World Mental Health Day 2017

© Sarah Isaacs
Well-being can be fostered in the workplace: Yoga session at CBM's partner offices in Sierra Leone.

This year’s World Mental Health Day marks the 25th anniversary of its celebration and the theme chosen for such an occasion is mental health in the workplace. One in five people in the workplace experience a mental health condition, while stigma and discrimination makes it extremely difficult to address the situation as if it was any other health hazard.


This article is written by Dr. Carmen Valle, CBM’s Mental Health Technical Advisor.

In this article I would like to bring the attention to our own field of work, the development and humanitarian sector, as the last few years have given me the opportunity to witness the challenges experienced by colleagues in multiple organisations and I have regularly been asked about solutions, coping strategies, sources of support, etc. Adding to the regular difficulties associated with any workplace in the 21st century, our sector encounters the added stress of being involved in difficult realities, with limited resources and a very unique aim that seems to justify giving it all for a very important cause.

For this year’s World Mental Health Day (WMHD) celebrations, I am sharing a small survey of a group of professionals working in different NGOs across several continents and in different realities, both in humanitarian setting as well as in development. A small group answered the survey and this paper builds on their answers to present the realities of the field and the perceived solutions that could be applied.

The survey included some demographics and daily habits questions and some open-ended items for participants to provide their own input on the topic. But also embedded in the survey was a validated scale of burn out, so we could measure to what extent the responders were, indeed, experiencing this severe impact.

No burnout?

The first interesting result was that, for the whole group of participants, there weren’t high levels of burnout, with average 2.45 in a 5 points scale. Therefore, slightly below middle levels of the scale and pointing at a moderate level of stress and capacity to cope with it. 15% of the sample showed higher scores, indicating burnt out.
What is very interesting though, is to look into the answers to some of the specific questions in the scale and try to draw some conclusions.

When we look into questions related to excess workload, work being demanding or exhausting, feeling overwhelmed, etc., the answers show that indeed this is a reality for many of the responders, and that they do face a work environment in which the demands are high and the efforts considerable.

However all questions indicating that the person feels motivated, excited, and committed to the job, showed high scores. For example, 65% agreed and an additional 15% strongly agreed with the statement “I feel that my job makes a difference”. Less than 3% agreed with the statement “I don’t really care about the results of my work”. 47% agreed and 21% strongly agreed with the statement “My work brings me satisfaction”. 53% agreed and 15% strongly agreed with “I find joy in my work”. 44% agreed and 6% strongly agreed with “At the end of my work day, I really feel like I’ve accomplished something”.

Therefore, as it was suspected, those involved in aid work seem to be highly motivated people, committed to a job that is important for them and is believed to make a difference in the world.

Other positive aspects of the answers (that can help understanding why, as a whole the groups wasn’t highly burnt out despite the workload and stress) are those that indicated that participants felt that they had capacity to manage or influence their work, to have independence, participation in processes and also felt appreciated in what they do.

Also contributing to reduced feelings of stress and burn out, the answers to the scale indicated that the participants are aware of their own processes and do ask for support and seek help when they feel that they need it. In this regard, some open-ended questions allowed us to further explore coping mechanisms and the answers were very comprehensive of what one can do to take care of oneself.

Participants indicated a number of positive coping mechanisms, such as exercising regularly, practicing meditation, yoga and other activities that have a positive impact on well-being, socialising and doing enjoyable activities during spare time. Contacting family and loved ones and talking to them was frequently mentioned, as well as finding time to be alone or taking breaks. Some participants indicated specific techniques such as not having notifications on in their phones, trying to avoid working more than 6 days a week or 50 hours a week, or work after leaving the office (interesting that these specific comments already point at how the nature of the job is always demanding, as participants found it normal to work almost every day or more than 9 hours a day). Participants also indicated drinking, smoking, isolating or spending too much time watching TV as less healthy coping mechanisms.

Lack of institutional support

Unfortunately, what the organisations do for their workers doesn’t seem to be as clear or positive. Participants were asked: “When things get hectic and difficult, do you feel supported by your organisation?”, to which 10% answered “not at all”, 26% answered “barely”,  19% answered “I couldn’t say”, 39% “To a certain degree, yes”, and only 6% of the participants said, “definitively”. This is a reflection of the many concerns that colleagues and friends in the sector with whom I’ve informally discussed this issue have expressed to me, always with a feeling of lack of support and care that is alarming. 

The survey gave an opportunity to participants to suggest ideas for addressing this matter. Some of the ideas pointed at stronger HR policies, clarity in roles and responsibilities, better and increased communication, less work and flexible times (as well as enforcing time limits), more recognition, acknowledgement from supervisors amongst others. Some other ideas and contributions also pointed at a better understanding and acknowledgment of the importance of psycho-social support and well-being and modelling behaviour that promotes staff well-being.

It all seems to come down to a highly motivated group of professionals for whom the outcome of their jobs counterbalances all sacrifices and efforts. But let’s not be deceived by this. The reality is that the hours are too many, in challenging contexts, and the staff feels overwhelmed and tired. It is the responsibility of NGOs and other agencies to provide the same level of care and support for mental health and well-being than for any other aspect of the integral welfare of the staff, for themselves and those we serve. This year’s WMHD theme gives us all a great opportunity to look inside our organisations and plan for better care for all.


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