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Navigating brilliant jerks at work

How to create a supportive working environment in humanitarian and international development workplaces. Part of the 7 self-care tips for AID workers from www.changingaid.com

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By Becky Jay

The best workplaces I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of all involved a lot of laughter, collaboration, mutual recognition of colleagues achievements and innovation. There was respect, connection and friendship between colleagues and I enjoyed being at work. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to offset the high and relentless workload and management challenges (more on this later).

Supportive environments and burnout prevention?

Studies also show that strong social networks, strong team cohesion (relationship with HQ leadership, field leadership, and team members) and reduced exposure to chronic stressors (poor living conditions (housing, privacy, water, and electricity availability), security, heavy workloads, lack of recognition of accomplishments, and lack of communication) result in decreased symptoms of burnout and overall improved mental health of humanitarian aid works.[3]

A recent study from Gemma Houldey goes further and highlights that chronic stress is more than insecurities and trauma associated with the work but a result of a “… masculinized environment focusing on risk, danger, and the need for social separation in different forms – from local communities and from loved ones – there are consequences for staff’s abilities to express and respond to personal problems and vulnerabilities.”

One of my 7 self-care tips for AID workers is creating a supportive environment. This isn’t only your responsibility, but the responsibility of the people around you – colleagues, organisations, friends, and family. It is mutually beneficial. I’m going to be talking more about the organisation’s responsibility and their duty of care to their employees in managing chronic stressors more in the coming weeks.

How to create a supportive environment

How can you create supportive environments at work? Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code, takes a deep dive into some of the world’s most successful organisations and teams, examining what makes them work so well, including the components on how to create a supportive organisational culture. In the book, Daniel Coyle lists 9 inter-related factors that build safety within an organisational culture, that allow space for vulnerability, and generating trust.

Daniel Coyle’s safety building factors included things like: 

  • Making sure everyone has a voice (opportunities for meaningful participation)
  • Leaders demonstrating humility and breaking down hierarchical structures
  • Enjoying being at work (like laughing and telling appropriate jokes)
  • Listening and showing you are listening (cut out the speeches)
  • Embracing the messenger (focus on problem-solving and not the person who found the problem)
  • Eliminating bad apples. Always challenging – the remote management and hiring processes, the lack of applicants for undesirable duty stations, and attitudes of retaining ‘brilliant jerks’ outweigh the costs of the collateral damage they cause. This makes it even more critical to lodge complaints and report issues with HR.
  • Be thorough in the hiring process (make sure people and management are qualified for the job)
  • Give the team something to believe in
  • Avoiding the compliment sandwich. Tell it to people straight with kindness.

Rotting apples, endless speeches and shooting the messenger

Teams and organisations that have all or most of these qualities have high rates of staff satisfaction, through effectively navigating problems and improving services, whilst creating a culture of trust and respect within the organisations. Could write an essay on each one of these 9 factors, recalling a funny and horrifying story of where the opposite of this exact thing has occurred. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be doing just that, picking apart how we can make things better and how we can push the organisations we work for to embrace better management practices.

Additional factors

  • Recognising and respecting self-care initiatives: when someone takes care of themselves (books some time off, leaves work on time to go to a yoga class, etc.) congratulate them and take note yourself, what are you doing today to prioritise yourself?

A friend once described my approach to life (at that specific point in time) as “a mountain with a cliff face and next to it is a path. You are climbing up the cliff with no rope, and you need to learn how to take the path”. I shared this analogy with my colleague and from that day on whenever we asked for help, prioritised self-care or pointed out that perhaps that the other needed a break – we would congratulate each other ‘on taking the path‘ or ‘that was path-y’. Reinforcing this healthy behaviour and try to move away from the rope free rock climbing.

Avoid yelling across the office, “all leave is CANCELLED!” and then cackling like Cruella De Vil. Not so good for morale, and people strangely start feeling anxious about taking their leave.

  • Natural light and reasonable workspace: studies show that fake lighting and overcrowded workplaces are linked to mental health deterioration and reduced physical well-being. When I first visited the headquarters of one organisation I worked for, everyone was so tightly packed into the office they resembled chickens in battery cages, pecking away at their computer screens. You could feel the stress and unhappiness in the air.
  • Acknowledge people’s achievements in front of their peers, headquarters, and leadership. It’s motivating, and people really appreciate the acknowledgment of their efforts.
  • Embrace flexible working arrangements including making the workplace work for women (space for breastfeeding mothers, social events that don’t involve late-night drinking are just a couple).
  • View mistakes as learning opportunities (where possible)
  • Connect with people outside of your work circles.

We spend a lot of time at work and it affects us greatly, so it’s supremely helpful if you have a supportive environment around you. Are there other ways that you have been part of creating a supportive environment at work? Would love to hear your thoughts.


[3] Lopes Cardozo B, Gotway Crawford C, Eriksson C, Zhu J, Sabin M, et al. (2012) Psychological Distress, Depression, Anxiety, and Burnout among International Humanitarian Aid Workers: A Longitudinal Study. PLoS ONE 7(9): e44948. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044948

Alastair Ager , Eba PashaGary YuThomas Duke,  Cynthia Eriksson,  Barbara Lopes Cardozo. (2012). Stress, Mental Health, and Burnout in National Humanitarian Aid Workers in Gulu, Northern Uganda

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