Stress: the Other Peril of Humanitarian Aid Work

A Red Cross aid worker cares for an injured infant. Humanitarian aid workers are often thrust into high-stress situations. Photo by: The American National Red Cross

Humanitarian aid work is perhaps one of the most high-risk professions. In addition to the security risks they face, humanitarian aid workers often contend with stress and burnout.

“You may be facing children dying, or people who have lost everything, and are expected to have a magic wand to return them to a place where they were pre-crisis. Plus, you’re dealing with a difficult environment, you’re working 20-hour days - that puts a lot of stress on everything. Some people will inevitably indulge in risky behaviour,” an aid worker who had responded to crises in Pakistan, Indonesia and Niger explained, as quoted by IRIN. 

Humanitarian aid workers are often sent to respond to very tough, sometimes unimaginable, circumstances where they are exposed to high-impact stress from witnessing or experiencing wide-scale deaths, shootings, kidnappings, sexual assault, crime, direct attack and other forms of violence.

Some of the stress they experience is also job-related, according to Kaz de Jong, a psychologist with the international health charity Medecins Sans Frontieres. Jong explained that aid workers often experience burnout from trying to create order out of the chaos they are embedded into and facing high expectations from headquarters and beneficiaries, as well as from their day-to-day interactions with each other.

Aid workers also feel stressed when they feel their headquarters are letting them down, another health expert said.

“It is very important for most aid workers to have a reason to do this [work],” said Donald Bosch, director of counseling at the U.S.-based Headington Institute. “When that is undermined by a sense of betrayal, it is demoralizing to the very soul.” 

Preventive measures

It is not uncommon for humanitarian aid workers to undergo counseling before and after their missions. Some aid organizations also send counselors on routine visits to their teams on the ground to assess how aid workers are feeling and help them deal with stress.

Staff and aid workers on the ground are also often provided with skipping ropes, television and other simple forms of entertainment to help deal with stress and burnout. Family photos and open communication lines also help, Bosch added.

About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.