WHO IS ALESSANDRA PIGNI?
“We need to think about the kind of support [we provide to each other]. Preparation does not mean that everything will be fine. But it means that people should have some awareness that something can go wrong so it does not come as a shock when they see it.“
Alessandra Pigni has run the blog MindfulNext.org, since 2011, to help aid workers build resilience, prevent burnout and keep sane while serving others in the field.
Trained as a clinical psychologist, she has worked as a psychologist with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders and as a consultant with local and international NGOs spending a good part of the last seven years in Palestine. She is currently a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford working on a book on aid workers’ wellbeing.
You can connect with Alessandra here:
IN TOR 065 YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- Alessandra’s advice on ‘getting out,’ and more generally, the mental strains that every aid or development worker can expect.
- That getting into the field for the wrong reasons can be a very bad idea, and that leaving the field might not be the worst one in some cases.
- What burnout really means and how finding ways to prevent it and overcome it must really respond to a personal need.
- The roles organizations, networks and peers Alessandra would like to see promote mindfulness and readiness.
- Experiences of tolls taken on development workers, the ways they deal with it, and their outcomes.
- Alessandra’s definitions of burnout, mindfulness, quitting, the aid worker as myth, self-care and balance, among others.
OUR CONVERSATION INCLUDES THE FOLLOWING:
- MindfulNex.org (blog)
- Doctors without Borders
- University of Oxford
- Letters Left Unsent (book by J.)
- The ‘myth’ of the aid worker
- Coaching and mentoring
EPISODE CRIB NOTES
Burnout, mindfulness, development
Worked in Palestine with Doctors without Borders, first experience.
Monthly supervision, great experience for a team and herself. An external professional supporter receives the psychologist experiences, helps her deal with the issues.
Alessandra worked with women and families. “Everyone is affected.” It was very meaningful to learn about resilience and strength from them.
People in the sector experience lots of isolation. Demotivation can strike anywhere. In many cases the worker goes abroad to “get away from personal problems at home.” Those are not going away.
There are tendencies common to aid workers, such as the idea of “looking for what I did not find in my home country,” or “I can leave my problems behind.“
Alessandra develops ‘pillars of support’, in which external people with experience support workers. “We all need a space of silence.“
Mindfulness is not the only way or a one-size-fits-all, but they do need to find their solutions, not to feel “always in a blender.“
Development experience is positive on the whole, but it does not mean it is easy to meet a new culture and people. “You cannot be on a high all the time. You need to land from time to time.“
Work does not always go well.
A nonconfidential story
Alessandra wrote a post: ‘Quick guide to getting out of aid work’
Trying to balance things out a little, so much content is already out.
Lots of people look forward to development work. At parties, if she reveals what she does, people tend to flood her with burnout anecdotes.
At UNICEF. She thought it was amazing, she wanted to become ‘one of them.’
The myth of the aid worker
Almost ridiculous: “I slept in my UNICEF t-shirt every night.“
The “aid worker” is heroic, selfless.
There are common traits. People who don’t feel well, who feel like drowning, who don’t perform as they used to.
Organizations don’t think about it, which does not mean they must help people quit, but perhaps that they must pay more attention to the social net of support for their collaborators.
Work environments in development are not that different from that of a current organization. There are good people, as there is “undesirables, people you wish you never came across again, really dangerous people.“
Self care is not enough
Self care, finding your space of sanity, is useful. It is not about balance.
“Can you really achieve work-life balance in Afghanistan?“
You don’t have to accept the fact that you will eventually burnout. It is not an inevitable fate.
“We all need to help each other.” Aid organizations need to support their staff, not through post-traumatic treatment or protocols. Go a little beyond policies. “Develop the ability to really see the person.”
Hiking in Lebanon and Afghanistan.
Questions about the culture of work, environments from every organization. Burnout is an accumulative effect, not a one-time.
Has Alessandra felt burnout?
It is not exclusive for aid workers. Cases of burnout in missionaries in old age. Not that surprising.
Burnout is linked with personal mission, a quest for meaning.
People can work a lot and stay happy and stable. Recognition is critical, as it is readiness when work is undone.
Sometimes the effort is a long term, the worker will not see the results.
Organizations interested in doing good, need to look inward. There are cultural predispositions.
Advice for a sustainable career
Young people are informed, it’s a good practice. “Educate yourself on what to expect, lifelong.“
Letters Left Unsent. Anonymous account of development work, about balance, attitudes, things not included in curriculums.
“Learn to deal with emotions, yours, others. Face the possibility that you can end up hating your work.“
Be open to mentoring opportunities that work for you. “Not everyone needs therapy.“
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