Staff and volunteers assisting children in emergencies are exposed to many difficult situations. They are exposed to loss, traumatic events, exploitation, abuse, and even death. Staff and volunteers will be confronted with children who have immense needs that they are unable to meet. They provide support and comfort to grieving children. The work can be physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting. Many of those assisting children in emergencies belong to the affected community and have experienced their own losses and difficulties. As members of the community, their work assisting children often extends long beyond the assigned work hours. The demands placed on individuals assisting children in emergencies can be immense, and far outweigh the capacity of the individual or the group providing assistance. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy or volunteers over-extending themselves in an effort to care for others.
When should we provide psychosocial support for staff and volunteers?
Psychosocial support for staff and volunteers should be used by any organization working with children in emergencies. It should be a part of any program, regardless of who is implementing. Priortizing staff wellbeing is a critical component of any emergency programming, especially when working with children. Staff and volunteers are only able to appropriately and effectively serve children if they themselves are able to positively cope using healthy strategies.
Psychosocial support for staff and volunteers working with children in emergencies must be supported with Human Resources, trainings and support. There are not significant material inputs needed, but allocating time for these projects is essential.
Why should we provide psychosocial support for staff and volunteers?
It is critical to care for the wellbeing of staff and volunteers assisting children in emergencies. There are four critical risks to the psychosocial wellbeing of staff and volunteers assisting children in emergencies:
1. Exposure to traumatic events and stories:
Staff and volunteers may have personal experiences with traumatic events. All staff and volunteers are exposed to traumatic events through the children they serve and can experience psychosocial distress as a result of repeated exposure to the distressing experiences of others. As people who work on the frontlines of crisis, many staff and volunteers are also coping with their own fears and challenges while also assisting others.
2. Unrealistic Expectations:
Many staff and volunteers are unprepared for the difficulties of working with children in emergencies. Some are surprised by their own emotional response, and feel like they need cannot admit to their supervisors if they are struggling to cope. Compassion and empathy often drive individuals to work tirelessly and not practice healthy boundaries or self-care. Staff and volunteers often feel like they should be able to meet all the needs they encounter. When they are unable to meet these immense needs, they may feel frustration, inadequacy, and guilt. As helpers, staff and volunteers are often surprised when the community directs anger and frustrated over unmet needs towards them. Staff and volunteers need to be prepared for the various challenges, needs, and emotions that they will be confronted with while working with children in emergencies.
3. Working Conditions:
Staff and volunteers are often working in difficult conditions, which can result in chronic stress. If they members of the affected community, they might be living in harsh conditions. Many staff and volunteers put in long hours and do work that requires significant emotional, physical and mental effort.
4. Organizational Issues:
Staff and volunteers encounter many stressors, and the support or lack of support from their organization has a significant impact on their wellbeing. Organizations can push individuals to have unhealthy boundaries, not take appropriate time off, provide minimal or no support, and not sufficiently train and prepare staff and volunteers. This can lead to staff and volunteers feeling undervalued or even abused.
These four risks, if not addressed, can lead to staff and volunteers becoming exhausted and unable to work. However, if properly supported, staff and volunteers are resilient to the challenges they face and able to live healthy and productive professional and personal lives. Providing psychosocial support to staff and volunteers is a simple intervention with significant benefit to individuals and to organizations. Better support to staff results in better service provision, improved staff retention, and healthier organizations.
How to provide psychosocial support for staff and volunteers
The first step to setting up this program is to develop internal policies that promote staff care. This should include appropriate leave allocations, definition of roles and responsibilities, and sessions to inform staff and volunteers about the value of staff wellbeing for the organization. The second step is to develop strategies for ensuring that policies are implemented and staff-care is prioritized. This should include making staff-care part of every supervisor’s job description. There should be regular staff and volunteer meetings that include a psychosocial support component. Trainings and events to promote self-care are encouraged.
Psychosocial support to staff and volunteers should be accomplished through a 3-pronged approach:
- Job Training and Preparation: Organizations should train and prepare staff that are working with children in emergencies. This includes training on how to do the job, but also preparing staff and volunteers for the realities of working in an environment where they will not be able to meet all the needs they encounter.
- Training on Self-Care and Recognizing Signs of Stress: Staff and volunteers should receive training on self-care, including how to recognize and manage stress. Organizations should encourage staff to speak up if they are struggling, and emphasize that this understood and accepted.
- Organizational Policies that Promote Self-Care and Create a Supportive Environment:
- Organizations should have policies in place that promote self-care, including appropriate leave allocations, self-care plans, and reinforcement of the importance of healthy boundaries. Developed and disseminated internal support strategies will help to ensure that policies and systems are put into practice by staff and volunteers.
- Promoting an environment that encourages staff and volunteers to seek help if it is needed. This is not a negative reflection on that individual, but rather a positive reflection of one’s own ability to recognize and address stress.
- Leadership and management that promotes teamwork and caring for one another. This has to be done at a management level, otherwise staff and volunteers do not feel safe to come forward about the struggles they are facing, which can lead to overwork and burnout.
Monitoring and Evaluation
- Policies and strategies for self-care are established and known by staff
- # of training sessions on self-care and psychosocial support for staff
- # of events held to promote staff and volunteer wellbeing
- Survey of staff and volunteer wellbeing conducted
- % of staff feeling supported and cared for by the organization
- Change in % of staff and volunteers that are aware of positive coping strategies
Additional tools and resources
- ICRC, Caring for Volunteers: A psychosocial support toolkit
- Antares Foundation (2005) Managing Stress in Humanitarian Workers
Additional tools and resources for psychosocial support for staff and volunteers working with children are here