I entered the Healing Solidarity, Embodying Change conference with one particular topic on my mind: aid worker wellbeing. I’m passionate about wellbeing because so many of my friends and colleagues are experiencing debilitating rates of exhaustion, overwhelm, burnout, depression, anxiety and PTSD. I recently went through my own struggle, as well.
Despite recent conversations about safeguarding, diversity and toxic cultures within organisations – we in the aid sector have yet to instigate widespread changes in our practice when it comes to: 1) how organisations treat their staff, and 2) how we care for ourselves and one another.
I’m keenly interested in how we, as people and organisations, can more effectively embody the change that we want to see in the world. How can we apply our humanitarian values to ourselves and each other while delivering effective and high-quality assistance to and with affected populations? With that in mind, here’s what struck a chord for me last week.
“We said we wanted to do things differently.”
Mary Jane N. Real, Co-Lead of Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights Asia & Pacific
When Mary Jane and others started UAF Asia and the Pacific, they wanted to do things differently. The way they had worked before was unsustainable and resulted in burnout. Here are some components of their new way of working:
- Co-leadership: I’ve run a network of organizations before. If I do it again, I don’t want to do it on my own. We’ve clearly defined our areas of work. My co-lead raises the money and I spend it. We’re clear on who makes decisions about what.
- Friendship: Build close friendships with the people you work with. There will be less misunderstandings and miscommunication. Deepen relationships with each other so they don’t break in highly repressive situations.
- An emergent learning framework: We have a learning question as a team that is internal to the organization: What would it take to practice a feminist culture of giving and sharing in the organization?
- Comprehensive health coverage: In addition to conventional health insurance, we set aside money for other health needs not covered by insurance, like eye checkups and acupuncture.
- Time off: When we take our leave, we’re respectful of each other’s time off. We don’t expect colleagues to respond to emails or work calls or work-related matters. They should fully take the time off and not feel guilty about it.
Despite offering psychosocial counsellors to staff, none of the team members have taken up the offer. “It’s so easy to get into the default way of doing things of how we’re so used to overworking ourselves, of putting ourselves last, of thinking that these types of practices are more privilege than a necessity.” Many organisations don’t even have the money to run programs and activities; they do their activism or service by exploiting themselves. We have to be more overt and deliberate about surfacing these practices that we want to change before we can even begin to change them.
“Buen Vivir means ‘right living’ or ‘one living.’ It puts us within the broader ecosystem.”
Solomé Lemma, Executive Director of Thousand Currents
Sumak kawsay – or buen vivir, in Spanish – is the worldview of the Quechua peoples of the Andes that describes a way of doing things that is community-centric, ecologically-balanced and culturally-sensitive. Solomé Lemma asks, “What does it mean to build your practice of ‘Buen Vivir’ within an organization – where staff are taken care of, where we work on transforming ourselves so we can contribute to the transformation of the world? How can we build a culture of wellbeing that’s so different from the existing work culture… that challenges Western mainstream ideas around leadership and productivity?”
In Thousand Currents, a board member talks about “SOUL care” rather than self-care. Team members can take a wellness day and a creativity WEEK. When Mary Ann asked Solomé about her leadership style, she replied, “In this culture, a lot of leaders are understood to be extroverted. I am an introvert… One thing that’s important to me is to show up authentic, fully as I am, to be as open as possible to the world of ideas and possibilities and people that we engage in this work, and to be fully grounded and centered around why we’re doing this. What’s the bigger purpose?”
Solomé brings up a question many of us face as our teams become more dispersed and remotely based. “How do we keep this culture – the culture of relationship, the culture of humility, the culture of community – in a virtual space?”
“Think about what you already have. Don’t think about raising tons of money.”
Lori Michau, Co-Founder and Co-Director of Raising Voices
Financial constraints are a barrier to investing in staff care that has come up in several of my interviews for the Cultivating Caring, Compassionate Aid Organisations initiative. Lori Michau of Raising Voices has a response:
“You don’t need huge budgets. We’ve really tried to get away from this Northern idea that self-care is going to a massage and a yoga class. Most women don’t have access to that, so we’re trying to re-conceptualise it in a different way, that self-care can be about safe relationships that we have with ourselves and each other. It can be about joy and pleasure in very simple and free things.”
