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BLOG: What I learned about staff support #2

The PS Centre has asked long-time roster member Gordy Dodge, Ph.D., LP to share his reflections, observations and recommendations from 25 years of experience in domestic and international disaster work with the readers of the PS Centre’s website.

In the second blog post in our series about care for staff and volunteers, Gordy Dodge reflects on some of the difficulties of being an expatriate humanitarian worker.

Ex-pat versus local and national staff needs

On my first assignment in the former Yugoslavia, I conducted a field study of NGO staff care in several of the republics involved in their civil war. This included both ex-pats as well as local and national staff.

Although many of the stressors were the same for most of the staff, there were a few key differences of importance. Many of the local and national staff and their families and friends were directly affected by the conflict due to such factors as death and injury to family and friends, destruction, fear of further harm, relocation and loss of employment. Expats were faced with separation from friends and family, adjusting to a different culture and language, and often learning to put up with hardship conditions to which they were not accustomed.

Individual, supervisory, organizational awareness of care and response to these differences is important. Regular communication with family and others important to us is essential for all staff involved. At present, with internet and cell phones available, this is usually much easier than even a decade or two ago.

Local staff typically can go home at night, or at least one day a week. National staff, if possible, should be provided visits home for a few days every month. Expats typically are given two weeks leave for rest and relaxation every six months. Anything less frequent will most often result in deteriorating relationships with oneself and those back home.

For many expats who are in it for the long term, i.e., where overseas humanitarian work is their profession, a “no win” dynamic occurs. They will get burned out in their international work, come home for some rest and relaxation, but will experience difficulties in reconnecting. They may find relationships at home difficult to revive, find life at home shallow and unrewarding, they may expect but not receive praise and interest for their work from family and former friends, and may even experience pushback and resentment from those who feel that the expat has abandoned them, or that they show more devotion to their work than to their loved ones.

In these circumstances, I have found more than one expat who then finds life at home as meaningless and shallow, and returns to international work prematurely while still emotionally depleted and often bitter, angry and depressed. There of course are many notable exceptions to this pattern, but awareness of this occupational risk is important for all involved, to be able to counteract as much as possible.

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