We recognise that the work of relief and development agencies often places great demands on staff in conditions of complexity and risk. We have a duty of care to ensure the physical and emotional well-being of our staff before, during and on completion of their period of work with us.
In both relief and development work, stressful and risky situations are inevitable. Yet there is much that can be done to mitigate the risks of illness, injury, stress, burnout or worse to staff and dependants. Employing organisations should ensure that the security, health and safety of all staff is appropriately protected as much as possible and that measures are in place for their ongoing well being. This will require significant thought and planning on the part of managers, with the recognition that improving security for staff may come at additional project costs. Maintaining the safety of staff is paramount. Cost must be considered, but the primary objective is ensuring staff are able to deliver the services agencies require in the most challenging environments.
As the case studies from CARE, Mission East, Malteser and CARITAS highlight, ways of addressing security, stress management and work-life balance include developing specific initiatives or employee assistance programmes, introducing effective rest and relaxation policies, or improving briefings and enhancing the overall level of communication.
Principle Seven is often considered the most important in the Code. While there is no hierarchy of importance among the principles, it is nonetheless true that implementing this one will make a significant contribution towards satisfying the rigours of your agency’s risk management strategy. This is because it explicitly addresses the impact of agency activity on the daily lives and working environment of each and every worker, highlighting the duty of care agencies have as employers. In addition staff must be aware of their individual responsibility to manage their own safety and well-being by following security guidelines and procedures or protocols. Compliance is necessary in order to protect themselves and colleagues but also to maintain the integrity and reputation of their programme.
Aside from any external impetus, the fact remains that agencies in this sector share an ethic that emphasises universal health, wealth and humanitarian values. Endorsing the Code demonstrates that an agency includes its staff within those institutional values too.
CARITAS Europa – Planning for emergencies
CARITAS Europa (CE) is part of the international confederation of Catholic relief, development and social service organisations, which work in 198 countries to alleviate poverty and suffering.
In a major crisis, CE’s Emergency Response and Support Teams are often among the first to arrive on the scene, and this is to a large extent due to the careful attention paid to emergency planning.
When news of a crisis reaches the head office, available staff are identified and selected from a regularly-updated database, and are then comprehensively briefed before mobilisation and in more detail upon arrival in the country of posting.
To speed up the mobilisation of emergency staff, CE ensures those on the database receive regular emergency response training. This includes International Humanitarian Law, security procedures, team-building, trauma counselling, minimum standards in emergency response, as well as financial and project management.
Staff that travel, or are likely to travel, internationally are kept up to date with their inoculations and have a compulsory annual or biannual medical check-up, according to the policy of the individual CE member organisation. This does not preclude the need for an appropriate health check and briefing prior to mobilisation but it does reduce the time spent on activities that could have been undertaken previously.
Centre for Humanitarian Psychology – Dealing with stress
Some of the stress experienced by field staff comes from isolation, such as for geographical reasons, the type of mission, conflicts in the team or curfew restrictions. The personal make-up of the humanitarian worker can lead to a feeling of loneliness, even if working in a huge refugee camp in a large team of co-workers. To compound the situation, individuals may feel unable to share their difficulties with the team or the managers, perhaps for personal reasons or perhaps because the mechanism for them to do so is somehow lacking, and they thus “soldier on” as “walking wounded".
The Center for Humanitarian Psychology (CHP) addressed the problem througha free and confidential support service with a team of three psychologists who have field experience. More than 400 people made contact via email or phone last year, although half were callers primarily seeking reassurance in their situations. A small number actually presented with signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and were advised that they should seek professional support immediately.
The CHP says the cases it has dealt with “clearly demonstrate that organisations have a huge responsibility towards staff well being, especially as staff near the end of their contracts when effective debriefing is essential”.
