Humanitarian personnel often have a strong humanitarian motivation and are driven by idealism, conscience and a desire to help others. During deployment they are faced with a dramatic reality with numerous moral challenges. Studies have shown that ethical stress is common after returning home, leading to reactions such as rumination, doubt, regret, shame and guilt.

Some times personnel need to react. At other times they need to unwind. Both laughter and tears can reduce tension in the body. Dark humour that may seem inappropriate for outsiders could be disaster personnel’s most important survival technique.

Silja Nordahl, Master in Psychosocial Studies

Motivation, values and ethical stress are connected. Personnel who cope best psychologically are those who manage to balance self-care with the desire to help others. Experience and psychological maturity promotes resilience and resistance against long-term problems. Lack of experience, strong idealism, passion for the work and soft personal boundaries make personnel vulnerable for mental health problems. Disaster work requires robust mental health. The best qualified is therefore the “selfish altruist” – the helpers who care about both themselves and the disaster victims.

Organisational culture, norms and attitudes can reduce or increase anxiety and stress. A work environment characterised by generosity, openness, care and humour is protective when idealism conflicts with the real world.

Leaders and colleagues are the most important source of emotional support, possibly after a partner. Experiencing emotion is healthy and personnel should be given time and space for breaks from their professional role. Shame, guilt, need for compensation and reluctance to let oneself feel happiness or pleasure should not be encouraged. Over time these may develop into unhealthy attitudes and contribute to burnout, cynicism and destructive stress.