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Leading well: Aid leader perspectives on staff well-being and organisational culture

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Humanitarian staff often work long hours in risky and stressful conditions. According to the research carried out by Dr Liza Jachens, aid workers are subject to burnout, mental illness, and negative coping mechanisms in some cases at more than double or triple the rates of the general population. Surprisingly, Jachens has found this phenomenon to be more linked to organisational stressors than to operational stressors.
Some humanitarian organisational cultures have been described as unhealthy, dysfunctional, toxic, macho, hostile and subject to a “martyrdom” or a “white saviour” complex.

To adequately deliver on their mandate, humanitarian organisations have a duty of care to promote their national and international staff’s mental and physical well-being and avoid their long-term exhaustion, burnout, injury and illness.
At the end of the tumultuous year of 2020, ICVA and the CHS Alliance invited 15 humanitarian leaders from among their shared members to participate in a project exploring the risks and opportunities associated with staff well-being and organisational culture.

In leader interviews the standard core risk categories were explored in relation to poor staff well-being: operational, reputational, safety and security, fiduciary, legal and compliance, and ethical. Leaders found all these risk categories to be relevant to the issue, particularly as it relates to safety and security, staff retention and the ethical duty to care, not only to affected populations but also to employees.
However, many risks brought up by leaders could be better mapped against the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a psychological assessment tool that looks at six workplace risk categories: workload, sense of control, reward, workplace relationships, fairness and values alignment.

Leaders identified five key challenges to staff well-being and supportive organisational culture. First, professionalisation and bureaucratisation have turned us into what CWS Asia’s Marvin Parvez described as “paper tigers” drowning in a sea of compliance requirements. Second, our sense of control is naturally tested by the stressful contexts and situations in which we find ourselves, which can be traumatising.
Third, the rewards offered by the work are sometimes not adequate enough to satisfy our perfectionist tendencies and willingness to sacrifice our well-being for the cause.
Fourth, our workplace relationships and sense of fairness are negatively affected by the internalisation of oppressive systems – patriarchy, neo-colonialism, white supremacy and others. And fifth, our personal and organisational values can seem mismatched once we realise that competition is often the key driver in our sector, not compassion.

What can one person do to lead their people in such a challenging environment? They can seek to play a role inside the organisation which can in turn, have an impact on the way the organisation works in the world. They can stand up for their beliefs loudly, clearly and often, recognising great work but also calling out inappropriate behaviour.
They can accept support from experts, staff, their board, donors and others in the sector to take on the cross-sector challenges together. They can send a tremendously important signal by taking care of themselves and taking time to rest.
They can tell their staff they do not have to be perfect and give them clear guidance on what to prioritise in their finite, precious time together.

The top ten practices mentioned by interviewed leaders were modelling self-care, openly discussing mental health with staff, recognising the contributions of others, challenging inappropriate behaviour, using their position responsibly and fairly, actively listening to different perspectives,