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Using burn out as a catalyst for change

Burning out - advice for Humanitarian and International Development workers

Sunset over Tuvalu, small Pacific island nation.
Sunset over Tuvalu, small Pacific island nation.

I have been working in humanitarian and international development in overseas postings for the last 10 years. Averaging 50 flights a year for work, never-ending days, relentless emails, managing large teams, constantly navigating cultures and languages and dealing with robotic management. There’s also been an adventure, laughs, friendships and a hell of a lot of learning along the way.  Sometimes I feel as though I’ve crammed 5 lifetimes into the span of a year. And unsurprisingly I’ve burnt out, twice. The last one just 6 months ago. And now I have some time to reflect, heal and ‘get back on track’ in between coming up to speed on the latest Netflix offerings.

After the first burn out; I found surfing, yoga and the joy of silence and nature. Becoming a yoga teacher, I tried to integrate all that I had learned in my next few missions, and to some degree succeeded, keeping up a regular yoga practice, being more myself at work, making sure my staff took their leave and even holding yoga classes at work. But that type A, always competing, always striving part of me was not fooled. I could do better, give more.

My body wasn’t buying what my mind was selling

In my pursuit of being the best and doing it all, of designing and managing the best programmes to have the biggest impact, with keeping my team motivated and happy, taking on their fears and stress, being on-call 24hours a day, and dealing with a toxic colleague in an organisation that informally acknowledged there was a situation of bullying, but was too weak or just uninterested to do anything about it (happier instead to have staff resign). My energy began to fade once more. Reaching for the coffee, for the additional yoga classes, the personal trainer, meditation retreat to manage better my toxic work relationship, relentless work schedule, accumulating stress and unforgiving expectations of myself.

The effort-reward imbalance

If I just put in more effort, I could contribute to making a difference. I repeated this mantra every morning. But my body wasn’t buying what my mind was selling. First, the yoga injuries, the flu and then it spiraled downhill from there. Knowing I needed some time out I twisted myself in knots to try and find the perfect getaway, begging for my annual leave in order to solve this fatigue, a quick fix to an ever-increasing toxic work situation. The rewards when they did come, I brushed off, my mind never sitting still, always thinking about the next challenge and never content with what I had achieved.

Some of what I have learnt

  • Pay attention to your patterns and learn from them. Why does this exhaustion keep happening? It’s both environmental (see studies below) and in my experience, personal expectations and drive. When I’ve become exhausted it’s usually because I refuse to see the warning signs and am arrogant enough to think that this time will be different.
  • Have reasonable expectations on what you can achieve. There have been several studies recently on the altruistic goals of humanitarian workers and the detrimental effect this has on people’s psychology. See here for Effort-Reward Imbalance, Burnout and compassion fatigue, and stress in humanitarian workers.
  • You are in charge of your self-care. List out all your wellness tools in your toolbox. I’ve put together my top 7 self-care tips for AID workers and how we can better look after ourselves.
  • Say no. Set your boundaries. Train yourself to disappoint others by saying no to extra work, to additional responsibilities and unreasonable deadlines. And when you do say no, celebrate yourself a little. It can feel awkward and daunting when you do say no. Maybe people won’t like you, but I always remember the advice of a grey-haired yoga teacher told me “your opinion of me, is none of my business”.
  • Take your leave. Your sick leave. Your annual leave. Take it all. And use it to recharge your batteries. Not every holiday needs to be an adrenaline-fuelled, goal-achieving marathon. Rest.
  • Isolation is problematic. You need support. Reach out and set up a supportive network around you and take advantage of professional support where its offered (and even when it’s not). That might be a colleague at work congratulating you on self-care when you initiate it and vice versa or checking in with a counselor or coach on a regular basis or even spending time with people who are not from work.
  • Fail fast and don’t be afraid to quit. Malcolm Gladwell (author of Freakonomics) talks about the benefits of listening to your gut, knowing when you aren’t suited to a job and quitting early before wasting years of your life and energy. Understand your limitations and what you aren’t good at. If you challenge your organisation to change and it doesn’t happen or report an incident and no action is taken. Take stock. Are you in a position to change and influence the organisation for the better or are you in a remote outpost and really only able to send emails and voice your frustration on broken conference calls? Choose carefully where you put your energy.
  • Report bullying and toxic workplaces. But know that just because you report it doesn’t mean anything will happen. Value your health more and be prepared to walk away. There are always other job options. When I voiced my shock at the poisonous workplace in Amnesty International UK office, a British colleague responded, “yeah everyone has known that for years, everyone ends up leaving and they all have PTSD”.

ChangingAID is a place to talk about experiences and ideas on how to change the AID sector workplaces for the better.

Those of us who work in AID know that it’s far from perfect and lots of us feel passionate about the work we do, but what about the workers who undertake these jobs? Research is now starting to reflect what many of us have seen or experienced; the alarming rates of stress, burnout, high turnover of staff, harassment and discrimination within the sector. The aim of ChangingAID is to provide insight into the latest research and discussions, support and motivation on pressing issues that you might be experiencing yourself or know someone who is. To know that you are not alone in the challenges you face in working in the AID sector and have a space when you can learn and reflect on your highs and lows.

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