You know what they say: You can't help others until you've helped yourself.
Unless you pursued a career in aid work just because it sounded good or you needed a job or a salary, you likely committed yourself to aid work for a reason: You want to help others.
This sense of altruism can be a beautiful gift to the world, but it can also put you at risk of setting a life-long pattern in which your objective of helping others always supersedes your need to care for yourself. Your altruism can be self-sacrificing and infringe upon your personal life and well-being.The danger sets in because "saving the world" or changing it is not something that happens in a day. Yet, your employer - whose mission statement is based on major crises, like conflict, famine and natural disasters - will continuously be in a state of "emergency" and YOU and your work will be needed.
This is exciting, important, and life-altering - both for those you are there to help and also for you. But, it is also emotionally taxing and can come at the cost of your personal life and your personal well-being.
It's essential to be able to recognize the difference between an Emergency and an emergency, and to find a careful balance between your professional life and your personal life and needs.Unless you prioritize your well-being now, you're setting a life-long pattern that prioritizes work and stifles your personal life and needs.
Unless you defend your own well-being and call on your employer to prioritize staff well-being, you may well be setting a life-long pattern that prioritizes your work and increasingly stifles your own life. The consequence, of course, is not just suffered by you; it's also suffered by those you are meant to serve.
So, what can YOU do to reverse these trends and defend the rights of you and your colleagues to enjoy work-life balance and well-being?
- Help reverse the work-centered focus in your office. Promote healthy practices and activities that emphasize staff well-being, honor staff for their work, and support staff in their work, in their personal lives, and post-critical/traumatic incidents.
- Demonstrate through action the importance of your own personal life, partner, family, and friends.
- Demonstrate through action your priority for personal well-being and ensure colleagues understand how this influences your day-to-day work.
- Encourage your head of office to implement programs and activities in your office to promote staff well-being (e.g. yoga classes, meditation, sports, gym, card games, writing group, language classes, music classes or groups, etc.).
- Ensure Standard Operating Procedures are in place to protect and support staff following critical/traumatic incidents.
- Push for awareness-raising activities within your office on staff well-being and trauma.
- Advocate for regular, in-person (simulated) trainings to adequately prepare staff for field missions and assignments and for critical/traumatic incidents and for trainings that teach staff how to respond appropriately and adequately to critical/traumatic incidents.
- Start an internal support and advocacy group for staff survivors of trauma. Contact us here, if you are interested in collaborating with similar groups within the humanitarian system.
Few - outside of aid workers themselves - seem to understand fully what aid work entails, the sacrifices aid workers take, or the reality of what aid-working organizations can realistically provide to those most in need.
Given our firsthand experience as aid workers in the field, it's critical that we take action to better inform those less familiar with our work: