Will an online petition finally put staff wellness on the agenda?

A member of Alliance of International Doctors attends to a patient at a refugee camp in Kenya. An increased commitment toward the welfare of aid workers is needed across aid agencies worldwide. Photo by: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

Just over 1,200 people have signed an online petition launched in late July to put staff welfare on the agenda at the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s a small number for an aid worker community now estimated to be 450,000-strong, although the ticker is still climbing.

Thousands more are likely to have a bone to pick with the staff wellness care they have or haven’t been offered before, during or after working in high-stress environments and conflict zones. After all, a decline on aid worker attacks last year still left it the second-highest number on record, with 190 major attacks against aid operations in 2014, according to the latest Humanitarian Outcomes Aid Worker Security Report. In total, 329 aid workers in 27 countries were affected.

Staff welfare, though, isn’t just treatment for individuals after a critical incident, nor is it about flying in counselors after a disaster. It isn’t about work-life balance, security, LGBTI-inclusion efforts, anti-bullying measures, fair contracts or decent rest and relaxation allowance.

It’s about all of these things — which is evident in responses to a Devex development group LinkedIn discussion and more publicly in a recent New York Times op-ed, in which the author describes her own road to breakdown after years interviewing refugees on the border of Libya and Tunisia or the Buzzfeed article detailing the humanitarian community’s denial of any accountability for a Canadian aid worker raped in South Sudan.

Holistically, on one side staff care comes down to good management, according to petition creator Brendan McDonald, chief of resource mobilization support section at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It’s equally about battling an age-old stigma that aid workers seeking psychosocial care are weak or ill-equipped for the job. Maybe that’s why the puzzle of comprehensive staff care has “been talked about for decades,” he said, but gone unsolved.

“Humanitarians by nature say ‘let’s focus on the people we’re helping,’” McDonald said. “They don’t want to talk about issues that directly affect aid workers. It’s still seen as distracting from the broader effort.”

So, will a surprise online petition be the ticket to unifying thousands of aid organizations around the common goal of taking better care of precious human capital — those estimated 450,000 humans who currently help deliver lifesaving aid, to be exact? Probably not. The petition is only in one language, which makes it even harder to say what a good metric of endorsers would be. Instead, the geographic diversity of current signees — Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, to name a few — may be indication enough that aid worker wellness is a globally uniting issue.

But, McDonald pointed out, the number of signees isn’t really the point. The movement just needs be loud enough to get the issue on the agenda at the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016 for a way, he hopes, to rally a sector around an issue they all care about — whether they realize it or not.  

Simply put, “employers don’t need or want depressed, neurotic aid workers running a program,” McDonald said — and neither do the refugees or displaced persons they’re trying to help, he added.

The commitment to healthy staff

That’s not to say staff welfare for aid workers has been ignored up to this point. It’s been studied, scrutinized, improved and repeatedly poked at by aid workers who feel systems aren’t in place to help them on a regular basis, let alone when they need it most.

The Antares Foundation Framework, the Interagency Standing Committee Guidelines on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support in Emergency Settings, Sphere Core Standards and People in Aid Code of Good Practice have all garnered support in the past decade. Together with recent research like the U.N. refugee agency’s own unforgiving internal audit of its staff care, they’ve resulted in increased attention — if not cohesiveness — of staff welfare initiatives, with many organizations modifying their historical approach.

It’s a change Lynne Cripe, director of resilience services for the health and effectiveness consulting firm KonTerra Group, characterizes by comparing staff psychosocial support during the South Asian tsunami response of 2005 and 2006 with the recent Nepal earthquake response.

As part of the U.S. Agency for International Development tsunami response management team at the time, Cripe recalled that funding guidelines gave nongovernmental organizations permission to include not only psychosocial care for communities, but also for elements of their own staff care.

“We didn’t receive one proposal that sought funding to care for staff,” she said.

Fast forward five years to the Haiti response, when “the issue of ‘how do we support the staff in responding organizations?’ was a very vibrant conversation, Cripe said. CARE, for example, was successful in securing a significant allocation from a private donor specifically to support all staff care and resilience work the Haiti office did over the course of six months.

In the five years since, she’s continued to see increased interest and commitment. International Medical Corps, Save the Children and CARE all called on KonTerra Group to assist their staff responding to the Nepal earthquakes, and this isn’t the first time they’ve worked together. All three have a culture within their organization where staff issues are paid attention to.

