Mindfulness and wellbeing: Mental health and humanitarian aid workers

Hitendra Solanki


In the context of increased humanitarian demand and evidence and discussions on aid worker burnout, the issue of wellbeing in the humanitarian sector is pertinent.  This resource explores the current state of wellbeing support available to aid workers within the humanitarian sector, and introduces the concept of mindfulness and mindfulness-based approaches. It calls for a shift in emphasis from treatment to prevention and offers insights into a possible approach, currently being piloted, for improving current wellbeing practices in the sector to address the issue of burnout in a more effective and prevention-based manner.

The paper presents the following definition of mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2013):

‘Mindfulness  is  basically  just  a  particular  way  of  paying  attention  and  awareness  that  arises  through   paying  attention  in  that  way.  It  is  a  way  of  looking  deeply  into  oneself  in  the  spirit  of  self-­‐inquiry  and   self-­‐understanding’.

A range of evidence, including surveys and clinical trials, from the past decade reveals a pattern of work-related stress, highlights its effect on humanitarian workers (anxiety, burnout, and depression), and identifies negative coping strategies employed by aid workers. Humanitarian organisations are increasingly recognising the need to address this issue for the good of individual staff and for the function and effectiveness of programme delivery. They have introduced third-party treatment and a number of initiatives, including: employee assistance programmes with briefings before and after deployment and remote access to counsellors (MSF); a course focused on enabling staff to manage their stress (Red R); and the publication of internal guidelines on stress management and supporting staff wellbeing (IFRC and UNHCR).

Good wellbeing underpins key international standards on behavioural competencies, accountability and good people management practice that are identified in the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability and the Core Humanitarian Competencies Framework. However, a focus on treatment rather than prevention may not be the most effective way to address this issue in the longterm.  The potential of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to offer a robust approach to the preventative side of an organisational focus on wellbeing needs to be explored and balanced with improved treatment. Evidence suggests that such an approach will result in a good return on monetary investment, and support improved productivity and impact.

Evidence on the effects of MBSR in a humanitarian context is currently limited and a three-year pilot project in a number of humanitarian agencies is currently underway. However the experience of Action Against Hunger staff who have undertaken MBSR, and individuals from other organisation who have been involved in pilot training, identify the following benefits: its rooting in a scientific, rather than mystical, context; its simplicity; its potential to contribute to improved organisational effectiveness; and its ability to create space for personal reflection without thinking about the stresses of daily life.

The resource calls for a complete project cycle approach to wellbeing, with proactive, rather than reactive, discussions around mental health to start the cycle. It invites senior management, as leaders who can catalyse change, to explore mindful-based approaches as an initial first step, and asks all in the sector to reflect on the WHO definition of mental health, which describes good mental health as a key source for wellbeing.


Solanki, H. (2015). Mindfulness and Wellbeing. Mental health and humanitarian aid workers: a shift of emphasis from treatment to prevention. London, UK: Action Against Hunger.