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BLOG: What I learned about staff support #4

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 final blog post in our series about care for staff and volunteers, Gordy Dodge reflects on how working in a humanitarian context involves ensuring that staff are supported throughout their careers to safeguard their well-being and of those who work with them.

Selection, monitoring and exit protocols

“On one of my first days in the earthquake area, I was walking around the town of Anjar, which had been massively destroyed, when I met a small wiry man in orange coveralls leading and training a group of volunteers in body rescue and recovery. I spent some time with this group, primarily to better understand how these responders maintain their own emotional well-being. The group’s leader located a body in the rubble and lent me his gloves in order to reach in and identify the body as that of a young boy. I have a few residual emotional scars and triggers from my work, and since this incident it is no longer a pleasurable affectionate experience for me to reach out and tussle a young child’s hair.”
– Excerpt from Gordy Dodge’s Gujarat, India earthquake journal, February, 2001

There are several worthwhile protocols developed for and by various NGOs for selecting staff for humanitarian work. Based upon my own experiences and writings, self-selection procedures should be incorporated into the process – underlying the principle that applicants should only apply for a position when ready and able. It is the individual’s responsibility when applying for a position to avoid doing so when one’s life circumstances at home are in shambles. Humanitarian work shouldn’t be, as I like to say, the French Foreign Legion for the Intelligencia; that is, an escape from relationship or financial troubles.

Another key selection variable to keep in mind: no matter how qualified an applicant may be in terms of skills and competencies, he or she must be a good match for the specific assignment, as a team member and with regard to organizational culture. As team leader, I’ve at times been stuck with other team members already assigned to the project who had considerable difficulty fitting in with the team. On the other hand, when team cohesiveness is achieved, the work is typically so much more successful and enjoyable.

During an assignment, monitoring is critical so as to avoid slipping into counterproductive self-care strategies, especially if it is highly stressful or of long duration. As alluded to earlier, self, peer, team and supervisory monitoring should all be incorporated into an organization’s staff care methods. Checklists, screening instruments and guided group procedures all apply to this need.

When leaving an assignment, it is important to have a comprehensive personal exit interview to ensure that the staff member plans to take care of him or herself when he or she has returned home. Feedback can also be gathered by the organization on what was beneficial or otherwise with respect to staff care while on assignment. Typically, there are residual or relationship issues to deal with that were not able to be identified right at the time of exiting. I have therefore found it useful both for self-care as well as when arranging care for others to have a resource person with similar experiences to meet with and brief shortly after returning home.

A career in humanitarian work tends to lead to some kind of residual damage to one’s relationships and psyche. Finding peace and satisfaction with the good work done, making memories, maintaining good friendships from overseas and restoring a warm and satisfying world of one’s own when home can give the assurance that it was all worthwhile. I am 73 years old and still of sound mind and body. I look forward to a few more assignments before my days are done so if that makes me the personification of a “disaster junkie”, so be it.

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