A bad boss is more stressful than war, aid workers say
- It’s easier for aid workers to cope with bullets outside the door than a boss who doesn’t support them, according to a new book.
Aid agencies are starting to wake up to the idea they need to do more to look after their staff than write guidelines and hold management workshops, author Barb Wigley says.
“I was expecting the conflict and the stress, but what really brought me down was how mean my manager was to me,” one aid worker travelling to Sri Lanka told her.
Many aid workers leave jobs because of poor management, Wigley said.
Her research on workplace violence found aid workers were vulnerable to high stress from problems with managers and bureaucracies, especially when they spent long periods away from home without the support of friends and family.
“Their whole life can be absorbed by work,” Wigley said.
“They need a little bit more from their managers, because they’re working in situations with violence and insecurity.”
Wigley said managers needed a good understanding of team dynamics, of how to tell who will cope well with difficult situations, who should be evacuated from danger and how to explain security procedures like which restaurants are out of bounds.
Instead, managers often resort to bullying.
One manager told her it was difficult making decisions in highly charged situations, often working with young people on their first assignment.
He told her: “They wanted to go to an exotic location and help people in a nice way’ and they find themselves in the middle of a muddy, stinking Rwandan refugee camp with 200,000 people, some of who were the perpetrators of unimaginable horrors. It’s very tense.”
The problem is not restricted to work in remote field postings. Aid workers told her they were constantly frustrated by the dynamics of large organisations, like the United Nations.
“It starts to feel like no one cares,” Wigley said. “There ends up being a lot of conflict within organisations.”
Wigley’s research found there was a tendency in aid agencies to think that because their goals were worthy, they didn’t need to pay attention to fostering good staff relations, but that this impaired efficiency.
After a couple of decades of massive growth in the industry, agencies are starting to realise that the structures they created are not working, but it’s difficult to overhaul a whole culture, Wigley said.
“They are thinking, what the hell do we do next?” She said. “It’s hard and it’s messy and it’s much easier to hire someone to write a new set of guidelines in the hope and fantasy that will solve it, but it’s not enough.
“It means tackling the development of managers in a more comprehensive way than just throwing them into a workshop.”
She suggested coaching and peer support to improve leadership and accountability.
It was also important for organisations to show they took it seriously when staff broke codes of conduct.
“Workplace Violence”, which includes a chapter by Wigley, is published by Willan Publishing.