(This article was originally written for The Guardian and can be found online here:
Preparing staff for international work can be a daunting prospect. This is particularly the case for small charities working to a tight budget. Yet adequate preparation is vital. Without it, workers are less likely to achieve their organisation’s objectives and their personal well-being is put at risk.
Working overseas can be stressful and traumatic. A recent report from the Antares Foundation states that 30% of aid workers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both culture shock and burnout are linked to PTSD and can develop into the syndrome if not tackled early on.
While burnout tends to be linked to the stressful nature of the job, culture shock is anxiety brought on by abrupt exposure to an unfamiliar culture and the loss of “familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse“, says Dr Lalervo Oberg. However, the one thing that all three conditions have in common is the potential to be mitigated through proper preparation and support.
Provide specific cultural knowledge and training
These problems can be avoided by providing a comprehensive orientation programme. At Conversations with Foreigners in Cambodia, we have found running language classes and providing lessons on Cambodian history and traditions helps our volunteers to successfully settle into their new roles.
Such training is useful because it helps to plug a knowledge gap – often the result of leaving behind a familiar culture where we know the social rules and cues, for an alien one where we don’t. Staff’s performance is higher if they work in a context where they understand the cultural norms and they are also likely to find the experience less stressful.
Develop online support hubs
It is easy to provide online support networks for free through social media sites such as Facebook. Prior to deployment, it can be helpful for organisations to run an online Q&A session so that international workers can air any concerns. Creating such an interactive online space is beneficial because staff can exchange opinions and advice, as well as make contacts before they leave home. Moreover, the hub can act as a support resource as workers depart their home country, arrive in the new one, and provides a familiar and reassuring point of reference during their time abroad.
Utilise external support networks within the international aid community
An increasing awareness of burnout, culture shock and PTSD have led to a growth in international aid support networks. Networks such asWhyDev’s peer coaching scheme, which is due to launch this year, are inexpensive and designed to appeal to small and large charities alike. Providing staff members with this kind of mentoring is a valuable way of preparing them for the challenges of their imminent job role.
Advance knowledge of where to find advice on technical issues is another crucial tool for aid workers. Point them in the direction of networks such as the RedR Technical Support Service, for instance. This is a free advice network for aid organisations and relief workers in the field and is made up of a panel of experts in topics including water, sanitation, hygiene and security. Tapping into external support networks can be a particularly useful tool for smaller charities that often lack the resources to provide as much support and technical advice as they would like.
Don’t forget the nitty gritty…
It may sound obvious, but it’s essential to make sure you thoroughly research and arrange for the appropriate visas, work permits, risk assessment, insurance and vaccinations. People in Aid provides a range of resources to help ensure good practice in people management. Another great organisation, Interhealth, specialises in healthcare for international aid workers. Getting the initial organisational details right can go a long way to minimise unnecessary stress. In the long run, this will enable staff to focus on the task in hand and successfully help to fulfil their charity’s objectives.
By Eleanor Paton. This article was originally written for The Guardian and can be found online here:
Image from www.geology.com