Burnout and Self-Care in the Humanitarian Field

Have you ever started a new project, job or experience with a lot of enthusiasm, excitement and the confidence that you will change the universe and restore world peace?

You were creative, attentive, pro-active and took all the humanly possible initiatives to make the project work, seize more opportunities and prove yourself invaluable in the workplace.

After a while, you started to change. You gradually lost your motivation. You started feeling more and more tired. You became somewhat pessimistic, as if nothing you do would make an impact. You became cynical and hypersensitive at the same time. Hello burnout!

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. Burnout is an inseparable companion in any humanitarian worker’s life. And although we do not always realize it, burnout actually happens much more often than we ever think.

Why do we burn out in the first place?

You do not just wake up one day feeling burned out; it’s rather a gradual process. Every time we neglect taking care of ourselves in the simplest ways, we automatically head towards exhaustion, be it emotional or physical. Take your phone battery as an example. It doesn’t just die out of a sudden. You consume it gradually until it’s very low and the phone dies. The exact same thing happens with your battery, unless you know how to use it wisely and, most importantly, how to recharge it.

Some habits and actions have a “charging the batteries” or an energizing effect on us. Other habits have a “discharging the batteries” or draining or exhausting effect. Integrating energizing habits and actions into our everyday lives is part of self-care. These are my personal tips on how I practice self-care.

1) Set clear boundaries:

Not so long ago (and by not so long I mean I might be still guilty of doing it at the moment), I used to not only take on everything I was asked to do but I would also volunteer to take on more tasks that were not even in my job description.

You need someone to visit and assess the new camp? I’ll go.

No other expat wants to go to the field because it’s a war zone and they have a target on their back? Put me on a plane right now.

We need the weekly report but the person in charge is on leave and didn’t bother giving a handover? Sure, I’ll add that to my endless to-do list.

Someone needs to prepare the cash distribution list and no one is around because everybody resigned? No worries, I’ll do the financial projections, me who uses a calculator to know what 5x20 is.

When I first started my career, I wanted to do literally everything. RSD, Child Protection, GBV, CBP, MHPSS, you name it.. I even did translation and interpretation at some point because why else would I speak Arabic if I couldn't put it to good use, right? But sooner rather than later, I realized it was not humanly possible in this career to be the one person who does everything even if you want to, because you will soon get burnt out and helping others will not be an option until you could help yourself first.

And just like that, you blur all the boundaries you have around you and you make it clear for everybody in your work environment that you are always the one willing to go over and beyond to get the job done, even if it means adding unnecessary commitments and stress factors. You might be doing it because you’re genuinely motivated and excited about a new job, or because you’re on probation and you want to prove somehow that you are flexible and a team player and all the nice words you usually read in every cover letter. But what you are actually doing is taking one more step towards exhaustion, disinterest and disconnection. And in no time, with the accumulated deadlines and the stress of never being able to finish your tasks, you are burned out.

What can you do about boundaries?

First of all, you can’t set boundaries at work or with other people if you don’t really acknowledge them yourself. Take your time to understand the scope of your support at work. Assess all the tasks you are currently undertaking and try to decide whether you are doing this because it is your job or just because someone else didn’t want to take it on so you volunteered. Perhaps your manager gave you a task to do while you don’t really have experience in that just because he/she is busy or because the deadline is in 2 days. Or maybe they just gave you that task because you did not say no, as simple as that.

Assess all your tasks at work, see what you can realistically be doing and then learn to say no. Say no not because you don’t want to help the team but because you’d rather help yourself first so you’re able to support the organization longer and better.

2) Take breaks regularly:

We all have that one colleague who boasts about working non-stop and not taking breaks during working hours, or another who is working on Christmas, Easter, during weekends and never uses his annual leave. In my case, that colleague was me, minus the boasting. Just like I used to take on all the tasks of the office and beyond, I would be the first to arrive in the office or camp and the last to leave. My lunchbox would sometimes stay in the office fridge for days because a lunch break was a foreign concept to me. And I would always be on call on weekends and office holidays “just in case”.

If you know me even a little, you’d know how addicted I am to travel. And yet, I wouldn’t take my annual leave and go on refreshing vacations like I would be advising you to do in the next few lines. I actually considered traveling to field locations, refugee camps in the middle of nowhere and the occasional regional office visit in another country enough “vacations” for me since I was seeing a new place, meeting new people and sleeping on a new bed. Isn’t that what vacations are about after all?

As I said earlier, burnout doesn’t happen overnight. We just let ourselves go and get immersed in the workload and the mess of this world that we’re trying to address and then boom, you’re drained. When you don’t take regular breaks, I realized, it doesn’t make you any better as an employee. It doesn’t mean you are more dedicated to the cause or more resilient to the atrocities of the world we work in. Why? Because rarely anyone notices. Let’s be honest. A good manager, for instance, would be the one following up on his/her team’s wellbeing and making sure they’re all cared for, including taking their leave. But this is quite rare to find. I had both to be honest. I had a manager who would literally harass me to go on leave quite regularly, even for a couple of days. And then I had one who, when I do finally go on leave, would harass me during my holidays asking for this or that.

