Only you can define what makes you feel safe and both physically and emotionally well. Other factors - like your home country's culture or the accepted behaviors and beliefs within your office - can shape and even taint your individual perspective on safety, protection and well-being. Our home cultures and office practices or beliefs may taint how we perceive our own safety and well-being. Depending on the environment in which you grew up and the environments in which you choose to live and work as an adult, you may sometimes inadvertently take your security for granted and/or overlook the necessity of prioritizing your personal well-being.
It's important to understand yourself and your own needs as well as the ways in which your workplace influences your safety and well-being - helping or hindering you from being healthy and whole.
In the field, aid-working employers typically offer security guards, armored vehicles, bullet-proof vests, and stacks of papers on security tips and planning. The reality, however, is that: Critical incidents are not planned and, like you, your employer may not be well prepared. It's important to think through the realities of your location, understand the risks you face, and prepare to fend for yourself.
Do not assume anyone has your back - whether the security guards outside your door, the security officer in your office, your boss, or your headquarters. The security guard may be prepared to defend you or, perhaps, happy to accept extra cash to feed family members should a burglar arrive. The security officer could feel a strong allegiance to the office and its mission, or the security officer could be a former member of the local military which is currently killing off an ethnic group you are there to defend in which case your interests do not co-align. Your employer may be concerned about your welfare but will be equally, if not more, concerned about the employer's reputation and legal protection. So, trust our experience and watch your own back.
Working in the field can put you at risk of security incidents and trauma. It can also cripple your personal life and health. Take care of yourself and set limits, so your work does not become your life. Likewise, you may want to remember that no one else will be particularly concerned by your personal well-being. Your physical and emotional health and your ability to find a balance between your personal and professional lives will be entirely your responsibility. The objective of any employer is generally for you to function like a well-oiled machine, generating products relentlessly until your heart stops beating and a fresh, new machine can take your place. While you might want to be a top-notch employee, you might also like the idea of a personal life too. If so, you will need to be your own advocate and strive to claim your evenings, weekends and vacations as your own. If not, do not be surprised when the emails, phone calls, Skype messages, and knocks on your door only grow louder.
Of course, that implies that one can have a personal life in the field! Au contraire, there may be little to do, it may be risky for you to venture outside, or it may be downright dangerous. Working in the field doesn't have to be lonely, depressing, or addictive. But, to have a fulfilling life as an aid worker requires effort and an understanding of your own needs to ensure your own safety and well-being. In emergency and remote contexts, a unique culture of lawlessness, limited access to a personal life, and the adrenaline rush of the local context often results in long, intense working hours and/or unhealthy habits that could be casual at first but, eventually, become ostensibly "necessary" outlets (lending to addictions to drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, work-aholism, etc.). Having a dependence on such habits/outlets in environments that are already isolated and emotionally-taxing often leads to further loneliness, unhappiness, depression, anxiety and other consequences.
Of course, it doesn't have to be so gloomy! It can remain just as beautiful, awe-inspiring and enriching as it was the first day on the job. But, this takes effort, close attention to the effects that working in the field may be having on your life, and a commitment to defend your own rights to a personal life and well-being.
Do not misunderstand or over-estimate the role of your embassy or employer with respect to you and your security. While in an ideal world, they would both view you and your life as key priorities on their agendas, this is unlikely to be the reality.
- Head home: Adhere to curfews set locally and by your organization.
- Know where you are: Understand the geography of the country, city, town, or village where you live so you know your whereabouts at all times and especially in the event of a critical incident.
- Don't be alone: Try to have someone else with you when you go out in the day or night, so you are not alone should an incident occur.
- Avoid high-risk areas: Avoid areas believed to be dangerous or where your safety might be compromised. If you are required to enter these areas for work, ensure that the appropriate security measures are taken (armored vehicles, convoy travel, escort, enough bulletproof vests and helmets for all staff traveling, etc.).
- Avoid darkness: Limit your movements when it is dark.
- Don't have an empty wallet: Carry money at all times, to offer in exchange for your security, if necessary.
- Integrate: Study the local language (not just the national language) to converse with locals and understand better the local conditions, to establish a positive rapport with locals, and to be able to negotiate your way to safety, if necessary.
- Avoid alienating yourself: Befriend locals and internationals alike. You never know when you will need their support.
- Be ready to negotiate: Cooperate and negotiate to ensure your survival in precarious situations. If money or personal items are demanded, do not argue; hand them over.
