Photo Credit: snogglethorpe via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: snogglethorpe via Compfight cc

I grew up in the aid business, with my mother, a public health practitioner, talking about under-five mortality and diarrhoeal disease at the dinner table. “Mo-om,” I’d whine, getting grossed out. The worst was when I was eleven in Kenya. She helped spearhead a national HIV and condom awareness campaign and wore t-shirts advertising condoms all the time. The embarassment.

Now, it’s all good. I credit both my parents for instilling in me strong attitudes of service and social justice. I followed in my mother’s footsteps and got an MPH. I even “borrowed” one of those condom t-shirts and now think it’s cool.

But I’ve noticed something that my parents didn’t tell me, and that they didn’t tell me during my aid worker interview, either. The aid business is tough. I’m dealing with disparities all the time, and by “disparities” I mean people who are unfathomably poorer and who have a much, much more difficult life than I do. In my work, I try to help, make a difference, alleviate suffering, achieve the MDGs…Whatever name I give it, I’m trying to do something that goes beyond my job description and directly to my heart.

That’s where it gets tough. Because I see others who have gone before me and, in the conventional sense of the word, succeeded. They run their own NGOs and get lots of funding from big donors. The media quote them as experts whenever a crisis hits.

But when I meet them, they’re cranky, intimidating and sometimes mean. They flaunt their experience over my idealism and tell me that I can’t possibly understand the local situation, I’m too hopeful. They tell me not to worry, in a few years, I’ll be just like them. Not if I can help it.

That’s why I’ve identified three things that I can recognize and act on, now, to help me go down a different road, one that feeds my hope of bettering the world, but that doesn’t deny that sometimes this work feels really, really hard.

1. The work I do is service.

There’s a big difference between service and work. Work is force multiplied by distance, or something done in a factory. Service cannot be separated from my humanity. In fact, service cannot be separated from me.

When I work, I’m putting in effort and expecting a reward. I’m updating a spreadsheet, or finishing up a PowerPoint for Monday’s meeting. Work is hard and I’m not expected to enjoy it.

Service is different. It acknowledges relationships, implies humility and does not prioritize reward. Service is meeting a new community leader face to face when an email would’ve been more efficient, or showing one of our project teachers how to check their email. Service is work, and although it might not be in my job description, it always comes from the heart.

When I say that service doesn’t seek reward, I don’t mean that aid workers shouldn’t be paid for the work we do. I’m saying that if I see my work as service, financial compensation becomes secondary to reaching out and making peoples’ lives better. I’m not looking for an award or a raise, but I do want to see life get a little better for someone.

Recognizing aid work as being of service instills a deep sense of purpose to what I do. If aid work was just working at a “normal” office, why not be back where the power never goes off and I can drink from the tap? (Except, I also really like it here.)

2. Service work requires emotional labor.

In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin writes about emotional labor and its high value in a post-factory world. I see emotional labor as the skills and interactions that make us human–the creativity, the empathy and the innovation.

Service work involves emotional labor all the time. When I stop to say hi to a community member in Robertsport even though I’d rather hide in my hammock, when I mediate a dispute between Co-op members, or when I motivate a teacher in my project to try a new teaching method, I’m doing emotional work. I’m using my skills as a human being to connect to another human being. That connection takes patience, empathy and effort, and it’s always worth it.

The alternative: shutting down and going through the motions, resenting everybody I work with–and for. The alternative to not doing the emotional work? Burn out.

3. Emotional labor requires rest.

When I see service work for the emotional labor that it is , I understand why I get so exhausted. The more people I connect with, the greater my need for serious down time.

Relaxation means different things for each of us, but in the lifestyle of a healthy, happy aid worker, it involves things that relax and renew our bodies, minds and spirits. Going out for beers on the beach may be fun and a great way to connect with our friends, but it’s not necessarily relaxing in the deepest, restorative sense that I mean.

Over the years, I’ve discovered how to relax efficiently every day, even when all I have is a few minutes before falling, exhausted, into bed at night. I’ll be writing more about this in upcoming posts, so be sure to sign up for free email or RSS updates so you don’t miss anything.

If you liked this post, I’d be grateful if you shared it with anyone you think might benefit!

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9 Responses to 3 things that separate the good aid workers from the burn-outs

  1. Nivedita Das says:

    Elie~ I just finished a participatory action research year….it was a defining moment for me… reaching a level of ’emotional awareness’ is not an easy task…it takes conscious daily practice…it is not for the faint of heart…and at the same time it is the only thing that can lead to inclusive development…I think it is truly remarkable that you can see this in yourself…and not trivially so…in my opinion the reality is that most go through the motions of doing work, or are engaging in service but are not open enough to share these trials…so Bravo!

    • Thanks, Nivedita. I’m with you about the daily practice. I use a couple of tools to keep myself resourced and able to show up to hold that space for emotional labor. I’ll be sharing them here in the future. Thanks for the feedback!

  2. Elie, Your reflections are spot on. In my 35 years of international development consulting, I have found that the people and projects with the most positive impact continually produce not only practical results but also positive vibes. Keep the faith!
    Lucie Phillips, CEO, IBI International

  3. Sebastian says:

    Thanks a lot Elie! A great piece and I will recommend it as reading for people before they apply…

    From where I can see it, some people walk so utterly unprepared into development situations that they wreck a lot of havoc for the local community, themselves and their families. Thanks again (and am looking forward to the relaxation post)

    • Thanks for your comment, Sesbatian. I’m looking forward to the relaxation post too! The way I see it, it’s so essential that it might deserve its own emagazine issue…

  4. Alessandra says:

    This post is excellent and I noticed you comment on the experienced humanitarian professionals who sadly often become cynical, you say ‘cranky, intimidating and sometimes mean’. That’s suffering for you in the aid world, where showing vulnerabilities is not on (yet). There may be a new awareness developing though, I invite you to have a look at the vibrant discussion that is taking place in the Humanitarian Professionals group on LinkedIn on being psychologically prepared for the field.

  5. An excellent piece Elie. How sad to become so jaded doing much-needed work of service: not sure whether to laud them for continuing doing tough stuff or wish they’d do themselves a favor and retire/rejuvenate/reinvent. I think you’ve hit on the key to avoiding cynicism and burnout: remaining positive about the service you are doing while respecting your physical, mental and emotional health.

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