I have been thinking and thinking about the emotional interviews (done last month with many of you).  I was waiting for the right word to POP in my head to describe the whole experience. 


is the word which best describes what the emotional interviews were about. 

It is not the actual work, the difficult and sometimes depressing working conditions that hurts people the most.  IT IS WHAT HAPPENS (or does not happen) IN RELATIONSHIPS that leaves the biggest mark.

One of my professors in Human Development said “children are hurt by adults (and sometimes older children) in two ways – through abuse and neglect”.  It is exactly the same for aid workers.

Aid workers are hurt by their colleagues and supervisors in two ways: through abuse and neglect.

Abuse: harassment (verbal or physical badgering) and bullying.

Neglect: field abandonment, project abandonment, no or insufficient  feedback or authentic dialogue.

The reason these turn into “soul burns” is because aid work is more than just a job.  For most of us, aid work is a way of life – a path of service through life – and we willingly sacrifice many things for it.

Aid work cannot be inspirational or emotionally satisfying if the relationships between aid workers are negative, non-existent, or abusive.   It is just not possible! 

Here are my 4 steps to skilfully work with “soul burn”:

Take a moment:

Take a moment and acknowledge yourself and your situation.  The thing about soul burn is that it spins out of control pretty quickly; taking time to pause and reflect on yourself and your situation will help.

Trust yourself:

trust your feelings in relationships.  If a professional relationship (or any relationship) does not feel right or good, then trust yourself.  Do everything you can to be around positive people, uplifting situations and inspiring interaction. 

Get safe fast:

If you find yourself in a toxic relationship with one (or more) colleagues, bullied by a supervisor or a colleague ... DO NOT ACT OUT or LASH BACK.  The best way to “stand strong” is to continue to do an excellent job at your work and to simultaneously do everything you can to move to a better work environment.  It could be a different country office, a different unit, or a different organization.  The point is for you to move towards a positive and creative relationship environment.

Talk it out:

Soul burn can leave you confused and start to mess with your self-perceptions.  One of the best gifts you can give yourself is to be listened to – talk with someone who knows the art of listening.  Talk with a friend, talk with a mentor, and talk with a professional like me....just do something.

Two inspirational thought to keep close to your heart if you are in a “soul-burn” situation:

Relationship sweet spot:

each of us has types of interactions that we really love and that allow us to feel confident, creative and positive – I call this our natural “relationship sweetspot”.  In moments when you feel “soul-burn” creeping in– it is important to return to your deep knowledge of your best self in relationships to hold your “center”.

Set the stage:

If you want colleagues, supervisees, and supervisors to treat you with respect and care, you have the power to set the stage and expectations about how you want to be treated.  The sure way to do this is to treat yourself respectfully and with care, no matter what.  The more you can do this, the better for everybody.

P.S.  I you found this helpful, please share this post with another aid worker today.  Thank you!

Just IMAGINE what you could do if you actually had support