Much attention has been devoted to the negative psychological effects of violence, war, famine, natural disasters, epidemics and or torture on refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Less attention has been focused on possible psychological difficulties encountered by relief workers. The trauma encountered by aid workers, in other words, has not ranked high on the list of priorities in emergencies.
Aid workers have the same reactions to traumatic events as the people they are trying to help. Like survivors, they are armoured in varying ways and will respond on an individual basis. Staff members, though, are often better equipped to face traumatic events than affected populations. That is, based on their training and experience, they have the capacity to analyse the situation and handle it in a way that makes sense. Even with well-developed coping skills, though, relief work can be psychologically difficult for many aid workers.
When circumstances are dire and personnel are in short supply (as in many emergency settings), there is often a perception that staff needs are a low priority. But relief workers’ psychological difficulties can limit their effectiveness at providing needed services. Positive well-being among staff, on the other hand, is a force multiplier that leads to positive interactions with the communities we seek to assist.
Staff care is not just about the physical and mental health and well-being of staff. It extends to line managers and the systems that organisations have in place to manage the stresses placed on staff – both those inherent in disaster relief and those imposed by the organisation. The effectiveness and reputation of any organisation lies with how it treats its most precious asset: its staff members, interns and volunteers.