Tag Archives: People In Aid

Resilience Research Report – The Executive Summary

Here is the Executive Summary of the Report I introduced yesterday: Building resilient managers in humanitarian organizations (plus some photos from Cambodia, just because). The research report is available for purchase from the People In Aid website.


Background, and purpose of the research

In the last decade there has been increasing interest in the level of stress, trauma, or violence experienced by humanitarian workers, but relatively little focus on the other side of the coin – qualities that promote resilience and thriving in these challenging environments. People In Aid, through this report, undertakes an initial exploration of the personal skills and strengths, and organizational structures and practices, which can promote resilience in managers working for international humanitarian organizations.


What we did

During October and November 2010, interviews were carried out with fifteen individuals humanitarian workers, staff support specialists, and psychologists who well placed to comment on these issues in relation to middle managers with humanitarian organizations. These discussions, author experience, and published research, informed the content of this thought/research paper and allowed us to:

  • Suggest a useful working definition of resilience;
  • Identify some key indicators of resilience for managers in humanitarian organizations;
  • Identify some key points of influence – organizational structures and practices that can strengthen resilience in managers in humanitarian organizations;
  • Offer some practical suggestions for ways that humanitarian organizations can help increase the resilience of their middle managers.

Summary of the discussion topics

There is no universally accepted definition of resilience. The definition we propose here is: The ability to successfully navigate high levels of challenge and change, and to bounce back after stressful or traumatic events.

Key personal skills and strengths of resilient humanitarian workers include:

1. Adaptability. Adaptability is the result of a number of skills and abilities working in tandem to help us deal well with challenge, change, and setbacks. Two related themes particularly pertinent to humanitarian workers are pragmatic idealism and the ability to cope with ambiguity.

2. Problem solving ability. Humanitarian workers who are naturally challenge-oriented, employ problem-focused coping, are able to accept imperfect solutions and partial victories, and independently learn as they go, fare better. 

3. Sense of meaning and purpose. A sense that what they are doing is meaningful and purposeful is very important to most international humanitarian workers – and those with strong values and a clear belief system rooted outside themselves fare better. However, the ability to be flexible in adapting these beliefs over time is also very important. 

4. Good relationships/social support. There is no single factor that will make you resilient, but good relationships may be about as close as we can come to a silver bullet. Supportive relationships that extend well beyond mere acquaintance are vital, yet can be challenging for international humanitarian workers to maintain over time. 

5. Optimism and the regular experience of positive emotions. Having a generally positive outlook (realistic optimism) and a sense of humour/fun are common attributes of resilient humanitarian workers.

6. Emotional regulation. The ability to regulate and manage intense and negative emotions when appropriate is an important part of resilience. Humanitarian workers who are able to strategically use strategies related to attention control, cognitive reappraisal, and emotional expression, are more resilient. 

7. Self-awareness. Resilient humanitarian workers know themselves well – their strengths and relative weaknesses, their limits, and their needs. This self-awareness underlies their awareness of their limits.

8. Balance, and the ability to pace oneself and disconnect. Many resilient humanitarian workers appear to live by the matra, “this is a marathon, not a sprint.” They find ways to pace themselves and disconnect from their work both in the short-term and the long term.

9. Physical health. The basic building blocks of physical health – eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising – are often neglected by humanitarian workers, but without some basic level of physical health to draw upon, resilient actions and reactions become less likely.

Some of the most challenging demands that managers in humanitarian organizations face were identified as:

  • Managing others: Frequently mentioned issues included a lack of management experience to do the job required and having a lot of responsibility without the commensurate authority.
  • Being managed by others: The stress caused by constant organizational change topped this list, followed by mismatches between headquarter-office expectations and field capabilities and having a poor direct manager.
  • Workload: Too much work to do and not enough people to do it.
  • The structure of their role: Many humanitarian workers seem to relish the variety inherent in their jobs but also find it stressful to have to be wear many different hats and be adept in so many different ways.
  • Personal coping and self-care: Environmental hardships are not unexpected although still stressful, and the “place” and “pace” of the work makes it challenging to achieve a balanced lifestyle.

Some key points of influence in organizational structures and practices that can help strengthen resilience in managers in humanitarian organizations can be found in the following areas:

  1. Management practices: Frequently mentioned during interviews was the need for this topic to be a strategic priority for upper management, part of the organizational conversation in the context of a culture of affirmation, and basic good-management practices such as regular professional supervision meetings. 
  2. Role structure: More commonly than not, in this field, the scope of the role and the position expectations are such that the job is literally impossible for one person to accomplish. Realistic and clearly defined expectations, and more assistance identifying strategic priorities when needed, could go a long way to increasing the resilience of humanitarian managers. 
  3. Training and skill building: Most humanitarian workers are hungry for training and skill building opportunities, including coaching, mentoring, and career planning. Of particular importance is the need to assist people who are promoted to management positions with little or no background in management learn how to better manage others.
  4. Support services: Making psychological support services available – particularly by providers outside the organization or completely removed from a person’s line manager – was repeatedly identified as helpful.   
  5. Policies and benefits: Adequate vacation and R&R leave, and the provision of amenities in situations of shared accommodation, were identified as particularly crucial to helping humanitarian workers maintain resilience.
  6. The recruitment and handover periods: It is hard to over-estimate the importance of good recruitment and information transfer to an organization. An organization that manages to consistently identify and hire people who are already naturally resilient are going to be way ahead of the curve. In addition, good information transfer during an adequate handover period provides new staff with a critical running start in their position.

