A toxic culture makes work a harder place to be. But if you’re an aid worker in a warzone, a toxic culture can make work a more lethal place to be. Here, experienced therapist and humanitarian worker KRISTEN GUSKOVICT explains how organisations that send staff to dangerous places can maintain a healthy, safer culture.
In the last twenty-five years, more than two thousand aid workers have been killed, and over six thousand have been attacked. After each of these incidents, a review will have been conducted by their employer. They will have tried to learn what went wrong, and if necessary put measures in place to try and make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again.
This is of course the right thing to do. But sometimes it’s possible for these reviews to miss a piece of the puzzle. Sometimes, what goes wrong can even begin with an organisation’s culture. For example, it is possible for leadership to not spend enough time listening to their field staff. Or to not review regularly enough the complex situations in which their staff work. And on occasion, to unknowingly overwork or undervalue their staff. Each of these can ultimately put staff at greater risk.
To make sure this kind of culture doesn’t take hold, here’s seven things that an organisation should do:
Train staff on stress and how it impacts their work. When we are stressed or feel threatened, we find it harder to listen and take on new information. In a team situation, it can then become harder for people to trust each other, to make decisions, to solve problems, and to get a clear picture of what’s going on. This can place a team in greater danger. But thriving in highly stressful environments is possible, and in fact we run a training you can book on exactly this subject.
Regularly review each person’s workload. Over time, staff movement and staff turnover can result in fewer people assigned to a specific project. If a team of ten dwindles to five, can the same amount of work to the required standard get done? In the short term, perhaps yes. But the longer a team works like this, the lower their tolerance for more stress. This can reduce their safety-awareness, increase their cynicism and result in poor or unsafe decisions being made. An organisation should regularly check that staff workload is reasonable and manageable most of the time, and account for staff turnover when planning for a humanitarian response.
Have an evacuation plan for both national and international staff. Often, a team responding to a crisis is made up of both national and international staff. Each has its unique needs, and so it’s important to meet both of them in an evacuation plan. For example, national staff may have family nearby who need to be included in the plan. In a changing situation, these plans should be clearly explained and regularly included in discussions, so that staff have the information they need to continue working. Here’s our resource on staff evacuation.
Regularly review your rest and recreation (R&R) policy. In high risk places, circumstances can change quickly. But often the ‘R&R’ policy is not reviewed in light of those changes. And so it may not take into account that what may have been the safest place at one point, isn’t any longer. It may be necessary to have a different policy for each location where staff are based. And policies should be reviewed with affected staff to see if it needs to be updated or edited.
Have regular meetings between staff and supervisors. Ad hoc meetings often only happen when there is a crisis to solve, whereas weekly meetings help to decrease the possibility of a crisis occurring in the first place. These meetings can decrease stress by giving staff an expected and structured time to talk through challenges and successes and to learn. Supervisors can hear the challenges staff face, and the two can solve problems together.
Teach active listening skills. Misunderstandings result from poor communication. And misunderstandings can be deadly in a high risk environment. It’s so important to clarify information rather than assume information. Learning active listening skills can remedy this. This can also help staff to feel more connected and more trusting of each other which is essential when staff are responsible for each other’s safety.
Ensure staff have a voice in shaping policy. Sometimes decisions are made quickly at country office or HQ levels. But field staff should be part of the discussion throughout the process of planning and implementing a program. They often have the most up to date information, and so may be best placed to say whether a program can be implemented as planned. They may also have ideas about other program needs that can be considered. If you work in leadership or HR and would like to explore ways to effectively involve staff in shaping your policy, then ask us about our Culture Discovery service.
If you’d like to chat with us about the culture of your organisation, set up a call here.