Mental health challenges for NGO workers

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NGO jobs can be rewarding and satisfying but they are also demanding.  Working to alleviate poverty, fighting for human rights. bringing clean water, changing government policy or stopping climate change are all long term aims and the stress of working in this sector can be very challenging.  Here are our top 5 areas to watch out for in protecting your mental health:

Burnout

Candidates attracted to NGO jobs are often very dedicated to a cause and will put in extra time and energy in their work, so burnout is a very real threat.  Taking time out for rest and relaxation is vital in ensuring that you can continue working for the cause over a sustained period.  As a new NGO worker, allow yourself time to gain knowledge and skills so that you become useful to your organisation.  If you burnout early on, you risk missing out on being useful to your organisation.

Outside of emergency response situations, line managers can help NGO workers avoid burnout by ensuring staff take regular annual leave and encouraging policies such as no emails outside of working hours. 

As an NGO worker it is essential to find activities to “switch off” to avoid re-living distressing or frustrating aspects of the job.  Finding an activity when you feel really “in the flow” such as cooking, gardening, making or repairing things can be very therapeutic.

Physical health

Taking time out to exercise, especially outdoors, strengthens mental health and can provide a sense of routine or normality in tough environments. 

If you are working in insecure areas where it is difficult to exercise outdoors, activities like skipping or following online exercise videos can be a good alternative.

Maintaining a healthy diet can be challenging in remote locations but it should be a priority to ensure that you stay fit and well and can be useful.  Local markets are a great source of fruit and vegetables and asking around the local community if people sell products from their gardens/land can be a good way of sourcing healthy food to boost the physical and mental health of your team.

Disillusionment

Whilst bringing immediate relief to people in need as part of an emergency response can be very rewarding, NGO workers need to be resilient to feelings of frustration and despair.  Each setting has its own challenges. 

In a humanitarian crisis frustrations may include lack of coordination between agencies, poor communication with local communities, excessive bureaucracy or the need to balance security challenges with reaching people in need. 

Despair and frustration can also be a real challenge for NGO long term development workers or campaigners who are fighting to bring about changes to governmental policy and experiencing only tiny gains or dealing with politicians who do not appear to have an interest in the cause.

Contact with friends and family

Maintaining a support network of people outside the work environment who you can talk to in times of difficulty can really help to manage stress and frustration.

Although friends and family may not understand the full complexities of your role, simply having an objective, outside perspective will help.

You will need to put in time to keep these relationships alive, and make sure you take time to be interested in their lives too.

Technology has helped with long distance communication and regular Skype/Zoom/Teams chats can help you feel connected to others.  If internet connection is limited, text messages or WhatsApp’s work well.  Don’t forget mail – sending letters and cards is a good way to let people know you are thinking of them and receiving post when working in the field is always a real highlight.

Writing a newsletter update which can be shared with family and friends via social media or the NGO website is another useful option.

Moving on/coming home

One of the biggest challenges to your mental health may come at the end of your contract.  Many NGO jobs operate on short term contracts so preparing yourself to deal with this is essential.

Working for an NGO that aligns closely with your values means that your work can grow to become an integral part of your identity and when that work ends you may feel guilt, sadness or a sense of loss.

Looking after your physical health, enjoying hobbies and rebuilding connections with friends and family may re-build your mental resilience at this time.  Putting you in a healthy position to take the next step in your NGO career.  Good Luck!

Further reading:

https://www.bond.org.uk/news/2019/08/how-can-ngos-support-aid-workers-mental-health

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/01/6-global-employers-on-how-to-improve-workplace-mental-health/

https://www.brookes.ac.uk/documents/cendep/well-being-or-ill-being-wellbeing-and-mental-health-support-in-the-humanitarian-sector/

https://gsdrc.org/document-library/mindfulness-and-wellbeing-mental-health-and-humanitarian-aid-workers/

https://reliefweb.int/report/world/strengthening-mental-health-and-psychosocial-support-2021

https://www.odi.org/events/4574-breaking-silence-promoting-action-aid-worker-mental-health

https://www.redcrossfirstaidtraining.co.uk/what-we-do/mental-wellbeing-courses/

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