Critical questions for further discussion

A PhD (or several) could be written about each of the major topics addressed in this report. As such, the paper raises many questions that could benefit from further research and thought. The following a few of the key questions that we hope will catalyze further discussion and exploration:

  1. Is there a difference between the qualities that help make humanitarian workers resilient in the short term versus the long term?
  2. Do humanitarian workers who are highly resilient actually perform better in their role or are they mostly, rather, less stressed and/or damaged by the demands of their work?
  3. To what extent can organizational structures and practices really help build individual resilience? To what extent is it the organization’s responsibility to attempt to do so?

Resilience Research Report – The Introduction

Resilience is a defining theme of my life at present – last week’s chapter for the distance learning course I’m writing was on personal resilience and this week’s is on organizational resilience.

In April, I’ll travel to Bangkok to spend a week working with the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma as they bring together journalists from around Asia for a week. Guess what I’ll be speaking on… Yup, resilience.

And back in November I completed a research report for a very cool organization in London, People In Aid, on Building Resilient Managers in Humanitarian Organizations. That project has recently been published and is available for purchase on People In Aid’s website. Over the next two days, however, I’m going to share the introduction and the executive summary of that report on my blog.

I’ll be back later in the week with more stories to share. Perhaps they will be stories of how my mother demonstrated resilience this morning when she realized – apparently for the first time – that I was going to be home for five whole months later this year around the time the baby is due (there was only a slight gulp and a couple of seconds delay before she smiled brightly and said that it would be absolutely lovely to have me). Perhaps they will be stories of whether or not our poor pup, Zulu, demonstrates resilience when he wakes up from the anesthetic this afternoon and realizes that his testicles have vanished. Perhaps they will be speculations as to whether my bladder will ever demonstrate resilience once there’s no longer a baby in there to squish it down to the size of a lima bean (please, anyone who has been pregnant, tell me this is so).

But that is all still to come. For now, here’s the introduction I penned to the report Building resilient managers in humanitarian organizations: Strengthening key organizational structures and personal skills that promote resilience in challenging environments.

Mike doing a handstand atop Jebel Rock in South Sudan

Introduction

International humanitarian and development work has been a part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. As the child of a development worker I grew up in Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, the US, and Australia – flipping regularly between worlds of poverty and plenty. As a young forensic psychologist with a background in stress and trauma I left Australia to seek humanitarian jobs of my own in The Philippines and Croatia, and then worked for seven years as the Director of Training for a non-profit that provides psychological support services to humanitarian workers around the world. Recently I married someone who was working with a humanitarian organization in Papua New Guinea when we met. Even more recently we moved to Laos to undertake development work.

During the last twenty-five years I have met many humanitarian workers in many countries. They are, for the most part, an amazing bunch doing fascinating work.

They are people who help provide water, food, shelter, and sanitation after disasters to help reduce the shocking number of people who die during these periods from exposure, starvation, diarrhea, or disease.

They are people who advocate for change in chronic emergency situations, or who document the stories of refugees in camps who are desperate for a chance at another life. Persecution histories, these stories are called, and they are largely tales of horror and fear.

On the development end of the spectrum – they are people who work in remote communities to help develop sanitation infrastructure, or build and equip schools, or establish rice and animal banks or small businesses. All of these initiatives can raise the standard of living in poor communities and help buffer the families within those communities from the impact of unexpected challenges such as illness or drought.

Humanitarian workers do not have easy jobs, nor are they particularly safe. During the last 15 years intentional violence has become the leading cause of death for humanitarian relief and development workers in complex humanitarian emergency situations, and kidnapping is on the rise. Humanitarian workers already confronted with the realities of poverty, conflict, starvation, and disease must also face the reality that their work is dangerous. Being shot at or bombed; being assaulted, kidnapped or carjacked; being threatened at a checkpoint by a child totting a gun – in many parts of the world these are not infrequent occurrences.

Most of the humanitarian workers I know, however, don’t pinpoint this sort of danger as the most stressful aspect of their work. Most humanitarian workers who leave the developed world and head for the developing world expect (on some level, anyway) to run certain risks. Fewer expect to find environmental hassle factors such as unreliable communications and shared accommodations, or organizational challenges related to bureaucracy, management, and communication quite so frustrating and wearisome. Perhaps even fewer expect to have their fundamental ideals and beliefs about meaning and purpose challenged, reshaped, and sometimes shattered during the course of their work.

Some of those who decide to pursue humanitarian work don’t make it past two years before burning out – spent, disillusioned, or traumatized. Some people survive for much longer than that, but do it at cost to their closest relationships and while flirting (or worse) with alcoholism or other addictions. But some people genuinely seem to thrive in this line of work. They seem able to bounce relatively quickly from traumatic events that come their way, and remain passionate and committed to the work. Some even seem able to do this without sacrificing their relationships, their health, or their sanity in the process.

After years of focusing on the impact of stress and trauma, of seeing people who were not coping, I started to wonder about those who were. What, I wondered, were the qualities that helped humanitarian workers thrive? What sets apart the resilient?

Tomorrow: What were some of the key findings of this report? I’ll post the Executive Summary.