- Humanize yourself: Give anyone who approaches you aggressively, assaults you, holds you captive, etc. reason to believe you should be spared. While it may seem odd to "befriend" those who may seem like enemies, making jokes and smiling can help as well as comparing yourself to the assaulter’s/captor’s family or friends (e.g. mother, sister, daughter, friend, etc. in the case of rape or another violent crime).
Instead, if a security incident arises, your embassy and your employer will most likely be more concerned with the reputation of those they represent (your home country and the larger organization that employs you) than with you. Of course, this is not to imply that they do not care at all. It is to remind you that you are unlikely to be the priority.
If the media is involved, they will likely do their best - at least - to make it look like they're doing everything to help you. And, maybe they are doing everything they can. But, the experience for many of us has been that - when incidents affect just one or two people (e.g. physical assaults, sexual assaults, prolonged exposure to genocide or war, etc.) and do not involve the media, the response may well be minimal.
So, while you may have heard the below recommendations previously and you may feel like a child in reading them, they are honest recommendations, based on our firsthand experience. Your protection and security depend on you and you ALONE.
- Practice yoga and/or meditation daily to manage stress.
- Play a sport, exercise, run, walk, or engage in other activities that you enjoy.
- Use music, art, and other creative activities to distract and stimulate your mind.
- Learn local, traditional activities and skills (cooking, weaving, sewing, painting, dancing, singing, etc.).
- Keep a journal to help document your stay while also helping you to process your thoughts about the poverty, human rights abuses, and other challenging conditions you are witnessing or experiencing.
- Keep in touch with your partner, friends, family outside your work location to help maintain a balance of perspectives.
- Communicate with others outside your work location through social networks, to help you feel “connected”, especially in isolated locations.
Protect Your Parts . . . and Your Life: Avoid Sexually-transmitted Infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS
STIs and HIV/AIDS, are often more prevalent in many of the locations where we work.
- Practice safe sex
- Ensure you and your partner are tested prior to any sexual activity
- Wear male/female condoms
- Use other protective barriers
- Enjoy non-intercourse sexual play
- Practice abstinence
- Be tested regularly, given the elevated risk due to your location/work
Malaria, Dengue, Cholera, Dysentery, and Other Not-So-Pleasant Realities
Don't forget to ensure your vaccinations are up-to-date and relevant to the country where you'll be living.
Nutrition and Exercise
Living in field locations and especially deep field locations or those that are undergoing war or environmental disasters require particular attention to your health and well-being. Yet, these environments happen to be ones where access to good nutrition and exercise is especially difficult!
It is in your interest to try to find ways to eat healthily and to exercise. Finding healthy food can be difficult in locations where liters of oil, MSG, sugar, and other ingredients abound. Understand that these ingredients can add to your fatigue, stress, anxiety, etc., and that it is likely in your interest to reduce their intake, especially while working in high-stress environments. It may take an extra effort limit your intake of processed foods, white flour, oil, MSG, sugar, etc. If you can, try to cook on your own, to purchase only foods that avoid or limit these ingredients, or to discuss with the chef how you would like your food prepared.
Exercise too is typically difficult if not seemingly impossible. Sometimes, you may have to accept that exercise will mean running, doing aerobics, practicing yoga, meditation or other activities within the four walls of your already cramped bedroom. Or, it may mean trying to find a partner or two who are interested in practicing these activities with you if you are able to venture outside but still at risk (e.g. as a woman). Or, it may mean advocating with your employer for an exercise facility with minimal equipment within your workplace.
If anyone within your location practices or teaches yoga, this person could teach classes to staff.
Health Care Facilities and Equipment in the Field
Health care facilities vary from location to location. Depending on the facilities and resources available as well as the competencies of staff, a person could die from malaria due to a mistake made while hospitalized. Or, an asthmatic person could die from a lack of oxygen available in local clinics. Or, a person with an allergy to peanuts could die from a simple miscommunication regarding the ingredients in a particular dish. It's important to understand field realities and to be prepared.
- Understand what medical facilities and resources are available in your work environment.
- Understand the medical risks you may face in your environment.
- Learn where you should and can go in the event of an urgent medical need (e.g. local hospital, military hospital, medical evacuation to another country, etc.).
- Bring medical resources with you, in case they are not available locally (e.g. asthma inhalers, epipen, insulin, medicine).
Suggestions for a Healthy Body and Mind
Remember the Importance of Your Emotional Health
Click on the tabs above for recommendations on ways you can prioritize your personal life, safety and well-being wherever you work . . .