MODULE ONE | Understanding and Coping with Traumatic Stress

PART ONE | How can Humanitarian Work be Stressful?

Humanitarian work can be among the most exciting, enriching and important work in the world. It has:

  • MORAL APPEAL: It is usually service work for worthy causes.
  • PERSONAL APPEAL: Working internationally and being exposed to different cultures stretches and challenges individuals to grow.
  • ADVENTUROUS APPEAL: Humanitarian workers often serve in the midst of extreme and challenging situations.

Facing the challenges of working in the humanitarian field can be stimulating and richly rewarding, both personally and professionally. However, with rewards can come some personal costs that result from living and working in the midst of disastrous, violent situations and facing challenges that often seem overwhelming. Some of the pressures associated with humanitarian work include:

  • THREAT & VIOLENCE: Whether it is the result of natural disaster, civil conflict, or increased domestic crime, many humanitarian workers witness violence and its aftereffects, or are exposed to upsetting stories of personal tragedy.
  • SOCIAL DISLOCATION: Many humanitarian workers experience separation from their social support networks, such as friends and family.
  • CULTURAL DISLOCATION: Living and working in another country often means that new rules for communicating politely and effectively must be learned.
  • SPIRITUAL DISLOCATION: Separation from familiar religious frameworks, exposure to radically different views about spirituality and religion, and exposure to traumatic events can challenge and alter a humanitarian worker’s religious beliefs.
  • POVERTY & DEPRIVATION: Humanitarian workers often live and work in the midst of extreme poverty and its associated suffering without enough resources available to combat the problems. This can lead to feelings of impotence and being overwhelmed.
  • MORAL DILEMMAS: Humanitarian work may involve facing moral dilemmas such as negotiating with warlords, concern that aid may be prolonging a conflict, or witnessing human rights violations but being unable to respond due to operational considerations.
  • THE WORK ENVIRONMENT: Common work stressors include: interpersonal and culturally-based conflict among team members who are forced into prolonged closeness and interdependence; role ambiguity; lack of appropriate resources, personnel, time, logistical support, or skills to do the job expected; and heavy workload and long hours.

For personal reflection…

  • What do you find especially rewarding about working in the humanitarian field?
  • What do you find especially challenging (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and relationally) about working in the humanitarian field?
  • How do you find yourself reacting to some of the challenges you have listed?
© Headington Institute 2007