Bottom line is, it’s important to give yourself a break from time to time before you get to a point where you’re too exhausted to even do that. This last June, I was supposed to go on leave for the first time in about a year. I booked a super nice holiday to the Kenyan coast but not a single cell inside me was excited about it. It felt like absolutely nothing. I was too exhausted mentally and physically to even anticipate a long-awaited holiday. Please do not try this at home! Have your lunch breaks, chit-chat with your colleagues about your nail salon lady or your neighbor’s new pet and take regular leaves and go far far away so you can come back stronger, fresher and more energized to help the communities we serve.

3) Engage in your hobbies:

Speaking of travel, I believe any other kind of hobby can serve as a mental break from everything around you. Hobbies are activities that you genuinely enjoy doing, not because your parents forced you to engage in them as a child (or perhaps they did, I’ve seen worse), not because you want to gain money through them, but just because you simply feel good. And that’s sometimes enough to take your mind off of the horrible things you see every day in the field or the crazy workload you have waiting for you in the morning.

I met many colleagues who would go hiking on the weekend. And although that is something I personally wouldn’t do even if my life depended on it, I understand how physical activities can make one feel refreshed, energized and just sane, physically and mentally!

I used to play a lot of music before I started moving around quite often. My guitar just looked too bulky to take around everywhere and airlines rules to carry music instruments seem to cost an arm and a leg. So I just stopped for a while. I miraculously managed to obtain my music therapy diploma without a music instrument. And whenever I missed music, I would just use my other instrument: my vocal chords. That was until very recently when I realized that, trapped in a war zone with destroyed airports thus the inability to travel, I needed to do something else to distract myself and just feel saner. That’s when I got a new Ukulele and fooled myself into thinking it’s my travel sized guitar. Takes almost the same skills to play, super travel friendly and no additional cost on planes; I’m a genius!

Know what makes you feel good about yourself and the world, what makes you feel alive when you’re almost mentally absent from this world. And do it more and more often. That’s what self-care actually means.

4) Avoid procrastination:

This is quite a tricky point. Self-care means you should realize when you are not mentally ready to do something or when you need time for yourself, which in turn means you should put aside a task for a while if you feel like it will just add to your stress. However, it also means you shouldn’t be pushing away all your responsibilities with the excuse that you are not ready, until you wake up one day with a million tasks to finish in 2 days.

I’ve always been guilty of procrastinating to be quite frank. But then again I also work better under pressure most of the time. This doesn’t mean it is the practice to adopt. Procrastinating and keeping things to the last minute is more often than not what leads to burnout. When you come to the office one day and realize each department is awaiting a separate report from you by the end of the week, you have an important meeting with local actors today and your boss is expecting you to take over him/her pending tasks during his/her anniversary trip to Johannesburg, that can only drain your battery faster.

5) Build a support system:

Here comes the tricky one (at least for me). Having a support system for when you are feeling overwhelmed at work or in life in general is sort of your lifejacket that would keep you afloat when you’re almost drowning. We sometimes lose ourselves in the work we do with the hope of helping humanity to the point where we neglect the occasional help we also need to receive from people who care about us.

Now here where it gets challenging for me. How do I build or keep a support system in my life when I don’t even stay in one place long enough to do so? This is a story for another day but w

hat I can tell you is you don’t have to have a permanent support system for every single stage of your life. It’s true that your support system can be your family, your childhood friends back home or your partner waiting for you at your base. But it can also be the temporary connections you make along the way. I don’t believe in a lot of things but I do believe we meet people for a reason. And if that reason is to be my support system for the few months or couple of years I’m spending at a certain place, so be it.

So whoever makes your support system, talk to them. Reach out for help, for advice. It is very easy to miss that call or forget to reply to that text from last week when we are overwhelmed with endless paperwork or nightmarish deadlines or living in the midst of a civil war. But once you realize how much of a self-care activity it is to spend time with loved ones, you’ll thank me.

6) Take time for yourself:

Did I just say it’s a self-care activity to spend time with loved ones? Well, I cannot stress this enough but spending time with yourself away from every other human is also as important. We all react to stress and burnout differently but I personally choose to take time for myself, disconnect from all source of stress or toxicity and just recharge to come back stronger.

If that is also something you think would make you feel better or prevent burnout, then you do you! Do not let anyone make you feel bad about disconnecting or “disappearing” or being “selfish”. Always remember what they tell you on the airplane, that in case of an emergency you need to put YOUR oxygen mask first before you rush to help anyone else.

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