Photo by: Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

BARCELONA — From pre-assignment preparedness to crisis support, duty of care involves a whole range of services, protocols, and conversations that are designed to keep aid staff safe.

But one piece of the duty-of-care puzzle that is still often overlooked in the sector is post-assignment support, experts told Devex. That can leave staff vulnerable to mental health issues and burnout after returning from projects in the field.

“Duty of care is not necessarily a one-stop-shop or program or budget, it’s more just intentionality in the mindset.”

— Brian von Kraus, CEO, Firewatch Solutions

Arjan Toor, CEO for International Organizations and Africa at Cigna, a global health services firm that works with many of the sector’s NGOs, said that while there is strong recognition that staff are working in very challenging environments while on assignment, there is often an assumption that they can pick things up where they left off when they return home, and a tendency to underestimate how much support they need at that point.

Staff can experience a great deal of residual or secondary trauma, explained Brian von Kraus, CEO of Firewatch Solutions, a company that provides security support to organizations operating in high-risk regions. If not consistently addressed, these residual issues can lead to further problems.

“Duty of care is not necessarily a one-stop-shop or program or budget, it’s more just intentionality in the mindset,” said von Kraus. This mindset should still exist when staff return from an assignment, and organizations need to devote resources and expertise to it, he added.

The risks

There is always going to be some sort of transition period, said Marc Rahlves, chief operating officer at Nuru International.

Whether returning from a physically challenging environment or adjusting to life outside of the secure compound they shared with colleagues, individuals are often not aware of the toll this can have on them, he added.

The transition can be jarring, agreed von Kraus. Feelings of guilt are common, particularly when individuals have parted with friends and colleagues overseas who don’t have the same access to amenities, he explained. Individuals can also experience a sense of isolation if they have difficulty articulating the conditions they have witnessed or the stress they endured. They may struggle to relate to staff in the home office and even to family members.

There is also the risk that staff develop mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress, even when they are back home, explained Toor. Although mental health is a priority for many NGOs, “unfortunately there is still a big taboo around mental health issues [and] it's not always an easy conversation to bring up,” he said.

How organizations can provide support

An intentional approach is key to duty of care, Rahlves said. It is up to leadership to be proactive in encouraging staff to take time off for rest and recuperation, and recognizing where individuals may be consistently absent due to health issues.

In many cases, there is not a sufficient debrief when an individual returns from assignment, nor are there follow up conversations to address the long-term positive and negative impacts of the experience, Toor added.

These conversations are critical in allowing organizations to keep an eye on vulnerable individuals and recognize early on where there may be a need for additional support. Staff need a space where they feel free to speak about these issues, he said.

Where an organization has budget, it can be beneficial to have a psychological counselor on staff or on retainer to talk through any issues, von Kraus said. If this isn’t an option, communication remains at the heart of addressing any problems, he said, so facilitating discussions — even just between peers — can still be helpful.

Tapping into alumni networks can also help create an environment where staff can talk through issues with other professionals who understand the stress and trauma they are experiencing. Even small NGOs have a lot of quality professionals in their network and you can always find someone willing to help, von Kraus suggested.

“Reaching out to them and pulling them back into mentor and guide current employees is a huge tool or resource that many NGOs don’t even recognize,” he said.

While Nuru International does have a counselor available for staff, Rahlves said there’s no need for organizations to try and reinvent the wheel on post-assignment support. Simply reaching out to their peers and networks is a good place for organizations to start, he agreed, and there are lots of free resources available to help.

For example, Pennsylvania University offers some relevant free training and resources. Currently, the institution has courses in psychological first aid and building resilience to stress. He also recommended the global framework on safety, health, and security for work-related international travel and assignments, published by International SOS Foundation.

How can aid organizations provide better post-assignment duty of care? Join the conversation in the comments below.

This article was last updated on 20 March 2020

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.