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How can NGOs support aid workers’ mental health?

Humanitarian and in-country aid workers face difficult situations overseas and often develop mental health issues, such as stress and trauma. So how can NGOs better support and safeguard their staff’s mental wellbeing?

Bond and Cigna’s recent seminar brought together over fifty wellbeing and HR professionals to learn how to best address the challenges that employees face during and after deployment in humanitarian contexts.

People from Save the Children, Action Against Hunger, CAFOD and DFID discussed launching wellbeing initiatives across the sector and within their own organisations. They also shared their first-hand experiences of the impact of humanitarian deployments.

Here are some key things we learned from the seminar.

What you can do to support your staff

Here are the steps an organisation needs to take to start addressing mental health and wellbeing for staff that are deployed overseas from the speakers at our event:

  • Strategy – Fewer NGOs have wellbeing strategies in place than you tend to see in the private and public sectors. Having an organisational commitment laid out can help reassure your staff that it’s okay to bring up any problems or concerns they are having.
  • Pre- and post-employment – You need to understand the trauma and experience that people bring with them to new roles, especially if they’ve worked in the field before. In-house counselling schemes can help but tend to be expensive.
  • Surveys – Wellbeing surveys allow organisations to understand staff and their needs better. While they can offer a useful insight into how your staff are feeling monitoring tools , you must be prepared to use the results, and make changes to help your staff if they are having a difficult time.
  • Initiatives – Awareness months, lunches, massage sessions and desk exercises are all small-scale initiatives that you can use to help lift the mood of your staff.
  • Managerial support – Stress management workshops help to embed wellbeing within a management structure. Taking steps like understanding professional boundaries, lowering barriers to support, and giving managers the tools to spot the signs of people struggling with their mental health can all help.
  • Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) – Having fully trained MHFA can help in emergency situations. They can also raise awareness and spot the signs if someone is struggling. Having someone who can offer resources, signpost to support and talk through concerns with can be a source of comfort to people in your office who need emotional support.
  • Learning platforms and resources – Organisations can sign up to employee assistance programmes (EAPs), as well as free resources such as Konterra, the Headington Institute, and Disaster Ready.

What your staff can do to support themselves

It is incredibly important to understand not only the impact that deployments have on our own mental health and wellbeing, but also to recognise the symptoms early if they begin to occur.

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Working for long hours in extreme environments sometimes remove us from our usual support networks. The level of stress can also increase the impact of negative working cultures. This sort of high-pressure environment can even lower our immune systems.

Recognising early signs of either anxiety and irritability or inability to recover from low-level illnesses can help your employees seek support before a bad situation gets much worse. It’s also important for those on deployment to recognise the signs in colleagues. This could be through absenteeism, presenteeism, overconsumption of alcohol or changes in eating habits.

Sometimes symptoms can occur when you have stopped working after a deployment. Feeling disconnected to friends and family or guilty as to the relative comfort of your home are all completely understandable. But by seeking support from a mental health professional or an employer, your chances of recovery are much higher.

What can be done on a national level

The Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) requires that staff are “supported to do their job effectively”, but this does not specifically mention mental wellbeing. Statistics that indicate the prevalence of mental health and wellbeing issues in the workplace are well known, yet coordinated responses are a more recent development.

The Wellbeing Cluster model launched by the Start Network links local and national NGOs with INGOs, governmental departments, academia, youth organisations, the private sector, CSOs, and other stakeholders to work together in building the capacity of both individuals and organisations in wellbeing related to mental health.

This localised approach can help eliminate taboo and stigma and ensure culturally appropriate treatment is available. The cluster model’s focus on preparedness also means that mechanisms are in place before and after a crisis occurs.

To find out about our next emotional wellbeing seminar sign up to our newsletter, Network News.

You can also join our HR working group, which is an open space for staff with HR functions to discuss issues that are important to them, exchange experiences, learn from each other’s lessons and provide peer support on a range of areas.