Top5 Challenges for Aid Workers Returning From the Field

The job of humanitarian aid workers can be extremely tough, but also rewarding. There are professional challenges faced unlike any other line of work, as well as personal challenges as you push yourself to see how much stress (at times) you can take. But it doesn´t end there. Some of the biggest challenges are awaiting aid workers when they are coming back home from the field. 

I’ve heard many colleagues say the hardest culture shock they’ve experienced wasn’t necessarily on their assignment, but when they returned to a life they formerly knew.

A friend mentioned that after some time in South Sudan, he struggled to reconnect after seeing life a little bit differently. The things his friends and families became unraveled about seemed mere inconveniences that weren’t worth the ruffle of a feather.

There is often the realization that life didn’t stop while you were away – kids grew, relationships changed, and the things people take for granted rattled your sanity.

A lot happens, even in a short amount of time such as a few months. As a result, many aid workers fail at reconnecting with the life they left behind and return back to the next stressful assignment abroad, cause it still seems to be easier than adapting to the normality at home.

Top 5 Challenges You May Encounter When Returning From The Field:

In order to successfully reconnect when returning home, prepare yourself for having to deal with these 5 isses. 

1.   From Standing Out to Blending In

As a guest in another country, you probably experienced a bit of special treatment from time to time. Your status as an “expat” allowed for things that weren’t always accessible to the local population. People may have looked at you with a certain air of respect because of your special status. Also, you would have been (more than likely) able to afford a higher, more comfortable standard of living. You can also bet your job was rarely, if ever, boring, and there was an intrinsic reward to the work you accomplished.

However, going back to your home country from such an experience can leave you gobsmacked. When people ask what you’ve done over the past few months or years, and you tell them the adventures you had, many may be interested, but will more than likely not give you the excitement you may have anticipated. To them, you’re another person with a cool story, even in a different work environment as you take new employment outside of field work. You are expected to make you own money, pay your bills and taxes, and get on with life like the rest of them. You will no longer carry that status, and that can be a little difficult to face.

2.  Relationships Change

One of the hardest things to grasp is the change of relationships you may have felt comfortable in before you left.  Although your friends and family still love you, there is simply just a part of your life now where they cannot relate. You can tell them about your field work, and they can read news articles, watch documentaries and try to educate themselves as much as possible, but that is really as far as it goes. You have more than likely seen and experienced trauma and tragedy not only at a level they have never seen, but that they do not know how to support, especially if you find yourself with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

There may have been important events you missed out on from being away that are hard for them to reconcile, as well: births, health scares, and deaths are all major parts of life you may have had to experience at a distance. It’s important to communicate as much as possible when you return back home.

You will have to put in work to help move your relationships forward, and it may take a little time, but it certainly doesn’t mean those are all lost. Be patient, both with yourself and the efforts they’re making (albeit however small or big) and stay positive in working it out.

3.  Financial Changes

As I’ve mentioned before, life doesn’t stop when you work abroad, and neither do your financial responsibilities. Hopefully, you set up everything to be taken care of during your time away, however, you may find yourself with a bit of an unpleasant surprise if you failed to pay taxes or social security back home.  You also may have enjoyed a higher standard of living on assignment, only to find yourself unable to afford such luxuries when you return, such as house cleaning services, a personal cook, or a driver. The exchange rates that worked in your favor there are quite a whammy when you return. 

Depending on how long you were away, the adjustment may be a bit overwhelming as you see how much must be done by your own efforts in your residence, without the additional help you may no longer be able to pay for.  The best thing you can do is to make sure (at a minimum) your financial responsibilities are taken care of, and leave a cushion (if you can) for a bit of an adjustment upon your return.

4.  Future Employment

Another thing to prepare yourself for, is how much your employment situation may change when you return home. You may be used to making your own decisions, even big ones, without much input or pushback from others, but that likely is not going to be your situation in future employment. Structure is very valued, and it is important to fit into the company where you’ll work next.

Also, you may have to accept much more mundane tasks than you’re used to, and may find yourself lower in the company hierarchy. Where you may have previously worked in the medical field, for example, helping to administer life saving drugs, you may soon find yourself in a dimly lit office filing paperwork and doing other administrative duties. You may also find that continuing to work with the organization is no longer an option (or even a desire), and you must transition jobs for the sake of money. Keep an open mind, but understand there will be a shift in accepting your new position.

5.  Personal Shifts

Probably the biggest issue when returning home is coming to terms with changes in your perspective, as you realize you’re a bit different than when you left. You may have formed really tight bonds to others in the field as you experienced hardships together. You’re going to miss people, and that’s a given. You will need to make sure you prepare yourself well in advance before leaving your field position to really embrace and acknowledge what you will miss, and what will no longer be a part of your future life. Allow yourself to mourn for the friends, places and culture that you will leave behind.

Try not to get caught in a web of guilt or remorse for leaving, but be honest with yourself that this position was not an indefinite assignment. Look forward to the things you’ve missed from your home culture that you will once again be able to experience, and make a list of how you’re going to enjoy those things once more. Seeing the positive in your return will help your transition all the more. The anticipation of seeing old friends, tasting familiar foods, and experiencing life with loved ones is important in making your move back a successful one.


Understand that there will be a transition when you return – there’s no question about that. It’s important to prepare yourself as much as possible for your return, just as you did before you left. Then give yourself time, and you’ll manage to reconnect back home. 

As always, get in touch to find out how you can take the first steps toward a gratifying return back home. 


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