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Burnout as human rights worker and how to tackle it

A 2015 survey by The Guardian (available here) reported that 79% of the 754 aid workers interviewed reported suffering from some kind of mental illness; of those, 93% said that the condition was work related. In a separate survey of human rights workers, 19% appeared to be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – figures that are similar to levels of PTSD suffered by combat veterans and emergency first responders, as noted by Open Democracy. Workplace stress is common, but ordinary stress is not to be confused with work related ‘burnout’.

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Human rights workers are particularly vulnerable to burnout; they work in an environment where they are constantly exposed to, either directly or indirectly, traumatic and distressing situations; they may be working with victims of violence and conflict, they may be deployed to dangerous and hostile locations and be exposed to situations where their safety is at risk, and they often work long and unsociable hours.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a particular type of stress and it isn’t simply a result of overwork. Burnout is the result of working in a stressful or demanding environment, or any situation which we throw everything into; often, burnout is cumulative. Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as ‘a special type of job stress – a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.’ It is important to be able to recognise symptoms of burnout, both so that we can acknowledge when we experience it ourselves, and so that we can see signs of burnout in our colleagues and help them to find support. Symptoms can be mental, emotional, or even physical.

Symptoms of burnout include:

  • Losing enthusiasm for your job, and even dreading going to work
  • A loss of job satisfaction or a feeling of disillusionment in your career
  • Feeling low in energy and not enjoying the things that used to give you pleasure
  • Getting easily irritated, angry or upset
  • Insomnia
  • Change in appetite
  • Trying to ignore your feelings by abusing or misusing drugs or alcohol
  • Feeling distant from family and friends and trying to isolate yourself from social situations

How can human rights workers take steps to deal with burnout?

Mental health issues have been stigmatised in the past, causing people to avoid seeking professional help. This should not be the case and professional counselling may be the appropriate course of action. Many larger international organisations provide mental health support and counselling as part of their medical benefits. It is a positive sign that more and more organisations are developing policies regarding the welfare of their employees and taking steps to ensure that there are support services available. However, many smaller organisations and local NGOs are not able to offer medical or counselling services as part their employee benefit package; many human rights professionals work on a self-employed consultancy basis or on short term contracts where they are not entitled to staff benefits.

In addition to professional support, there are other steps that we can take to help deal with the problem of burnout:

  • Buddy-systems, mentor networks or other peer support systems can help create a supportive working environment and are particularly useful in the field where human rights workers might feel particularly isolated
  • It is important that staff are trained so that they know how to react to a colleague showing signs of burnout and also so that they can be self-aware and recognise the symptoms in themselves
  • Exercise and self-care can help to deal with feelings of anxiety
  • Relaxation techniques, such as meditation and yoga, can be helpful and can be practiced wherever you are (techniques can be found online for free)
  • Try to structure your work day and try strategies to make you feel more in control of your work; make to-do lists and prioritize your work, and delegate where appropriate
  • Communicate with colleagues and supervisors and discuss any work-related concerns or worries that you have
  • Try to maintain a healthy work/ life balance and make time to see or speak to family and friends outside work

Accepting that you are suffering from burnout is not a sign of weakness or a lack ability; the phenomenon is not uncommon among those who work in the human rights and humanitarian sector, who are driven to help others, working in challenging and exhausting environments, often neglecting their own well-being in the process.

University of California is offering a free online course on Mindfulness and Resilience to Stress at Work! Register now! 

About the author

Natalie Matranga

Natalie Matranga is a lawyer and human rights professional from the United Kingdom. After practicing as a lawyer in the UK, Natalie worked in South East Asia (Cambodia and Myanmar) for a range of human rights and international development organisations, including local and international NGOs and the United Nations, specialising in rule of law and human rights in criminal justice systems in transitional and post-conflict contexts. Natalie is currently a partner at Amicus Legal & Advisory LLP, a consultancy firm providing research services and project support to NGOs and international organisations.