Addressing Burnout among Humanitarian Workers: Investing in Staff on the Ground and in the Office

The Hilton Prize Coalition’s Collaborative Models Program leverages the rich base of talent, assets, experience, and insight from its growing membership, as each Coalition member is able to achieve more collectively than it could individually. This blog recaps the partnership between The Task Force for Global Health and Heifer International.

In the spring of 2018, The Task Force for Global Health and Heifer International teamed up under the Collaborative Models Program to conduct the Hilton Prize Coalition Wellbeing Project. The overall purpose of the project was to 1) better understand staff stress and burnout across Hilton Prize Coalition members; 2) identify policies and approaches currently used by Hilton Prize Coalition members to provide staff support; and 3) identify opportunities for Hilton Prize Coalition members to improve employee resilience and psychological health. In April 2019, the project leaders held a webinar for Hilton Prize Coalition members to discuss the project’s report, entitled The Hilton Prize Coalition Wellbeing Project: Staff Wellbeing and Sustainable Engagement in Humanitarian Organizations. This interactive session was an opportunity to share collective learnings in the hopes of improving awareness around the issue and to discuss best practices.

The Hilton Prize Coalition Wellbeing Project had its origins in a growing awareness of the stresses inherent in humanitarian work that can lead to burnout, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to affecting individual humanitarian workers, these factors can limit the effectiveness of humanitarian organizations in their efforts to alleviate suffering and provide support to communities.

“The fields of humanitarian aid, development, and global health attract highly motivated people who care deeply about the world,” explained David Addiss, MD, Director of the Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics at the Task Force for Global Health and one of the report’s authors. “This sense of calling sometimes leads to overwork, over-identification with work, and burnout, which has negative consequences both for individuals and organizations. Hilton Humanitarian Prize Laureates represent an elite group, whose commitment to employee wellbeing can influence the humanitarian world as a whole.”

To produce this report, The Task Force for Global Health and Heifer International interviewed nearly 40 representatives from Coalition member organizations to collect data. Interviews were completed with 10 CEOs or their designees, 10 HR Directors or their designees, and 19 staff. Additionally, HR Directors or their designees were invited to complete an online survey about their organization’s policies for employee support; completed surveys were received from 14 organizations.

The small sample size of the study limited the ability to generalize these findings to all Hilton Prize Coalition members or to humanitarian organizations in general. However, top-level findings revealed that while burnout is felt across Coalition member organizations, it takes on different forms and affects distinct groups differently. Some of the major takeaways are as follows:

  • Among Hilton Prize laureate organizations, stress is ubiquitous, burnout is not uncommon, and resources for staff wellbeing are often inadequate.
  • At the individual level, types of stressors differ by gender; they also differ between headquarters and “field” staff and between national and expatriate humanitarian workers.
  • Key stressors can be grouped into two broad categories.
    • First are “structural dynamics” that contribute to burnout; these include factors internal to the organization, such as workload, communication pathways, management, supervision, and team cohesion and external factors such as short-term funding cycles, audits, and pressure from funders for performance.
    • Second are stressors around “safety,” which include both physical security (e.g., transportation, travel, threat of violence) and psychological safety (e.g., trusting relationships, civility) stressors.
  • Findings from surveys and interviews with leaders and staff indicate that burnout is an important challenge for employees of Coalition organizations. While some of the major stressors resulted from the difficult working conditions, such as witnessing suffering, organizational factors were also cited as contributing to burnout, including ambiguous job roles, long and unpredictable working hours, perceived barriers to professional growth, and poor relationships with supervisors or other organizational leaders.

Through this report, The Task Force for Global Health and Heifer International’s findings provided a baseline assessment and pointed to exemplary practices to foster wellbeing in several Coalition member organizations.

Thank you to both organizations for such an impactful and informative webinar! The full report can be found in the Hilton Prize Coalition Resource Center.

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