We aid workers have picked a hard job. Chances are you had plenty of options to take an easier path, and at various junctures throughout your career you were offered opportunities to live someplace more comfortable and closer to family and friends, jobs with less stress and bureaucracy, or a chance to do something else entirely — but you didn’t take it.

I’m guessing, if you’re like me, that’s because you’re committed to making a difference in the world where it matters most, starting with where there is the most inequality, injustice and suffering. And that’s awesome.

The Challenges of Aid Work

But all of this doesn’t make for an easy day-to-day, and the stresses of an aid worker lifestyle over time can cause severe physical, emotional and mental health issues.

Impossible workloads and deadlines mean we work long hours, often taking our work home in the evenings and heading into the office on weekends just to keep afloat, especially if others in our office do the same. Even if we’re pretty good about work-life boundaries, do you check email on your phone before heading to sleep at night, feeling pressured to respond to things that “just can’t wait”?

All of this leaves less and less time for exercise, self-care and the necessary down-time for relaxing that allows our body to restore and replenish itself to meet future stresses that are headed our way.

Twice-a-year visits back home to see beloved family and friends are usually the most we can manage, if we’re lucky, and even with social media and Skype, it’s hard to maintain quality connections over distance and time. When we do visit, all that we’ve missed by choosing to do the work that we do becomes painfully apparent. Even my aid worker parents and third-culture sister regularly ask me to move “closer to home,” conveniently forgetting that my childhood homes were in India, Kenya and Egypt — not the U.S.

Emotional isolation is easily internalized as a normal part of being an aid worker. Then there’s the stress of coping at emergency duty stations in post-conflict or humanitarian emergencies, where the turnover of friends and colleagues is ruthlessly high. In these contexts, experiencing episodes of vicarious trauma, extreme stress and PTSD is so frequent that I suspect it’s less of an exception and more the rule.

Globally, the rates of depression, anxiety and stress are rising and in terms of mental health, aid workers fare worse than most. We know that strong social support systems go a long way towards catching mental health issues before they become serious. But it’s all too easy to hide our depression behind a facade of overwork, to isolate in a new community instead of addressing our anxiety, or to give in to negative feedback loops of stress when we don’t have long-term friends who are comfortable calling us on our patterns and helping us out. Even when we do make friends, we’re often reluctant to share mental health concerns with them because of how we might be perceived and how it could affect the early friendship.

Aid work is an inherently lonely business.

Jobs in aid work are fiercely competitive and asking for help is still considered a sign of professional weakness; in small communities word can travel fast about how you “just can’t cut it,” implying, by comparison, that others can. Aid organizations are just starting to wake up to the idea that a post-deployment session with a counselor doesn’t constitute a holistic staff wellness program, but aid workers who ask for more are still far too often shown the door or reminded how easily they could be replaced.

It’s a cut-throat business, underneath the lofty missions and the glow of Sustainable Development Goals. Add the increased likelihood of inadequate health care exacerbating any health emergencies, higher rates of violence crime and sexual assault, and the overall wear-and-tear of negotiating logistics, foreign languages and cultures, and the intricacies of your job, and it’s no wonder we’re more prone to burn-out. In fact, it’s a small miracle most of us aren’t more burned out, bitter and cynical than we already are.

Not to mention corruption, nepotism, misogyny, racism…the list goes on.

There’s one more challenge that is unique to us here at Expat Backup, that we’re actively trying to work ourselves out of a job in an industry where it’s all to easy to forget that. Those of us in this community are committed to seeing this through, in our lifetime, because it is possible to solve poverty and the other global grand challenges. Over almost two years of leading the Wellness program at Singularity University’s Global Solutions Program and now their Executive Programs, I concretely know that to be true.

But especially in large organizations, my guess is that you’ve noticed what happens when you innovate to make things more effective or try, from the inside, to create change. The organization’s antibodies, fiercely committed to protecting the status quo, come after you with everything they’ve got.

I work in ICT4D and I encounter organizational responses to disruption all the time. I’ll be writing about how to lead change from within in a future post, but for now, I want to share that those of us who care deeply about transforming the world we live in aren’t necessarily surrounded by kindred spirits in our organizations. What’s probably already obvious is that this can create something of a multiplier effect when it comes to stress.

Maybe you think I’m being a little harsh, but don’t forget that much of aid is (perhaps unconsciously) modeled on colonialism and that, upon close examination, it tends to make the world a better place not for the poorest of the poor, but for the multinational companies who are eager to sell things to them or eager to export their commodities for rock bottom prices. Getting clearer on our part in the big picture with compassionate awareness can be helpful for sorting out what is what with a minimum of blame, guilt and shame. In western culture, our earliest models of aid involved missionaries “civilizing” people they perceived as sub-human, by introducing the free market and Christianity, and although we’ve come a long way from that (or most of us hopefully have), we still have a long way to go.

All of this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be an aid worker or that your job is impossible. And although it might seem challenging to thrive in this environment, we can. It’s more and more necessary, given increasing pressure and compounding stress, to figure out how.

Taking a Stand for Your Well-Being

My guess is, since you’re reading this, you have what is called a “growth mindset” around some areas of your life — the ability to take on challenges and tackle them with effort and a can-do attitude that reminds you that “everything is figure-out-able.” Often, growth mindsets can apply to our work, our goals and dreams, but not necessarily to our health, relationships or happiness.

A growth mindset in one place in your life is often matched with a lingering fixed mindset in another (no worries, we’ll be exploring this soon in an upcoming post as well). What this means is that you can be passionately committed to solving global challenges in your aid work but think that improving your health and well-being is somehow out of your control.

Believing that wellness is possible for you and taking steps to achieve it, is a creative and transformative act, one that creates a ripple of outward benefits that impact not just you, but your professional and personal relationships, and even your community. But often, we stop ourselves in our tracks before we’ve even given ourselves a chance of getting started, when our fixed mindset about all the things we “can’t” do kicks in. I’m here to remind you that wellbeing is possible, and not just possible, but available to you, right here, right now.

You’re probably familiar with the Marianne Williamson quote that Mandela made famous: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. … We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? … Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

It calls us to give ourselves permission to thrive in all areas of our life, to claim the health and happiness that is possible for you in the present moment, no matter where you are or what challenges you are facing.”

This is what I mean by the “audacity of well-being.” It is the ability to face the challenges and imperfections of the world we live in with serenity and even joy, embodied in our power and presence, and comfortable in our bodies, minds, hearts and spirits. This is what we’re up to at Expat Backup, because it’s possible – and necessary – to change the world without sacrificing our health or happiness.

Only you can claim well-being as something that is possible for you. It’s entirely your choice, whether to be bold and audacious with this aspect of your life. But you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and I’m here to support you every step of the way.

We’ve got a big year ahead at Expat Backup, and I’m so excited to have you along for the journey.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it with another aid worker whose health and happiness you care about. To join our community of changemakers (and to make sure not to miss anything), sign up here. And if please reach out to me to share your thoughts and experiences by sending me an email at elie@expatbackup.com.

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