs of hostile beneficiaries
  • Ethical stress through sexual abuse of the victims, corruption, paedophilia…

Stress from private life

  • No fulfilling emotional relation and/or sexual solitude
  • Stress coming from the expat’s family back home or accompanying
  • No news or lack of communication with the family back home

When back home

…. you may continue to suffer from the consequences of your mission, with:

  • Difficult communication with family and friends
  • Financial instability
  • Getting back to “ordinary” life
  • Difficulty finding work and housing

© CHP 2014

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