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While research on the impacts of humanitarian work on the individual workers is clearly important, there is also a need to understand how the external sequelae of violence, threat, and destabilization affects teams and organizations. In a study of thirteen organizations focused on helping populations who experienced severe trauma, Pross and Schweitzer (2010) found that “organizations with high stress and conflict levels exhibit considerable structural deficiencies and an atmosphere shaped by a reenactment of the traumatic world of clients” (p. 97). It is important to recognize that although vicarious traumatization can occur from working directly with survivors, burnout among humanitarian workers can be a result of dysfunctional organizational behaviors mimicked in the exterior world marked by chaos, disillusionment, and fear (McCann & Pearlman, 1990). 

The risk of depression and symptoms of burnout do not disappear after deployment or a long stretch of intense humanitarian activity; in fact, the risk can continue for months (Lopes Cardozo et al., 2012). A positive factor related to German development aid workers during this critical time was the amount of social acknowledgement, recognition or support received after duty in underdeveloped and conflict areas (Jones, Muller & Maercker, 2006; Thormar, 2016). Similar to military personnel overseas, humanitarian workers need this recognition along with psychological, peer and social support (Hatch et al., 2013 Lopes Cardozo et al., 2012). HR (human resources) and psychological consultants can help with pre-screening of candidates, but it is important for organizational managers and leaders to follow through with support during and after deployment. And, for the national staff, it is critical for their emotional, physical, social and spiritual needs to be attended to while they are in greatest risk for primary and secondary traumatic events and reactions.

Journalists and researchers, who often work hand-in-hand with mental health clinicians, are also at risk of VT, burnout and compassion fatigue. The risk is even greater when research is done in a context of rape and sexual violence (Coles, Astbury, Dartnall, Limjerwala, 2014). In this case, personal safety planning and various forms of support are needed from the inception to the end of the project. Journalists may have an elevated risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with increased exposure to primary and secondary trauma, a history of personal traumatic experiences, and a high number of professional crisis and conflict-related assignments (Backholm & Björkqvist, 2010). Journalists and researchers both engage in drawing out details of human suffering; thus, both groups come into contact with deeply traumatic situations. Journalists are a part of the twenty-four hour news cycle and may often be called to rapidly move from one traumatic humanitarian story to another. Researchers often work quietly, behind-the-scenes with the high possibility of their organizations not recognizing their need for psychosocial support or work-life balance.

Although involvement in humanitarian crises can lead to mental health problems, efforts by these highly committed staff have also been shown to result in positive vicarious resilience (VR), post-traumatic growth, and job (compassion) satisfaction (Hernandez, Engstrom & Gansei, 2010; Geoffrion et al., 2016). However, these proactive responses on behalf of humanitarian workers will depend on trust and good functioning leadership and management structures within the organizations on the front lines and in headquarters (Visser et al., 2016). It would be helpful for leaders to be trauma-informed and to know that training for national staff mitigates against PTSD, depression and anxiety (Hagh-Shenas, Goodarzi, Dehbozorgi, & Farashbandi, 2005; Strohmeier & Scholte, 2015). 

Good clinical supervision, staff care and group support can allay symptoms of VT. Puvimanasinghe et al. (2015), for example, highlighted the importance of training, supervision and mentoring as ways of countering the potentially negative effects of working with traumatized refugees and asylum seekers. Furthermore, good role definitions, decision making, teamwork, sense of safety, leadership and management can make a difference in the overall working environment, which in turn may prevent burnout among workers (Strohmeier & Scholte, 2015; Pross, 2014). In addition, trust in management and HR, job autonomy, and assistance in finding a stable work-life balance are critical for working in complex humanitarian environments (Visser, Mills, Heyse, Wittek, & Bollettino, 2016). 

In war zones or destabilized environments, humanitarian mental health workers often have each other for support, informal communication, social contact and a sense of a shared experience that can help guard against potential PTSD, VT and burnout. For example, Social workers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank--who have experienced inter-generational, historical, and structural trauma while working in a dangerous environment--developed a sense of shared VT as they became “co-survivors with their clients” (Blome & Safadi, 2016, p. 255; Ramon et al., 2006) and acquired a collective understanding of their difficult environment with their colleagues. What made the difference in this Palestinian social worker situation was when the administration ethically felt this sense of shared VT and made an effort to put resources toward reducing harmful effects and improving the work environment. A communal sense of ethics and professional identity also plays a role in modulating the impact of VT and compassion fatigue (Geofffion et al., 2016). Finally, a shared sense of frustration and hope should lead us all to advocate within our own organizations and governments for the safety and well-being of our humanitarian workers that are too valuable to lose.

About the Author

Glenn Goss, DSW, DAAETS, is a clinical social worker, training consultant and senior trauma advisor for organizations working with religious persecution and refugee trauma issues. He has experience in the fields of mass trauma intervention, child protection, forced displacement and non-profit leadership throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. He was involved in development work in South Africa during the transition from apartheid to a full democracy. This experience helped him to form some of his thinking, writing and research around the subjects of humanitarian ethics, staff care, peace-building, cultural competency and psychosocial approaches with communities experiencing mass trauma. 


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