“We need to pay attention, we want to be paying attention to these issues,” Cripe said.

That’s all it takes, McDonald told Devex. Because each organization has its own existing work culture, there is no “standard dollar amount of investment” required, he said.

“It’s about each organization saying ‘OK what does it mean to have a wellness program? What does it mean to have healthy staff?’” McDonald noted.

The petition also calls for the establishment of a mechanism to ensure all aid workers have access to adequate support in the event of illness or injury, particularly for national aid workers, considering the majority of aid worker victims are staffers working to implement international aid in their own countries.

These are the issues McDonald — and at least 1,200 others — want on the agenda at the 2016 summit because very few aid agencies, he said, have a comprehensive wellness program endorsed and supported by senior management that looks at all aspects of staff wellness — for all staff — on a day-to-day basis.

Many people still equate staff wellness with therapy, McDonald said, but sending counselors to provide therapy “doesn’t solve anything if you have culture of abuse, poor contracts, poor work-life balance ... it’s going to make no difference holistically.”

He recalled an experience with an aid organization in Kosovo that responded to the death of an international staff member by flying in therapists to talk through the trauma with the team. Afterward, several of the national staff members were furious — not only had they not been paid properly up to that point, they’d also experienced their own horrific trauma.

“The first time they talked about psychosocial therapy was when an expat aid worker died,” McDonald said.

Also on the wish list? A mechanism for tracking the well-being of current and former aid workers, including contractors and volunteers and national staff, to help reverse the current feeling that aid workers are forgotten when they get home. Add to this the support for the establishment of a Global Humanitarian Association to advocate for the rights of aid workers and their families.

“Say you’re a national staff member for an agency in Kivu and you’re arbitrarily dismissed,” McDonald said. “Who do you take your case to?”

There’s no ombudsman equivalent in many developing countries, and that’s an issue for those seeking legal action.

Currently, Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection is the only cross-sector professional association of individuals engaged in humanitarian assistance and protection worldwide, but it’s time the world’s largest unregulated industry worth billions of dollars has its own highly functioning association — and for the community to unite on the common issues that affect all organizations, McDonald said.


Progress could still be erased when taking into account the stigma that lingers when it comes to aid workers unabashedly accessing services that do exist. McDonald himself experienced burnout a few years ago but didn’t tell his employer.

“I felt at the time it would have ended my career,” he said.

Not only can the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and burnout be devastating to those they leave “broken and stuck in a deep pit of failure and despair,” leadership and wellness coach Catarina Andrade said — borrowing the words of a current client — but productivity and innovation falls away too.

“Until we start to address this issue head on, we can’t meaningfully talk about increasing effectiveness, resilience and sustainability,” she said.

There are a number of organizations thinking about how can they reduce barriers to accessing these services, according to Cripe. One client of KonTerra’s psychosocial staff care consultant work, for example, made it mandatory for all emergency response team members to meet with counselors. This can help drive down ideas that are “sadly still so prevalent,” Cripe said, “of ‘buck up,’ or ‘if you struggle, you don’t have what it takes.’”

While every organization subscribes to its own staff care plan, McDonald pointed to the 10 organizations verified as compliant to the People in Aid Code, the seventh principle of which states that “we have a duty of care to ensure the physical and emotional well-being of our staff before, during and on completion of their period of work with us.”

Given the number of aid agencies around the world, “the low level of commitment to the People in Aid Code is a shocking indictment of the systemwide commitment to the welfare of aid workers,” McDonald said.

People In Aid and Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International have since merged to form the CHS Alliance, a new overarching body for humanitarian standards that aims to improve how humanitarian work is delivered and held accountable.

McDonald’s petition calls on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien and all involved in the World Humanitarian Summit not to reinvent the wheel, but to support commitment eight of the CHS Alliance Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability, which simply advocates support for staff to do their job effectively and be treated fairly and equitably.

What McDonald is calling for isn’t new, but it would be if every agency present at the humanitarian summit made a commitment to systematic investment in caring for the physical, mental and psychological welfare of their staff — the first ask that appears on the petition.

McDonald is confident that leadership will take these ideas forward at the summit. What do you think? And what’s missing from the petition? Leave your comments below.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.