Dealing with human suffering and an exhausting schedule often leaves many development workers burnt out. This simple meditation technique could help
In efforts to alleviate the suffering of others affected by natural disasters, emergencies and poverty, development workers pay a price: that suffering can often become our own. It can take the form of stress, anxiety, depression and more severe forms of mental distress. Mostly it remains unannounced to the world, or even to ourselves, until it manifests in a manner beyond our control. There is no media campaign or emergency appeal for our crisis. The Disasters Emergency Committee will not be advertising our crisis on the tube. It remains private; most will ensure that it remains so.
This need for privacy about one’s mental health is not surprising. Many humanitarian workers in the field work together, live together and socialise together. Given the real and perceived stigma around mental illness, it is understandable that many don’t want to share their troubles. Cue negative coping strategies, such as alcohol, drugs and social withdrawal. Burnout not only leads to severe personal distress, but the implications on the effectiveness of aid organisations and programme delivery are a significant cause for concern.
Mindfulness is a simple approach that supports humanitarian workers to monitor and manage their own stress effectively. It is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed a stress-reduction course based on Buddhist meditation techniques in the late 1970s, as “paying attention on purpose moment by moment without judging”. By doing this, we can learn to become aware of what is going on in our own mind and body. Learning to be aware of our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations without self-criticism allows us to accept our experiences as they are, rather than how we want them to be. This includes painful emotions, so that over time we respond skillfully to them, instead of reacting through the autopilot of our habits and conditioning.
More than three decades of scientific research around the world has demonstrated that mindfulness-based stress reduction can positively, effectively, and often profoundly, reduce psychological distress. Additionally, such stress reduction and workplace studies have indicated that staff become more resilient, productive and happier. Not bad for a simple age-old meditation technique.
We know we have arrived if we make it on to the cover of Time magazine, and that’s exactly what happened to mindfulness last month. The February edition featured an article, entitled The Mindful Revolution, which explored the history, science and the explosion of mindfulness into the mainstream, highlighting how it has been welcomed into schools, hospitals, prisons and corporations such as Google, as well as on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon. Mindfulness is no longer confined to the fringes, but has blossomed into the mainstream.
Development agencies are joining the revolution. Over the last three years, I have led mindfulness workshops at Action Against Hunger UK, as well as at our regional training centre in Nairobi and at Save the Children’s compound at the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. From these experiences, I can see the need for using mindfulness to help overworked, stressed and sometimes depressed or traumatised humanitarian workers.
And there are signs the approach is being adopted more widely. The Start Network consortium of British humanitarian agencies is including mindfulness training in the surge capacity project which plans how many organisations can work together during major emergencies. Mindfulness training for staff (pre-deployment, remotely via Skype while in the field and post-mission) will provide a cost-effective way to manage stress, cope with anxiety, build resilience and increase workers’ sense of wellbeing. This is the beginning of an important shift in how we support aid workers. More resilient, happier and mindful personnel will make our organisations more effective so our projects deliver greater positive impacts.
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