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On the frontline

How to reduce work-related stress

Written by Karla Jordan 2021 Available in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese

A local member of Tearfund staff takes the thumbprint of an internally displaced person as part of a cash assistance programme in Iraq. Photo: Abigail Drane/Tearfund

A local member of Tearfund staff takes the thumbprint of an internally displaced person as part of a cash assistance programme in Iraq. Photo: Abigail Drane/Tearfund

Through hard work and determination, Festus now runs a successful business, making and selling liquid soap. Photo: Cheshire Disability Services Kenya

From: Mental health and well-being – Footsteps 113

Practical ideas to help build resilience and enhance well-being

People working with members of their own communities who have survived traumatic events are exposed to many different physical and emotional challenges.

For example:

  • They are likely to be working in difficult and dangerous situations while also trying to look after the needs of family members.
  • They have often lived/are living through the crisis situation themselves and may be suffering from trauma.
  • They may be grieving the loss of loved ones.
  • As they support other survivors and listen to their stories, they may become increasingly upset and stressed (known as ‘vicarious trauma’).

In Iraq, many of Tearfund’s national staff were survivors of the 2014 ISIS attacks and subsequent displacements. Each day they negotiated their way through military checkpoints, managed community expectations and delivered essential support services.

In recognition of the pressures they were under, Tearfund, together with a local partner, launched an initiative in 2019 to support their resilience and well-being.

The initiative had three components:

  1. Training on topics including stress, self-care, managing interpersonal stress and understanding trauma.
  2. Regular group consultations with a local therapist to help them talk through challenges including work-related stress, loss and grief.
  3. Individual consultations for staff members who needed private psychological support.

Participants reported their greatest learning to be around self-care and coping strategies. One staff member said, ‘I feel more ready to face stress. I used to avoid stress but now I know I am better at managing it at a personal level.’

Others noticed changes in behaviour in the team including improved mutual understanding, compassion and patience. ‘This kind of training is very helpful,’ said one participant. ‘It gives us space to talk to each other and understand how our colleagues are feeling.’

Vicarious trauma

Anyone who works with survivors of traumatic events such as natural disasters, war, accidents or sexual and gender-based violence can be affected by vicarious trauma. This includes church and community volunteers, development workers and health professionals.

Vicarious trauma may result in:

  • lingering feelings of anger and sadness about the person’s situation
  • distancing, numbing and detachment
  • staying busy and avoiding listening to stories of traumatic experiences.

If you are badly affected by things you see, hear or experience, it is important to talk to someone about how you are feeling. In addition, try to use self-care strategies to help you cope with the different stresses associated with your work. For example:

  • Avoid long hours at work, take regular breaks and take time off when you need to.
  • Be realistic about what you can accomplish.
  • Seek social and peer support from family members, friends and colleagues.

Written by

Written by  Karla Jordan

Karla Jordan worked as a Protection Adviser with Tearfund Iraq until early 2020.

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