Even aid workers need to be taken care of

I came back a few days ago from one week in Greece volunteering with Arche Suisse Beyond Borders to support humanitarians from METAdrasi working with refugees. We facilitated workshops on trauma and stress management and gave individual hypnotherapy sessions to interpreters, teachers, coordinators, program managers, administrative and support staff. We worked directly in the refugee camps, in schools and at the headquarter office. It was an incredible experience that left a profound mark in me, but not in the way I expected…

As I was preparing for this trip, I was expecting the main source of stress for these aid workers to come from being confronted with the refugees’ tragic stories. Stories and images of rape, violence, torture and death that refugees went through in their own country, on their journey to Greece and sometimes directly in the camp. For some of them, this was indeed the case, but most of the individual sessions I provided were about their own personal struggles.

I knew that aid workers were more prone to suffer from cumulative stress and burn-out due to the nature of their work and their own personal investment and motivation. However, this experience enabled me to really grasp what I would call a “schizophrenia” between their humanitarian work dealing with extreme levels of human suffering under very stressful conditions and their own private life. Out of all the difficulties they are facing, the ones that stuck with me were the sense of guilt and helplessness resulting in the undermining of their own personal needs and potential personal and professional exhaustion. I sensed a deep need to acknowledge their own personal suffering, to allow themselves to put their needs first and to be the ones being taken care of.

Comparing their lives with the refugees’, they feel their own personal needs and suffering aren’t worthy enough. The need to rest, disconnect from work, or even to have a lunch break can feel trivial compared to the refugee’s needs for food, shelter, and safety. As a consequence, saying “no”, setting limits and boundaries can be extremely difficult and come with a great feeling of guilt. Similarly, personal problems can feel very small. They don’t deserve their attention and they would feel guilty if they did spend time and energy dealing with them. On the other hand, ignoring them can contribute to additional stress and does not erase the pain inside and the guilt for not giving your best. In both cases: pain and guilt. By giving your whole heart, energy, and enthusiasm, the risk is to lose yourself in your mission.

The sense of guilt can be combined with a sense of helplessness when they feel they can’t control their direct impact on refugees’ lives. Coming from the business world, I have experience feeling helpless and not having an impact on people’s lives. But I realized even aid workers can feel that way! Feeling like a small link in a very long chain. Interpreters may feel they are only a voice allowed to translate words. Teachers offer a real sanctuary for the unaccompanied minors but can’t control what will happen to them. Staff at the headquarters feel they’re having less impact not being directly in the field and their scope of action can be limited by internal or external factors. This feeling of helplessness can lead to frustration, anger, and cynicism. It can drive them to lose faith in the mission, the sense of meaning, the lighthouse that was guiding them in time of struggle. Combined with exhaustion, it can contribute to burn-out, to this point when the body says “stop” and can’t move forward anymore.

As a result, there is a need to reconcile the duality between what they are experiencing as part of their work and their personal life by acknowledging their challenges and allowing themselves to put their needs first. Work related stress can more easily be debriefed amongst themselves. Personal challenges, however, mainly remain private, bottled up inside. Acknowledging those challenges is already the first step. Investing time and energy to address them is not easy. It might require some work at a deeper level to explore their sense of self worth, the underlying motivation to do this type of job and how to respect yourself by setting healthy boundaries and learning how to say “no” without feeling guilty. In the end there might be an even greater need for aid workers to do this personal work and exploration to be able to contribute their best in a healthy and sustainable way.

As I was sharing my observations with a friend, I realized how this personal experience might feel true not only to aid workers but to any social worker or any person with a mission to support and care for others. Of course I am only sharing my own personal thoughts and not aiming at expressing any truth from that. And I would love to hear your own personal thoughts and observations.