Teri Sevilli, program manager of the Garrison Institute’s contemplative-based resilience training program.

Aid and development workers routinely get vaccinated for infectious diseases. But what can they do to inoculate themselves against some of the biggest occupational hazards of field deployments: stress and burnout?

Workers had few tools with which to answer or even ask the question, until recently. There’s growing recognition that the chronic stress of tough deployments raises their own risk for depression, anxiety and burnout, even as they work to meet the needs of the affected populations they serve. Chronic stress and the constant exposure to others’ suffering take what’s becoming an increasingly well-documented toll on workers’ well-being and performance. A 2012 study of anxiety and depression among aid workers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and this Guardian article describing stress-related burnout among development workers, are examples.

Along with this growing awareness of the problem has come an emerging focus on building resilience as a solution. Resilience is the ability of individuals and communities to “bounce back” successfully from traumatic disruption. It’s something every aid and development worker and every affected community needs, but not everyone has it in equal measure.  

Stress is endemic, if not constant; it’s how we handle it that varies. Some people can bounce back faster than others, enduring greater levels of stress and being disturbed less by a given amount of stress. Research has found resilient people aren’t simply born that way. The ability to bounce back derives from specific physiological traits and psychological habits and perspectives in individuals, and from definable structures and relationships in institutions and communities. Those things can be identified, understood, and taught — and potentially learned — by anybody.

Qualities that contribute to resilience correlate with the emotional and physiological qualities that are cultivated in contemplative practices like meditation or yoga. Studies show meditation can enhance optimism, confidence, emotional regulation and social support, all of which are key to psychological resilience. (It can also optimize immune and inflammatory functioning, which contributes to physiological resilience and overall health.)

So resilience is mission-critical to aid work, but how is it a women’s issue? Women began to catch up with men in terms of numbers of workers deployed overseas (though not in terms of pay) late in the last decade. The focus on resilience emerged only after women were well established in field work, and today women are its vanguard. There are many men making important contributions to it, including Don Augsburger of the KonTerra Group, and my colleague Tad Pace at the University of Arizona, with whom I’m working to review scientific literature that’s relevant to understanding the impact of contemplative interventions on resilience. But anecdotally, the proponents and enthusiastic early adopters of the view that resilience is a necessary focus of professional development for aid workers are predominantly women who have recognized that building their own resilience helps the populations they work with. Many of these women have discovered resilience skills can be honed through contemplative practices.

For an avid discussion of combatting stress and burnout and building resilience among aid workers, go to the blog Women in Aid. Women’s memoirs like Jessica Alexander’s “Chasing Chaos: My Decade in and Out of Humanitarian Aid” and Marianne Elliott’s “Zen Under Fire: Finding Peace In The Midst Of War” describe deeply personal experiences of burnout and resilience during their deployments in Darfur and Afghanistan.

“Yoga, meditation, writing and walking continue to be my tools to process the fears that get triggered by the suffering I encounter in the world,” Elliott writes.

The prominent teachers and leaders of the resilience field are also women — women like Carla Uriarte, who established the MSF Spain staff psychosocial support unit and ran it for six years, taking the resilience focus to 18 countries, and Sharon Salzberg, a leading meditation teacher and author who pioneered new ways to adapt meditation teaching to serve the needs of domestic violence shelter workers and humanitarian aid staff.  

Uriarte, Salzberg and other faculty have begun teaching resilience skills to aid workers through the Garrison Institute’s Contemplative-Based Resilience Training program. CBRT offers trainings for humanitarian staff that include secular meditation, yoga and specialized education about stress. There are upcoming trainings in New York in April, in West Cork, Ireland, in May, and a training in September for workers deployed to the Haiti earthquake response.

Trainings like these will someday be just as much a part of preparing for a deployment as getting vaccinated. Thanks to the trailblazing of women like Uriarte, they’re available to workers today, and some organizations are already beginning to adopt them.  

But there’s another sense in which women are on the front lines of resilience. As Kate Sutton of PHAP writes, “We know that women and girls are affected by disasters and conflict differently from men and boys, and that despite this knowledge humanitarian responses frequently fail to consider their needs in assessments and programming.”

Statistically, women are especially vulnerable in disaster and conflict zones, but they’re also known to be especially effective as “actors in all phases of emergency response: planning, preparation, response, and recovery.”

Women remain underrepresented in leadership positions. But learning to identify and value the qualities that go into resilience may also help gain greater recognition of the qualities women bring to emergency response and for their contributions and leadership in building resilience in their communities.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International, the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

About the author

  • Teresa (Teri) Sivilli

    Teri Sivilli is the program manager of the Garrison Institute's Contemplative-Based Resilience Training program, an integrated, evidence-based psychosocial skills program designed to reduce the impact of acute and chronic stress and build personal resilience for international humanitarian aid professionals. She has also worked on international mental health research for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and as project coordinator for Emory University's Collaborative in Contemplative Studies.