Mission East – Managing security
In Afghanistan, Mission East’s Country Director found that a constant dialogue with both national and international staff was essential for effectively managing security. In late 2001 and during 2002, the working context was characterised by instability and insecurity. Situations changed extremely rapidly and agencies had to be able to respond appropriately.
Mission East worked in the north east of Afghanistan, some distance from the capital Kabul. The organisation’s security policy and guidelines were adapted to the local context at the outset. To mainstream a security awareness within the whole team, all staff received comprehensive and participatory training on security and staff safety. Decision trees, scenario planning and role-playing helped individuals to think and plan laterally. Great efforts were made to embed this security awareness within routine operations and every individual was required to participate in security discussions. To overcome an initial reluctance in sharing information, the country director would make a point of meeting with all staff at the end of each day and these informal team meetings provided an extremely valuable forum for sharing a wide range of information that impacted on security management. Staff quickly realised that even what appeared to be basic information or what might be considered a trivial or one-off incident was relevant and needed to be shared with colleagues, management and even other NGOs working in the area.
CARE Canada – Psycho-social counselling
C3 is a CARE-Canada initiated project, triggered by experiences in Rwanda, now run for the agency by a human resources consultancy. It is a psycho-social counselling program offered to staff being deployed into high-risk areas, as well as for critical incidents. A small roster of psycho-social counsellors from across the world, with different specialties and language skills, offer staff pre-deployment briefings, in-country support and debriefings. The programme also offers training sessions to country directors and HR professionals to help them detect warning signs for burnout and depression.
During critical incidents, counsellors are made available to staff. For mission-critical or multi-victim incidents counsellors are deployed to the scene. Otherwise, and for longer-term support, individuals are referred to local service providers. Families are also given appropriate personal support when required.
ICRC – Preparing staff for stress
“The Missing” project is an extremely important piece of work for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and one of the outcomes has been the development of guidelines for all those working with families of those who have disappeared during conflict or for another reason.
The guidelines highlight the fundamental responsibility agencies have in training and supporting their staff (who are working with such families), and recognise that staff and volunteers may themselves also become victims as a result of the stress they suffer during the course of their work.
The guidelines insist that all fieldwork be preceded by comprehensive briefings by experts with local knowledge and experience of local culture and traditions. In addition to specific training required for the job they perform, all staff will be trained in the psychological reactions trauma victims may suffer, and on the ways in which they themselves can avoid secondary traumatisation. Teams will be regularly debriefed, and while in the field, continuous supervision together with ongoing support will help staff deal with particular problems. It is intended that these guidelines will go a significant way towards minimising the risk of staff becoming traumatised or suffering burnout.
Malteser Hilfsdienst – Debriefings and exit interviews
At Malteser Hilfsdienst, a German relief agency, debriefing is part of a continuous process of communication rather than an activity confined solely to the end of the contract, although in keeping with good practice all international staff are required to pass through the head office for debriefing and an exit interview when their contract has ended. While the agency is concerned that this process be perceived less as ”supervision”, the principle of regular and open communication throughout the employment contract helps the organisation identify and deal with issues affecting the security, health and safety of this category of staff in a timely manner.
Regular contact between field staff and desk officers in the head office is supplemented by regular visits by the desk officer to the field. A process of regular and open communication, together with a strict enforcement of regular leave (and rest and relaxation periods where appropriate), helps the organisation to identify stress or health issues affecting international staff before the debriefing stage and take action before unmanageable problems develop. When it becomes evident that an individual requires medical attention or additional support, a medical professional at head office assumes the responsibility of co-ordinating further assistance. Local staff benefit from the open and transparent communications and in many of Malteser’s country programmes also receive exit interviews and debriefings.
InterHealth – Prioritising Principle seven
InterHealth says: “In our work as health advisor to many international aid agencies, we daily see the dire consequences to individuals and agencies when health related issues and work-life balance are not given top priority. We strongly encourage all agencies to adhere robustly to Principle seven. This will help to avoid preventable problems and should they occur, will minimise their impact. “