- Simple policies make people feel a little bit more seen and heard. We have policies that support people as whole people. For breastfeeding mothers who need to travel for work, the organization will pay for a caretaker to join them and the baby. We have flexi-time for staff.
- Take a look at your environment. We like colour, so we have a lot of colour around the office. We have beautiful murals that people have painted. We try to make the environment nice. You actually want to be in it.
- And then processes. How are you getting together as a team and engaging with each other and building that collectivity together? Do you have a team meeting? Can you bring a small game to connect people in that space? Can you do a breathing exercise at the beginning of it? Can you ask people how they actually are, not just what they do?
“Can I start a well-being cluster?”
Hitendra Solanki, Senior Lecturer, MSc Development Studies London Southbank University
Faye Ekong, Managing Director at RavelWorks Africa, in her interview with Mary Ann talks about the importance of investing in care for staff who are on the ground, who are from the country of operation. “They will remain after you have pulled out and all other staff who are not from that country have been flown out. They really need the support.”
Hitendra gives an example of what that could look like. On 30 July 2018 the first “Wellbeing Cluster” was launched in Cebu in the Philippines. It was envisioned as a new model to support aid workers and communities more effectively before, during and after a humanitarian response, where they often witness and experience the suffering of others. It pools knowledge, expertise, services and resources of local and national NGOs, INGOs, governmental departments, academia, youth organisations, the private sector, CSOs, and other key stakeholders.
Hitendra tells the story of the Cluster’s formation. His original plan was to promote mindfulness practice among humanitarian aid workers – “plug it in” to existing well-being frameworks. But he found there were no real well-being frameworks in existence. Staff well-being was not being prioritised by organisations in the sector. So the model itself of a well-being cluster was to say, “Okay, let’s create little nodes in areas where these are needed, such as the Philippines where there is frequent recurrence of emergencies. This could be a way of, one, having a very cost-effective, localised approach to well-being and mental health well-being, in particular with communities and aid workers on the ground. And that model itself could then be developed as part of humanitarian architecture globally as well.”
Hitendra created a Wellbeing Cluster in the Philippines. Should we try to create Wellbeing Clusters where we live?
“SUPER vision. Someone helping you put some glasses on and look at how you work.”
Pip Bennett, Feminist Mother and Youth Worker
Pip had seen so many development colleagues burnout but not doing anything about it or change the way they were working. She came across an approach used in other professions, like social work and counselling, that could help. It’s called supervision.
Supervision is a relationship – between a supervisor (preferably not the line manager) and a supervisee – built around three pillars:
- Professional support, making sure that you are following policies, procedures, and doing things how you should be doing them
- Self-care, checking how is your personal life coming over into your professional life and vice versa and how is the balance going there
- Professional development
It can be one-on-one, or group or peer supervision. It helps people stay in their jobs for longer and avoid burnout, partly because it keeps people connected to their purpose. It can also create space to address sensitive issues as they arise in the workplace.
“How do we make more of a connection, an interdependence, between how we care for ourselves individually, how we care for our family sphere, our community sphere and work?”
“More and more I see folks that are realizing, well, we can’t really do this work. They understand that relationships are broken, that solidarity is broken, that trust has been broken. In the NGO industrial complex, we’ve lost relational piece. And the piece that brings in why are you of value simply because you’re human, because you’re living. We have to stop doing some things that are harmful to ourselves and others, to be better in community.”
Shawna clarifies some important concepts:
- Healing is any process whereby one becomes a more whole version of themselves – coming back to a sense of living life more wholly, more present, in community with others
- Resilience helps us come back to a sense of being centered – a sense I can be with others and organise with others, support others and get my needs met as well
Shawna practices yoga, meditation and somatics. “When we’re in our bodies, we’re much more able to listen, we’re much more able to perceive, we’re much more able to feel, we’re much more able to communicate.”
“We have, for better or for worse, professionalised social action.”
Danny Sriskandarajah, CEO of Oxfam GB
Allesandra Pigni wrote in the “Idealist’s Survival Kit” that “we burn out from overwork and are disillusioned by a mismatch between what we thought things would be (making a difference!) and what they are (writing reports that no one reads).”
Danny explains that Oxfam was around 12-years-old before it employed a paid member of staff. Before it became Oxfam, it was comprised of volunteers raising money and campaigning. It was very much internationalist, based on solidarity and humanitarian principles. And then eventually, like many other social formations, it started to institutionalise. Organizations register as “charities,” their processes become formalised, their groups become professionalised, and bureaucracies are born.
