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2.9 Health and well-being of UNHCR colleagues

Well-being in resettlement teams

Working for UNHCR is a unique experience and provides us with extraordinary opportunities to help others. Colleagues working on resettlement offer fresh hope and solidarity to refugees in need and advocate on their behalf for access to durable solutions and a chance to rebuild their lives in a safe environment.

Notwithstanding the great positives of working in resettlement, some elements of case processing can take an emotional and psychological toll on caseworkers. While every person is different, no one is immune to the cumulative stress associated with daily interviewing of refugees and drafting or reviewing RRFs on tight deadlines. Over time, this work can lead to burnout and vicarious trauma resulting in increased sick leave, diminished output and higher rates of staff turnover.​

While improving the well-being of colleagues in the workplace is a collective responsibility at every level of the organization, efforts have been made at headquarters to increase access to psychological health and well-being tools and services within UNHCR, especially for those involved in case processing. There are a number of practical tools available on the Staff Welfare platform: Wellbeing – UNHCR to help manage stress of all kinds and incorporate self-care into daily routines and our approach to work.

Any colleague, regardless of contractual status, may contact:
The Staff Health and Well-being Service for advice or support related to physical and mental health. Staff counsellors (mental health professionals) at the Psychosocial Wellbeing Section (PWS) offer psychosocial support. Staff counsellors are present at the regional or HQ level, and sometimes in the country office as well. For more information, contact: [email protected]. The Medical Section for medical, physical health care and return-to-work programmes. For more information, contact [email protected]. UNHCR’s health insurance schemes for external mental health treatment and support

Recognizing signs of burnout and vicarious trauma

Everyone needs good mental health and well-being. Mental health directly influences how one thinks, feels and acts: it also affects physical health. Good mental health and well-being is not a black and white, on-off experience – one can feel resilient, strong and optimistic for days, weeks or months, regardless of events or situations. This can shift to feelings of low resilience or optimism in just one or more areas of one’s life, including our relationships, experiences at work, sense of connection to peer groups and our personal sense of worth, physical health and motivation.

Burnout and vicarious (or secondary) trauma are specific categories of cumulative stress to which UNHCR colleagues are highly vulnerable due to the hardship of many operational contexts, for example, emergency situations or intensive case processing environments. 

Vicarious trauma refers to stress and trauma reactions that can occur in response to witnessing, reading or hearing about traumatic events that have happened to others. Vicarious trauma can trigger many of the same reactions that occur when one personally faces a critical incident. Signs and symptoms are similar, although usually less intense, than those triggered by direct exposure to traumatic events. Colleagues who work in individual case processing regularly hear distressing stories, and face the realities of violence, poverty and disaster. Vicarious trauma is therefore a significant risk in case processing, and it is important to treat that risk as any other occupational health and safety risk, at an individual as well as organizational level.

Burnout is defined as a state of fatigue or frustration created by the devotion to a cause that does not produce the expected reward. It is not only about exhaustion – it is an “erosion of the spirit”. People who are the most at risk of burning out are those who are highly scrupulous and committed with a tendency to perfectionism. They may have an excessive desire for success and difficulties in communicating their needs. Slowly their commitment can turn into frustration, disillusion and even cynicism.

Some of the key factors that contribute to the onset of burnout are prolonged exposure to challenging work environments such as intensive case processing environments, long working hours, insufficient social support and recognition and separation from family and home culture. These factors may be further compounded by bureaucratic procedures, staff turnover, resource cutbacks, and changes in the phase and direction of an operation or activity.

A Burnout Self-Assessment is helpful to check individual well-being against an objective measure. Awareness of the warning signs allows individuals to prioritize self-care and take steps to implement necessary changes in work and private life to improve mental and physical health.

The role of managers to maintain well-being in resettlement

Managers have a duty to be alert to signs of compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma and burnout as part of good management, training and supervision of caseworkers. Unit 4.2.4 of the RSD Procedural Standards provides some good practices at the operational level to help managers take effective measures to prevent and respond to cases of burnout. Good practice for managers in intensive case processing environments include the following:

  • Set realistic operational and individual case-processing targets in line with existing resources and staffing benchmarks.
  • Identify opportunities to diversify workload within resettlement to reduce repetitive character of the job. For example, the number of RRFs to be completed per week by a caseworker may be reduced and replaced by complementary pathways tasks; (complementary pathways colleagues may equally be assigned a number of RRFs). Other colleagues in the resettlement unit may be trained in completing RRFs, based on their interest.  
  • Ensure accurate job descriptions including tasks, expectations and targets, and clearly set out reporting lines.
  • Ensure adequate working conditions and technical support. Where conditions are difficult, ask what colleagues want and need to improve working conditions and undertake to meet at least some of those requests.
  • Foster a culture of appreciation, both at individual and team levels, including through regular group and one-to-one meetings to share feedback on successes as well as challenges.
  • Include colleagues in decisions that affect them; be sensitive to the psychological impact of short-term contracts and job insecurity.
  • Lead by example and cultivate a healthy work/life balance, including by not sending work emails in the evening or at weekends.
  • Give caseworkers the ‘big picture’ about how their jobs fit into UNHCR’s protection strategy and help it achieve its protection and solutions goals.
  • Take time to provide constructive feedback to caseworkers.
  • Foster a consultative working environment, including through participation in decisions regarding resettlement and protection in the operation.
  • Ensure effective and inclusive information flow throughout the office, including by establishing clear lines of communication and reporting.

The role of the organization to improve workplace culture and well-being

‘Duty of care’ is defined in UNHCR’s Occupational Health and Safety policy as “a non-waivable duty on the part of the organization to mitigate or otherwise address foreseeable risks that may harm or injure its colleagues and their […] family members.” Stress, burnout and secondary trauma in case processing environments are foreseeable harms that should be mitigated as part of an organizational duty of care through implementing some of the above recommendations, as appropriate. Managers, individuals and peers all play a role in fostering a supportive and inclusive environment for all colleagues and highlighting the importance of good mental health. Improving mental health and well-being at the office/ organizational level involves:

  • Monitoring compliance with policies and procedures that support and promote a healthy working environment, including enforcing zero tolerance for sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace.
  • Enforcing boundaries and clarifying work expectations.
  • Considering flexible working arrangements and compensatory time off favourably, where appropriate.
  • Creating a workplace culture that recognizes the risks of humanitarian work as well as its rewards.
  • Encouraging access to well-being and stress management resources and services.
  • Supporting and discussing future career plans for colleagues at both national and international levels.
  • Facilitating rotation opportunities within and across functional units in an office and to other offices within the country and the region. 
  • Ensuring systematic induction training and briefings to all new colleagues.
  • Encouraging individual professional development and diversification of skills through cross-functional training and facilitating participation in multi-functional projects.
  • Acknowledging the negative impact on staff morale engendered by over-reliance on insecure short-term AFW contracts and their continuous extension. Ensure colleagues are informed in a timely manner about whether their contract will be extended or not, to allow individuals to consider their options and/or look for other opportunities.