First off, take a minute to pat yourself on the back for having found a new job in international development aid or humanitarian aid! Congratulations to you and the world – you are needed.
There is a requirement bigger than ever for assistance globally in areas hit heavily by war, famine, and natural disasters, and your “feet on the ground” in any of those regions can make a big difference in the lives of those affected. You have a chance to impact lives who simply need food, medical aid, or extra sets of hands for improvements in their community.
But as many of you have been involved in humanitarian work before, you know simply being altruistic just isn’t enough. This is a tough job, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and sometimes it may feel as if you’re hanging by your last, weakest thread. Burnout is a real issue in humanitarian efforts, and there are a lot of contributing factors.
Being away from loved ones, possibly in cultures very different from your own, surrounded by the turmoil of natural disasters, war, or famine can really take a toll on your health and well-being. As an empathetic person, you may put others’ needs very frequently before your own, running yourself into the ground always looking to be everything to everyone. While that’s commendable, it’s definitely not feasible. As you take on new assignments, there’s always something new that takes your attention: a new country, a new humanitarian disaster, or even a new organization. It certainly is exciting, but can also be so exhausting!
You may be thinking, Wait, why the heck do I want to do this again?!? But, before you run away, remember your attraction to helping others. This can be a very worthwhile, life-changing effort for the better! There are things you can do to contribute towards your success and stamina to take you through the ups and downs of humanitarian work.
One of the best things you can do to avoid burnout is to prepare yourself by planning some time for reflection before moving along to your new assignment. Using this time wisely can prevent frustrations and disappointment that may surface once you get sucked into the whirlwind of new responsibilities. Pretending you know everything and have nothing to prepare for is an ill use of your time and will only lead to regrets later. It’s best to learn from your past and prepare for your future. In all honesty, don’t kid yourself – you know that once you hit the ground, there will be no more time for reflection.
Here is my list of 5 things to do before starting a new job:
1. Write down three key lessons from your previous job.
With the goal of this assignment being to prepare for your next job, you ideally would currently be in this job – so the timing is perfect! Before you jump right into your new job, take a pause and reflect on your last job(s). Writing down three key lessons from your current and previous job (if you can), will really help you cement valuable learning experiences in your mind.
These lessons may be something that can help you perform your job more efficiently. For example you could write a simple to-do list of tasks to take care of in a particular order when you move into your new space. They can also be more mindful and serious, such as signs to recognize in your thought process or behavior that you may be bordering a state of burnout. It’s worth noting that just because you may have experienced this before, doesn’t mean you necessarily will again, but becoming familiar with what your body and mind are telling you is a good practice for everyone.
When you get to your new job, it would be a great practice to prioritize continuing this process. As you will likely be under a lot of stress, keeping notes of your experiences can make a great reference point as you continue along this path.
2. Make a List of Your Core Values.
There is a common quote attributed to multiple individuals that states, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”. This is true, especially if you describe yourself as a “people pleaser”. The high-stress environment of humanitarian work makes it very easy to get lost in the demands of the work at the cost of your own health, and possibly even values.
Understanding your core values is a key component in keeping true to your personal mission in the work you’re doing, and it’s crucial to document this and keep it somewhere you can see it frequently. As anxiety may build around your stability, safety, and assignments, it’s very easy to lose sight of what you will and will not do. Maybe you feel pressured to fit in with your team, or to prove a point in stretching yourself beyond your personal boundaries.
Drawing a line in the sand and holding yourself accountable, along with reminding yourself why you made this list in the first place can be a big factor in maintaining direction and sanity in the chaos. (If you need help with this, let me know and I will help you to find your core values.)
3. Write down the main responsibility of your role.
In leaning on the above point, keeping a strong focus on the main responsibility of your role can help you stay true to your position. You will have the greatest possible impact by doing your job well, and we all know that a team of people doing their jobs well makes a huge difference.
Responsibility creep is a real thing, and unfortunately can distract your attention, resulting in diminishing your efforts towards a positive outcome. You may feel pressure (either internally or externally) to pick up more responsibilities in order to help out the team, but this can contribute to spreading yourself too thin, resulting in many tasks not being done effectively or efficiently.
This is a simple task to do, and you can start by asking yourself, “What is the essence of my job?” Start by laying this out on a piece of paper using a format such as:
My Job is to _______ so that ___________ receives the best __________.
Staying true to your role and why you’re really there helps to minimize the noise that can overwhelm and cause you to question your abilities in finishing your assignment.
4. Get in touch with your new boss asap.
Although you’ve signed your work contract, your starting date might still be a few weeks away. You have lots of things to do before you start your new job, but you can still be proactive by writing a letter or email to your new boss.
Use this letter to not only introduce yourself but also ask for background information so you can familiarize yourself with both the project and what your first task should be. Don’t try to come up with solutions yet, as that is best done when you are on the ground at your site. You will then have an opportunity to speak to your team and colleagues and get a first impression of the situation.
It’s imperative to keep an open mind, both with your own expectations and what others may expect from you. Remember, this is a new project for you, and solutions from the past might not work this time, and that’s okay.
Arrive humble and willing to serve and learn.
5. Prepare a resignation letter.
Although this may seem counter-intuitive and demoralizing, preparing a resignation letter is a permission slip to yourself. Having this done gives you, essentially, the permission that it’s okay to step away if the stress becomes too overwhelming.
Being in an area where you have to worry about bombings or being attacked can take a serious toll on your mental stability. Or, maybe this is your first real live look at true poverty or total devastation on a large scale. No matter where you find yourself, you must avoid shouldering the responsibility of it all. Continuing to stay in an assignment that has you crumbling within is no good to the mission, but it’s crucial to understand that does not make you weak or a failure. Composing a letter ahead of time also goes hand-in-hand with identifying your core values and lessons learned and can help with the weight of such a decision.
Going into humanitarian work means you don’t take it lightly to begin with, and walking away doesn’t mean you can’t continue the work when you’re in a better state or find an assignment that is more suited to your strengths.
Remember, the project worked before you joined, and will continue to work long after you leave – humble yourself in knowing you contributed what you could, and someone with a fresh perspective can pick up your baton and continue towards the goals of your organization.
The most important thing to remember in all of this is that this job is more than the sum of its parts, and through the positives and negatives, can be an excellent learning experience.
In the grand scheme of life, this is a blip on the radar on what you stand to encounter, and regardless of how it turns out, you can be a vessel to contribute towards the cause in many different ways down the road. Your efforts are commendable and do make a difference in the lives of others!
If you want to discuss this further, drop me a line.Dod