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The Emotional Toll of Ebola on Aid Workers
Photo credit: ECHO // Cyprien Fabre
by
Dr. Rick Williamson
on
September 23, 2014
| Resilience | Stress & Burnout | Trauma & Critical Incidents |

The Ebola epidemic continues to claim many lives across the West Africa region. Some of these deaths have included both national and international aid staff. While efforts to curb the spread of the disease take the form of health and education campaigns, what is rarely addressed is the epidemic’s impact on worker’s emotional wellbeing.

The particularly gruesome nature of suffering involved in Ebola and its high mortality rate fuels widespread fear. The resultant reactions to the Ebola threat puts added strain on aid organizations and their workers in a number of ways:

Most organizations have ordered the immediate evacuation of international staff deemed nonessential to the region.

This can feel like an abrupt disruption to those evacuees who have emotional connections to the community and to national staff coworkers remaining in the region. Often there is unreliable communication between evacuees and their in-country coworkers that further exacerbates the sense of disconnection.

In addition, the evacuation of nonessential staff rarely results in a corresponding decrease in the daily work demands of ongoing projects. The remaining staff is therefore tasked with an increased workload while dealing with the fears fueled by the epidemic.

To address this, it is helpful to establish regular communication among teams that is inclusive of evacuated staff. This provides evacuated staff a sense of healthy connection, and gives in-country staff a means to solicit needed information regarding projects and tasks from their evacuated team members.

Another emotional strain on workers is the fear created by the epidemic, which can fuel stigma against the unwell and fuel mistrust between people, groups, agencies and institutions.

Stigma in prior Ebola outbreaks resulted in survivors being avoided and unwelcomed in the community. In some instances, survivors’ homes and possessions were burned. National staff involved in the current fight against Ebola may be particularly vulnerable to such stigma.

Fear can also lead to avoidance and decreased contact between staff when coworkers care for family members with any kind of illness. Thus, the same fear that drives the avoidance of the public spaces (banks, markets, etc.) in Ebola infected regions, can also drive a workplace no-show rate and exacerbate the daily work demand of the remaining staff and erode moral.

Again, quality communication among teams can help address these issues. Regular communication through phone trees, Skype calls, etc. can be a source of information on worker’s health and that of their families. This way, organizations will be able to identify which staff are most vulnerable to stigma and provide them and their families with extra support during these most trying times.

In sum, while it is essential to address the physical threat to life posed by the Ebola epidemic it is also important to address the emotional toll this can have on workers. The same fear dynamics that facilitate the spread of the disease also erodes the trust and relationships of aid workers. Aid workers must remain connected to each other and have the support of their organizations if they are to continue their important work without worsening the emotional toll involved in their important and life saving efforts amid the crisis.

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