Improving staff wellness for humanitarian effectiveness

Humanitarian effectiveness and accountability in humanitarian response have received a great deal of attention in recent years. However, despite considerable research underlining its importance, what is often missing or underplayed in discussions and initiatives relating to both these topics is the issue of the safety, security, and wellness of humanitarian staff and volunteers.

Over the past five years, as the Executive Director of the International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance (PHAP), I have had the opportunity to interact and discuss on a daily basis with the association’s members – a highly diverse and experienced community, active in crisis situations all over the world. Based on this multitude of conversations and exchanges, I understand that this is a major issue of concern for them – and I understand why. 

Their concern, as individual practitioners, is not primarily driven by self-centered regard for their own safety and wellbeing, nor the safety and wellbeing of their friends, colleagues, or even family members – although these are clearly important considerations in their own right. Rather, it is based on a broader, higher-level concern that crisis-affected people may not be receiving the assistance and protection that they need, as a result of even the most committed, best-intentioned, best prepared, and most experienced aid workers and teams becoming unable to function at their best.

Coming from all parts of the humanitarian sector, with a variety of professional specializations, employed by all manner of organizations involved in humanitarian work, and with a majority from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, PHAP members constitute a significant group of individuals who have made a commitment to the core ideals of humanitarian assistance and protection in crisis situations, to understand the context in which they work and act responsibly in that context, and to help others do the same.

Consequently, anything that affects the ability to implement effective, principled, responsible, accountable humanitarian action is a significant concern to the PHAP membership. Many important issues come under this umbrella, but some of the most prominent are those related to staff safety, security, and wellness.

Staff security and staff wellness

When describing the current state of humanitarian response efforts, many point to statistics regarding safety and security – particularly regarding direct attacks on humanitarian workers. Recent figures from the Aid Worker Security Database shows that the number of aid worker victims of attacks in 2014 remained high: 329 victims, of whom 120 were killed, 88 wounded, and 121 kidnapped. While lower than the dramatic spike in 2013, it is part of an alarming trend, with the number of aid worker victims of direct attacks having almost tripled over the past ten years.

One of the most concerning aspects of this trend is that national staff – the majority of aid workers worldwide – are statistically at much greater risk than international staff of being victims of direct attacks. In 2014, national staff of international NGOs and staff of local NGOs and Red Cross and Red Crescent societies exceeded international staff almost 10 to 1 in the victim statistics, disproportional even to their large majority among total aid workers. Considering that a majority of PHAP’s members are from crisis-affected locations and came into the world of humanitarian assistance and protection by responding to emergencies in their own countries, this highlights the issue even further for the association. 

A related concern is the issue of staff wellness. Even for the strongest and best prepared individuals, it takes a toll to work in the midst of human suffering, experiencing first-hand the limitations of what humanitarian action is able to offer to crisis-affected persons. Add to that being away from your family and the risk of being attacked, and it comes as no surprise that research has repeatedly demonstrated a strong relationship between deployment to humanitarian crises and conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder. While this is of grave concern in itself, all of these conditions can also have serious negative impact on an aid worker’s ability to help others effectively.

Accountability and staff resilience

Everyone who has been on an airplane knows the air travel safety rule that you should ensure your own oxygen mask is secured before helping others who are struggling with theirs. Applying this to humanitarian work, it is your responsibility – indeed, you could say that you are accountable to the people you intend to assist or protect – to ensure that you are in a sufficiently robust mental and physical state to be able to carry out your work. Such responsibility also naturally extends to your employing organization.

This is the same reason why many categories of professionals on whom people’s lives depend – such as fire fighters, airplane pilots, and military personnel – are supposed to undergo rigorous physical and mental checks to ensure that they are fit for their duties. Under the term of “staff resilience,” there have been several initiatives in recent years to improve how humanitarian organizations ensure that their field-based staff are able live up to similar standards, with a particular focus on pre-deployment training, as well as overall improvements to psychological care of their staff. Notable in the latter category are the Antares guidelines for good practice for managing stress in humanitarian workers as well as commitment 8 of the recently launched Core Humanitarian Standard.

However, for a variety of reasons, the humanitarian sector is still significantly lacking in this area, both for national and international staff. 

While PHAP is not an advocacy organization, when it comes to issues of the safety and security of staff and their ability to do their jobs effectively and responsibly, the association actively seeks to build awareness and foster solutions. Although it is an individual-based association, PHAP works in partnership with institutional stakeholders across many of its activities. Importantly, staff security, safety, and wellness are not issues in which there should be opposition between individual practitioners, humanitarian agencies, and donors, as we are all working towards the same goal – an effective and accountable humanitarian response. 

A petition for greater focus on humanitarian staff wellness

We were delighted to see a recent blog post by Brendan McDonald, eloquently expressing the concern shared by the PHAP membership and asking supporters to sign a petition calling for greater focus and a more pro-active approach to addressing the challenge of humanitarian staff wellness, with its many facets. 

For those of you who support the main sentiment of this petition started by Brendan McDonald, I encourage you to sign it. You may also wish to add a note under “Why this is important to me” to indicate that recommendation #4, the creation of a global humanitarian association, has already been achieved, in the form of PHAP.

The petition can be found at

Live online consultation event on staff wellness

Adding to the momentum of this petition, and to further enrich the discussion, PHAP will be hosting a live online consultation event on Thursday, 30 July. 

The purpose of this event will be to examine the issue of staff wellness, the link with humanitarian effectiveness, and some of the specific challenges and dilemmas involved, and to explore and gather inputs on some of the concrete proposals raised by Mr. McDonald and others. 

The results of PHAP’s online consultation will be formally submitted to the World Humanitarian Summit secretariat for consideration during the drafting of the UN Secretary-General’s recommendations.

You can read more about the event and register at 

I hope that you will join us on Thursday. I also hope that those of you who are concerned about addressing the issue of humanitarian staff wellness will sign the petition and add any additional comments there as well.


Register now to join PHAP for an interactive online panel discussion and practitioner consultation on Thursday, 30 July.

Indicate your support for a greater focus on humanitarian staff wellness by signing the online petition launched by Brendan McDonald, adding your comments under “Why this is important to me.”