How enmeshed is your sense of self-worth with your employment? Many humanitarians feel that what they do professionally is a reflection of who they are as a person. They perceive that their value is directly tied to their job. Is this belief serving you well? Is it healthy?

When facing the dark specter of burn-out it can feel impossible to extricate yourself from your mission. If you can only give what you’ve got, then what is the cost of serving others when your own reserves are depleted?


Stress and overwork impact our health in many ways. The first two questions I often ask people who are concerned about whether they are nearing a state of burn-out are:

How are you sleeping?

  • Do you feel tired and exhausted regardless of how much sleep you have?
  • Are you plagued by work related thoughts and dreams during the night?
  • Do work related thoughts awaken you in the night?

How are you eating?

  • Are you experiencing a lack of hunger?
  • Do you crave mostly salty or sugary carbohydrates?
  • Are you binge eating?
  • Are you drinking alcohol more frequently or to excess?

These basic building blocks in our hierarch of needs are a good initial litmus test in determining whether we’re in danger of burn-out. There are several other health related indicators, such as:

  • Frequency of head-aches and migraines
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Negative self-talk
  • General anxiety and irritability
  • Lack of empathy for self and others
  • Lowered immune system
  • Heart palpitations
  • Aggressivity and overreaction
  • Overwhelming sadness
  • Addictive behaviours – These can include: sex and pornography, shopping, smoking, drug use, gambling, video games, isolation, TV watching
  • Utilizing personal unhealthy coping mechanisms – Only you know what these are specifically. It is helpful to write a list of your Unhealthy and Healthy coping methods to assist you in your self-assessment.
  • Taking more risks – In seeking a deeper sense of self-worth through their work some humanitarian workers will take higher adrenaline inducing positions. Accepting deployments to higher risk and higher security contexts, despite feeling tired and worn-down from their previous mission.

Organizational Assessment

Are some of the symptoms familiar in yourself or others? I feel that one of the most important things we can do in the humanitarian field is to ensure that our outward facing humanitarian principles are in alignment with our inward facing humanitarian principles.

Personally, and as humanitarian organizations, there are questions and policies that need reviewing. Below are a few of the most common questions I pose to organizations in my work as a Staff Care Advisor:

  • What is the average number of hours per week that staff are working?
  • How are reasonable working hours determined?
  • If staff members work beyond these working hours, is there time for time available for them to take off?
  • Are staff members encouraged to take R&R and vacation days?
  • Does your organization have clear, reviewed, and enforced R&R policies?
  • How do you maintain (or does your organization encourage) a healthy sense of work-life balance?
  • How do you determine if your job or mission is right for you?
  • Are there clear policies concerning harassment against protected groups and how are these policies enforced?
  • Is staff care integrated into your security protocols?
  • Are there humanitarian staff counseling services available for staff and how are these advertized?
  • How long are you taking off between deployments? How are you determining an adequate amount of time off for you or your staff?
  • How are reasonable work-loads determined?
  • What is the difference between a deadline that has flexibility and an emergency within your organization?

These assessments are not an exhaustive means to determining if you have burn-out, or where an organization sits in their Duty of Care policies for their staff. It is a beginning and can orient you in such a way to know if needs exists for further support from a Staff Care or Duty of Care Advisor. Remember you are not alone, and there is a process to healing and safe-guarding yourself and others from burn-out.

Feel free to contact me if you need support or have additional questions related to personal burn-out or your organization’s Duty of Care infrastructure.

© Amanda Lee