Learning Skills to Combat Burnout

By Emmett Fitzgerald

Aid workers who dedicate themselves to humanitarian work know the toll it can take, both mentally and physically. Isolation, distance from family, tough living conditions, insecurity and simple office politics can all create huge stress – and that is before we even consider the effects of witnessing and struggling to respond to acute humanitarian needs in the populations they are there to serve.

In tents, offices, bars and white Land Cruisers all across the world, aid workers use the word “burnout” as a catch-all to describe how they are feeling – and they are not alone. Research by the Antares Foundation showed that 30% of aid workers report problems with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress. And a 2013 study by UNHCR showed that 47% of staff experienced difficulty sleeping; 57% reported symptoms of “sadness, unhappiness, or emptiness”.

Thankfully, new approaches are being developed, to help those suffering and to create greater resilience in aid workers before they travel to the field. One such organization is now being run by a former IOM staff member who worked on earthquake response in Haiti and Nepal.

Based on a growing evidence base showing the effectiveness of meditation and yoga in reducing stress and burnout, the Garrison Institute in New York helps aid workers to stay passionate and reduce the toll which field work can take. The four day course provides a safe, calm environment for discussion in groups, as well as teaching participants about the science and psychology of stress. It helps to regulate our reactions when we understand the science of what is happening to our bodies when under chronic stress, or when experiencing traumatic events.

If you or one of your colleagues have ever suffered, currently suffer, or are in danger of suffering in future with burnout, anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress, consider if this course can be helpful.

The next course takes place just outside New York from November 9th to 13th. The course costs $1100 and scholarships are available on application. To learn more click here.


Emmett Fitzgerald is the Director for Contemplative Based Resilience Project of The Garrison Institute