I myself have been struggling with the unintended consequences of professionalization – or bureaucratization – of the sector for years. That’s why I got behind the Less Paper More Aid Campaign to find ways to streamline requirements around reporting, audits and partner capacity assessments. I wonder how we can maintain the benefits of professionalism but also return to the positive ethos of our volunteer roots?
“Folks who have had power and privilege may have to take a back seat or a step back. And that’s where the rubber meets the road, because folks don’t want to give up power.”
Edgar Villanueva, author of “Decolonising Wealth”
Edgar Villanueva, a member of the Lumbee Tribe, says, “Most folks are good people. We’re just not aware of the systems that have been baked into our work for generations.”
His book asks us to trace back the roots of wealth and come to terms with the origins of the inequity that has led to aid funding coming out of countries that benefited from colonisation and slavery. Well-meaning, charitable organisations and people can “actually perpetuate colonial dynamics and harm on communities if they’re not aware of privilege and how they’re showing up and how they’re trying to support and build relationships with community.”
Edgar asks us to acknowledge these histories as part of a pathway to healing our relationships to one another and to our work. He suggests we bring “love and humanity” into these conversations. “When we can speak the truth in love, I’ve found that many people are able to actually listen and receive it and make some change.”
I myself have been confronted by my privilege. What should I be doing differently?
Culture, values and power
The topic of culture came up in many of the Healing Solidarity conversations. Gozel Baltaeva talked about “blame culture” that does not allow for mistakes. Smruti Patel asked if we work in a “fear-based” culture. Danny, mentioned above, said culture change within Oxfam – “putting our house in order” – is one of his top priorities at the moment. Faye Ekong, Managing Director at RavelWorks Africa, wants to see HR move beyond the role of administration and timesheets and leave requests and policies to “building the cultures necessary for proper execution of high-quality humanitarian programs.” Jennifer Lentfer shared a list of characteristics in white supremacy culture, including perfectionism, a sense of urgency, quantity over quality, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, and progress as bigger/ more. These traits can be found, she points out, in the interlocking operating systems of patriarchy and capitalism. Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken recently published a policy brief in which she describes culture as “primarily about informal, covert belief systems” driven by various factors. To address the root causes of recent scandals in our sector, she argues, “NGOs will have to do sustained and disciplined culture work themselves.”
Values were also mentioned several times. Danny said, “I want to work in an organisation that I can hold my head up high, not just because of the people we help or the impacts we have, but because we walk the talk on the values that we hold dear.” Edgar said, “My way of dealing with that is one, deciding to take care of myself and stay sort of grounded in my values and who I am and what I would not give up. We have bills and the paycheck might be good, but we have to come to terms with like, what are our values?” Alex Martins discussed the creation of an Equity Index. Shawna asked, “What practices help us to bring our values to life? And how can we do that through embodiment?” Jennifer Lentfer observed how much our organisations are expressions of dominant society values. Nurhaida Rahim said what is missing is the human connection – instead of looking at our phones, ask the person next to you how are you, how is your family?
Shawna remarked, “there’s tough conversations about power that need to happen. We want to talk about power, but then when you really get into it, it’s tough, it hurts actually. It genuinely hurts people.” Edgar said “colonisation is a force, I think of it as a virus. I call it the colonising virus. That has just permeated every aspect of our being and it’s all about separating, dividing, conquering, exploiting and amassing wealth and power by any means necessary.” The issue is very political – not just resisting but dismantling the structures where self-worth is tied to productivity and results, inequities of power, etc. Dr. Gemma Houldey’s June 2019 article on “Humanitarian response and stress in Kenya: gendered problems and their implications,” concludes by prompting us to reflect “on the responsibilities of both staff and management in recognising power and privilege within the sector, and how these factors affect behaviour, organisational culture, and the ability to remain committed to the humanitarian cause.”
Melissa has been working in humanitarian affairs since 2003 wearing different hats: donor, UN member state, multilateral, NGO coalition, independent. She’s also a mom, bookworm, and burnout-survivor. She and Mary Ann, the initiator of Healing Solidarity have been working together recently on a project being incubated by CHS alliance which is looking at building caring and compassionate organisations.
Downloads of all the talks from Healing Solidarity: Embodying Change, our 2019 Conference, are still available here.