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Good News We Learned From You, Humanitarians
photo: Amunga Eshuchi
by
Aaron Rosales
on
March 8, 2018
| Resilience | Trauma & Critical Incidents |

Going into the field as a humanitarian aid worker is risky.

At the Headington Institute we know this from talking with you, but also from the data. Looking at a subset of our most recent survey data from roughly 700 global aid workers we see that aid workers experience an average of one critical incident per year. Of course, some people are experiencing none at all. However, choosing to be where the need is most often gets bundled with exposure to violence, including critical incidents that threaten aid workers’ safety or integrity. Our data indicates that for most humanitarian aid workers, it is not a matter of if but of when.

In some cases, exposure to critical incidents results in disruptive stress symptoms like intrusive thoughts/flashbacks, avoiding everyday things that nevertheless remind people of the event, irritable mood, and poor sleep. In our data, the number of critical incidents that aid workers experienced significantly predicted the amount of stress symptoms that they reported. These difficulties often feel debilitating and can undermine the good work that aid workers are committed to.

That’s the bad news.

However, our preliminary research findings point us to some good news about what can help aid workers reduce the likelihood and severity of these stress symptoms even in the face of extremely challenging experiences.

First, daily routines and health habits play a significant role in keeping aid workers well. These habits include things like getting good sleep, routine exercise, eating healthily, regular social interactions, and having opportunities to talk about emotions. Health habits like these not only improve our wellbeing but also reduce our vulnerability to stress. Aid workers with strong health habits had significantly fewer stress symptoms even after accounting for the number of critical incidents they reported.

Second, building broad-based resilience seems to protect against disruptive stress symptoms for humanitarian aid workers. Using our Headington Institute Resilience Inventory (HIRI), we have found that aid workers with stronger endorsement of resilience factors also score lower on PTSD measures, even when they have the same level of exposure to critical incidents. Although this data doesn’t allow us to prove cause and effect, it is clear that the HIRI is tapping into critical dimensions of resilience that are associated with reduced stress problems. What is remarkable is that these resilience factors are able to predict lower stress symptoms above and beyond the typical vulnerability to stress that our daily routines and health habits determine.

While our sight is set on new research that will be able to help us make stronger claims about the protective role of resilience, these emerging insights give us confidence that resilience across the key 7 domains that the HIRI measures are tightly linked with humanitarian aid worker wellbeing—even in the most challenging contexts.

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