How ‘mindfulness’ helps us deal with high-stress jobs

Fritzie Rodriguez

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How ‘mindfulness’ helps us deal with high-stress jobs
Humanitarian work is not easy, so how do the people who help survivors survive their own jobs?

MANILA, Philippines — Doing humanitarian work can be dehumanizing, so how do aid workers cope? 

“There are lots of cases of burnout in this sector,” said Hitendra Solanki, mindfulness and wellbeing adviser of the international humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger (ACF). 

Stress levels are high, said Solanki, due to heavy workload, tight deadlines, and organizational and management issues. “They are doing so much with limited time, money, and resources. The timescale can be inhuman,” he added.

When disasters happen one after another, aid workers and resources are also stretched.

Such scenarios apply not only for those in the field, but also those at the office.

Most humanitarian workers are exposed to hostile environments, suffering, and traumatic events. In fact, a 2011 Harvard University study found that “relief workers experience significant trauma,” possibly resulting in post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), anxiety, and depression.

Some also turn to negative coping habits like alcohol, drugs, bad relationships, and social withdrawal. (READ: Post-Yolanda, community support key to mental health)

Stress, after all, can take a toll on anyone.

In 2012, the Antares Foundation and the Center for Disease Control advised non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to alert humanitarian workers of the risks associated with the job; to provide psychological support during and after deployment; and to provide a supportive work environment, manageable workload, and recognition.

In times of conflict and disasters, humanitarian workers are always there to respond to the needs of survivors. But who takes care of them?


Even after 14 years in the humanitarian sector, Jing Pura sometimes still finds herself crushed by the nature of her work. 

“I was doing a situation report for Typhoon Yolanda. During day two, there were only 100 casualties. I slept and when I woke up, there were already 1,000. I was shocked,” shared Pura. “I wasn’t in Tacloban, I was in Manila. Imagine those who were actually there.”

“Humanitarian workers have to accept that they aren’t Superman or Wonder Woman,” Pura told Rappler, “For you to help, you need to take care of yourself first.”

Pura also emphasized the need for managers to accept their “duty of care” for their staff. “Only a few human resources departments focus on wellbeing. Mostly it’s on recruitment, salary, and organizational development,” she observed. 

This could also help retain staff, said Pura.

If humanitarian workers are healthy – not only physically but also emotionally and mentally – they become more productive and effective in their jobs. This is why mental and emotional wellbeing are important elements of disaster response. 

In 2013, the British government published a review on its humanitarian emergency response, which led to Britain’s Disaster Emergency Preparedness Program. It established the “Start Network,” a consortium of 24 NGOs focused on emergency response and civil society capacity building. 

As humanitarian workers continue to help build resilience and preparedness among communities, the question to ask, according to Solanki, is: “What are we doing as agencies to actually better support and build the resilience and preparedness of our own crisis-affected staff?”

The common practice among NGOs is to only provide treatment when the problem is already there. This needs to change, argued Solanki. “We need to shift the emphasis to prevention.” This approach supports workers to “effectively manage their own stress, anxiety, mental health and well-being,” he said.

Such preventative treatment can be done through mindfulness, said Solanki. This is also now part of Start Network’s advocacies, with a pilot project dubbed as the “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.”

In implementing the project, launched in August 2015 with Christian Aid and ACF,  Solanki led the 5-week training of 65 humanitarian workers in Manila and Tacloban.


Image from Shutterstock

But what exactly is mindfulness? (READ: Mindful eating)

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

This most commonly used definition of mindfulness is by Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor and founder at the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts.

On Thursday, September 17, Solanki conducted his final workshop before heading home to the UK. The participating humanitarian workers learned how mindfulness could be used to deal with their stress and work-related problems.

“Mindfulness is becoming self-aware of your feelings and thoughts,” explained Solanki. “It’s training the attention.” He also stressed that mindfulness is a secular approach, and can be done by anyone regardless of religion.

The more you’re self-aware, the more you’re aware of your surroundings, said Solanki, adding that mindfulness helps people know themselves better.

Possible benefits of mindfulness according to the UK Mentalh Health Foundation:
1. 70% reduction in anxiety.
2. Fewer visits to your general physician.
3. Increase in disease-fighting antibodies, suggesting an improved immune system.
4. Decrease in negative feelings like anger, tension, depression.
5. Improved physical condition.

For Pura, mindfulness can build up one’s internal strength. How? By allowing a person to recognize what they are thinking and feeling. 

“Take time to sit, step back, and process it. You don’t judge yourself for feeling those because it’s normal,” she continued. “The fact that you labeled it, you can detach from it. It helps.”

In the process, people can find insights from their own emotions.

Mindfulness can help individuals become more aware of her or his habit patterns, tendencies, and thinking process, Solanki suggested. Such awareness could help people manage stress better.

Solanki also advised not only humanitarian workers but anyone with stressful jobs to live “moment by moment,” allowing yourself to be free from the past and to stop worrying about the future.

In an exercise, participants were asked to close their eyes and to sit upright in a relaxed position. The goal was to focus on one’s breathing. Is this possible? One’s mind might wander elsewhere during those few solemn minutes. 

It is important, said Solanki, to take note of what you are thinking of. Some participants admitted wandering off to thoughts about work, deadlines, and even terror bosses.

Once distracted by such thoughts, Solanki advised the participants to return their focus on their breathing.

“Focus on the here and now,” said Solanki. “Be more attentive to the present, to being alive, and participate in it.”

For Solanki, the key lessons from mindfulness are:

  • Being aware of the workings of your mind.
  • Stay steady, but learn to stand back a little.
  • Recognize that you have choices other than slipping back to old patterns.
  • Learn to take a kinder, more gentle attitude to yourself.
  • Refine the capacity to recognize warning signals and take helpful action,
  • Put less effort in “fixing” things.
  • Focus on the “here and now.”

The idea may sound quite hippy and vague, but people in high-stress jobs like humanitarian work may find it helpful.

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