Burnout Syndrome: Staff Working with Refugees

Burnout Syndrome :Art therapy for NGO staff
By Shireen Ya’ish,Art Psychotherapist and Founder of Kaynouna Arab Art Therapy Center

Front-line refugee workers share a deep desire to help those who are suffering. Empathising with another’s pain, however, often leads to burnout and even secondary trauma. Fortunately, art therapy can help.

Most of us fail to understand the level of giving involved in working with traumatised children and adults. It takes a lot to listen, to feel and to then go home and live another reality. All types of refugee workers need support, therapy and continuous self-care to be able to provide themselves and their families with compassion and love.
Working with trauma
Hamzah listens to devastating stories every day and finds himself angry and frustrated often. He complains of not being listened to and not getting the support or understanding he needs to cope with his anger. His artwork reflects his overwhelming anger and struggle to cope with the burden of work while, at the same time, suffering from economic hardship, financial strain and personal problems of his own.
Layla says she’s reached a breaking point; she describes her daily routine of listening to Syrian women share their traumatising stories and then going back home to clean, cook, teach, bathe and put her children to sleep. She complains of a husband that never helps, insisting he is tired. This image, she explains, reflects her anger and resentment towards him and a society that encourages his behaviour while she suffers from the emotional burden at work and endless responsibilities at home.
Zaid explains that his team leaders often described him as antisocial. What they didn’t know was that both his parents were suffering from cancer; they were in and out of hospital and he was the one who took care of them. His artwork shows his struggle to cope with Gaza’s trauma while acting like everything was okay and shouldering the heavy burden of feeling alone both at work and at home.
Secondary Trauma
One of the most prominent effects of being around trauma and working in traumatic environments is Secondary Trauma, also described as burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. It means that most of these workers, if not all of them, suffer from symptoms of depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, social withdrawal, fear, chronic exhaustion and more.
Secondary Trauma, if not resolved, results in an inability to listen, avoidance and lack of hope or trust, which poorly reflects on their work ethic and eventually ends with them leaving the profession all together. It also means not being able to function at home, which results in poor relationships with their spouses and children, low self-esteem and chronic depression.
Self-care is essential
Self-care is essential for psychosocial teams, social workers, occupational therapists, managerial staff and drivers, all who listen to devastating stories but are often not listened to in return. I recommend all NGOs provide their teams with continuous psychological support to help them cope and keep them healthy, safe and satisfied in their work environment.
Kaynouna Center has provided self-care to psychosocial teams in Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan and has found that they all share a heavy burden at work and at home. Most teams show resistance to expression at first and show up to group therapy and self-care sessions expecting a fun day with happy activities. The notion of digging deep within, facing difficult feelings or expressing feelings is new to most of the teams and some individuals even refuse to get involved. Eventually, though, they do start to engage and end up uncovering many of their troubled feelings, facing a part of themselves that is often hidden behind their anger and anxiety.

Working with refugees
Refugees are attended to by various organisations working to provide them with psychosocial support, food, shelter and healthcare; the workers often listen to refugees share their traumatic experiences and are left without support of their own.

Did you know?
75% of world refugees are from the Arab world; approximately 664,000 refugees reside in Jordan