Something that attracted me to the University of Bath was the opportunity to take a third year work placement in a relevant field to my studies. Seeing how undergraduate degrees alone aren’t worth the (inflated) price of the paper they’re printed on and, subsequently, almost all jobs in Development require both a masters degree and several years of experience, doing a degree without a placement seems like a giant waste of time.
I’m almost exactly halfway through my year with ARTICLE 19. It’s been an interesting, challenging and frustrating experience – as, I think, most entry-level jobs are – and one that I am increasingly anxious about finishing. The longer I’m out of Bath, the less I think about ‘studying’ or essay writing or revision or horrendously awful themed club nights. This is quite pleasant. Every so often, though, I get a little shot in the arm when friends/placement supervisors/parents ask things like,
“Have you sorted out housing for next year? I hear all the good places have gone already.”
The subject line of an email I received the other day genuinely made me groan out loud,
“Thought about your dissertation yet?”
(No, I haven’t dealt with any of those things. Anything happening six months in the future, in another city, doesn’t seem like reality. I know that’s quite a lazy way of looking at life but there it is. Don’t look at me like that, with your judging eyes. I’m disgusting, I know.)
It’s easy to get very focused on something like a placement, particularly because I think it may well be the most important bit of my degree so I’m very keen on getting the most out of it. As such, I think it’s important to be in and around the office full time, to get in different departments, to try and finagle my way on to training courses, to ask (and probably annoy) my colleagues for advice and tips on their work, offer to get involved in multiple projects and programmes and just generally stick my nose into as many different aspects of the organisation’s work as possible.
What with all this agitating for CV filling activity, I didn’t see the point in taking any time off – I was only contracted to work for a year, I couldn’t afford to waste any of that. Over the last few weeks, however, I’ve been noticing that I often take a little longer to do tasks, it’s gotten a little harder to get out of bed in the morning and I find my attention waning mid-afternoon. On a very small scale, I started to recognise that I was a little mentally fatigued. Obviously, this is not an enormous issue – I’ve only been working for six months after all – but it has given me a little window into an interesting and potentially vital issue facing development as a whole.
The research project Mindfulness For NGOs has been highlighting the problems associated with the lack of concern shown by NGO workers for their own mental health and happiness since 2007. Recently, the influential development blog whydev highlighted their work in a post written by Alessandra Pigni, the main figure behind Mindfulness. In the post she lays clear her reason for spearheading the campaign,
I am convinced that “changing the world starts from within”, and that successful projects on the ground derive not only from professionally competent, but also psychologically healthy staff. How we feel within ourselves has an impact on how we engage with the world. This is no small matter.
She is releasing a series of white papers on the subject with a view to improving the structural approaches from the development industry to the problems of “burnout, stress, trauma, loneliness, isolation and depression in the field, and the urgent need of doing something about it”.
If working in a London based HQ office of a well established, international NGO can be a little taxing if you don’t take a bit of time off, the problems that face NGO workers on the front line of some very extreme situations can be crippling. It seems to me that not looking at the potential problems that come from, say, trying to deliver aid to humanitarian disaster stricken areas is inviting poor delivery of service to people who need it most. Of course, people suffering from famine or debilitating civil war are the ones we should be most concerned with – to some, focusing on the aid workers’ welfare in such situations is perverse – but the successful conversion of that concern to actually helping those people is massively reliant on the ability of the aid workers themselves to work quickly and efficiently. Ignoring their problems is very unlikely to result in helping more people.
This is a purposefully extreme example of why this issue is worth thinking about but it is relevant to all levels of the sector and, I might argue, to most industries. Taking some time to give your brain a rest from something you’re working on can help you finish it – a lesson for revision you’ve probably heard at least a thousand times. Why would that stop being relevant when you get away from exams and start actually trying to do things?
If you want to find out more about this issue, start by reading ‘Why mindfulness is essential for development workers’.