Employment in the international development sector can be anything from back-office to frontline head-on aid relief. We often focus on the physical pressures of traditional employment, let alone the role of an international development worker, and ignore the potential mental challenges. Remember, a broken arm can be fixed but mental health issues can last for the rest of your life unless they are addressed.
So let’s now take a look at some of the mental challenges faced by international development workers.
Whether you are assisting with an education program in Nigeria, helping to evacuate those caught up in the middle of a natural disaster or issuing medical assistance to fight Ebola, the pressure is constant. Many of us fail to realise, until it is not there, but the support and backup from our friends and family is vital not only to our physical well-being but also our mental health. Even though very quickly you may build up a tightknit community of friends while on the front line, how well do you know them, do you really have time to relax and chat?
It is not just those on the front line who feel the intense pressure of ever changing timelines, new deadlines and literally having the lives of people in their hands. Communications can be a lifesaver in some of the more remote areas of the world. If this is your role in the back-office, the pressure to ensure constant communication must be immense. The truth is that nobody can live under constant pressure as this will not only affect your performance but also your standard of living.
The idea of shipping out to a far-flung country to assist with the creation of an education program, perhaps improving the infrastructure or even introducing democracy can give mind blowing satisfaction. You literally have the chance to change people’s lives today, tomorrow and for many generations down the line. You can imagine the scenario, you land with your international development co-workers, your heart is pumping and the adrenaline is flowing. As we have mentioned in other articles, there is a need to communicate and reach out to the local community to work together. But how do these trust issues work?
Just recently there was new outbreak of Ebola in the DR Congo which saw a number of relief workers flown in to tackle this life-threatening disease. Unfortunately, many of the local community believed that local politicians were behind the latest outbreak and had zero trust in their politicians and relief workers. Trying to build up a trusting relationship, a working relationship, with parties whom you know have a deep-seated mistrust of what you stand for, how stressful must that be?
The human psyche is one which generally reaches out to help where possible and make a difference. This could be helping people in your community back in the UK or it could be assisting those suffering from starvation in developing country because of a failed crop. While experience does help, those who are relatively new to the frontline must be tempted to take a scattergun approach and save everybody. The fact is that international development projects/relief work cannot save everyone and many are simply damage limitation. Connecting with someone suffering from Ebola only to see them drift away and eventually pass away, how do you cope with that?
Many relief aid workers suffer unbelievable mental trauma as a result of not being able to help everybody and feeling responsible. Sitting back in the UK, watching the actions of international workers, it is easy to point out the great work which has been done. However, for many relief workers/international development workers there is an inner urge to save everybody, even though this is just not possible. Unless you’re ready to fight the crushing feelings of guilt, maybe frontline International development work is not for you?
Lack of support
Even international development agencies, and there are many different kinds today, have a legal and moral obligation to support their employees. This is no different to the “normal” world of business although many people fail to realise this. Sending someone into a challenging, maybe violent, scenario, without support, both physical and mental, may well be seen as negligent by the courts. Balancing the moral and legal dilemma of taking action against an international development agency because of mental trauma suffered in the line of work is difficult. However, the agencies and governments around the world are well aware of their legal obligations.
We have seen many relief workers come back from projects overseas, ranging from introduction of education systems to evacuating those suffering as a consequence of natural disasters, highly critical of the lack of support. Those agencies that fail to offer the appropriate support have seen their funding dwindle. Those willing and able to assist their employees and put in place the relevant support are now attracting the lion’s share of donations.
Lack of rest
It is safe to say that the majority of time spent working for an international development agency, whether overseas or in the back office, is full on. Natural disasters and other time critical issues can emerge at any time. Those who are assigned to various projects may be up against it with regards to timelines and deadlines which can increase pressure and stress. In theory, those on the frontline and the back-office are still protected by employment laws. Avoiding excessive working hours, without the appropriate level of rest, is one of those health and safety obligations on all employers.
There will be some workers who push themselves to the limit with minimal rest so they can maximise their working day. However, there comes a time when the efficiency of an international developer worker is impacted dramatically by a lack of rest. Whether we like it or not, our bodies need to rest, they need to relax and recharge their batteries. Whatever your role, physical and mental tiredness will take its toll and could ultimately lead to health and safety issues for your co-workers. If you become a burden, as a consequence of mental health issues, this will inevitably impact the resources available to the central project.
The actions and sacrifices made by international developer workers, whether voluntary or salaried, are certainly admirable. Many will push themselves to the limit, even beyond their mental and physical limits, to ensure a successful outcome to projects/assignments. However, international development agencies still have an obligation to ensure the safe well-being of all of their employees.
Again, it is worth mentioning there is no difference in the eyes of the law between those who are salaried and those who volunteer their services. There will be occasions where employers need to be pulled up and reminded of their moral and legal obligations. If you suffer any type of mental trauma during your time with an international development agency, as a consequence of negligence, it is imperative that you report this. Otherwise, how will things improve for future international development workers?