Mental Health of Development Workers – are We Killing the Golden Goose?

When trying to tackle problems like hunger, poverty, and an outbreak of disease, the mental health of professionals working in the development sector usually gets framed as a frivolous issue.

Mental health issues for those working in the development sector can have far-reaching consequences but have not been studied substantially and continue to be a blind spot. The modern world of “soulless” work with its deadline-driven rhythms both exacerbates mental health challenges and, in turn, is also affected by them. Due to a heavy treatment gap, an estimated USD 2.5‐8.5 trillion is lost globally in annual economic output and this number is likely to reach USD 16 trillion by 2030.

A recent study carried out by Dalberg Advisors and Youth Alliance, on the mental health of social impact professionals working in India, brought to the fore several alarming findings. The study focused on development sector professionals in India and was split into two phases with an objective to understand how demographics and the nature of work affect mental health.

Phase 1 of the study included an online survey exploring various aspects of mental health affected by development work. The survey was drafted in consultation with mental health experts and professionals working closely with development sector workers on capacity building. The parameters of mental health being studied included: lack of sleep or changing sleep patterns; a decline in motivation; severe mood swings; stress; feeling of loneliness; and an inability to disassociate themselves from work.

In Phase 2, face-to-face and telephonic interviews with professionals were conducted to explore the emerging insights from the survey and understand the lived experiences of the subjects.

First, the statistics are quite worrying. Of the 194 individuals surveyed, a quarter of development sector professionals were considering leaving the impact sector altogether, while nearly half want to change their current jobs. 71% of the respondents experienced a loss of faith and belief in their work, while 67% felt an increasing sense of indifference around wanting to create change. They were getting “numb”.

The problem is especially pronounced for people working in the development sector. This is because development sector personnel work on hard problems and passionately identify with their work. They are often involved in providing emotional care and engage with beneficiaries undergoing ’tough experiences’. Neglecting people who work in the development sector, and viewing them merely as resources, can reduce motivation, consequently leading to drain of talent.

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Younger development professionals (aged between 20 and 30 years) are more vulnerable to poor mental health compared to their older counterparts. Employees at smaller organisations with constrained budgets are 3.6 times more likely to suffer from mental health issues than their counterparts at larger organisations.

Unfortunately, not many in the impact ecosystem, including donors and leadership teams, think too much about the mental health and wellbeing of their staff or their grantees. When trying to tackle problems like hunger, poverty, and an outbreak of disease, the mental health of their team members usually gets framed as a frivolous issue. But decision-makers often forget that as thousands of crores of impact and philanthropic capital is directed annually towards achieving development outcomes, reduced productivity and efficiency due to demotivated or stressed employees can mute progress and significantly reduce the impact these organisations are trying to create.

Overall, 46% of respondents felt a declining motivation or enthusiasm for work – a problem more prevalent in early-tenured professionals. The lack of visible results of their work has accelerated this decline in motivation.

Alarmingly, 73% of people experienced at least one symptom of poor mental wellbeing in the past six months; and 52% observed their colleagues going through the same. These symptoms included severe mood swings at work, feelings of guilt, feeling extreme highs and lows, anxiety over completing small tasks, acting impulsively, binge eating, and being worried at their workplace for situations beyond one’s control were the most commonly felt problems.

Additionally, two in every five people regularly experienced feelings of guilt or worthlessness and were overcritical of themselves at work. Noting the gender dimensions of mental health, 47% of women experienced these feelings compared to 35% of the men.

Geography is a significant factor as well. “I feel hopelessly lonely as I am on the field every day and don’t get a chance to meet anyone outside the community I work in. So, if I have a tough day, it remains that way. Also, there is a lack of time and energy to do anything recreational,” said a female impact sector professional worker who wished to remain anonymous.

Also read: Why We Need to Pay More Attention to Mental Health at the Workplace

More than 90% of the respondents experienced at least one of the following – an inability to disassociate from work, a feeling of loneliness, unsatisfactory monetary compensation, lack of tangible results, and stress from personal relationships.

There are three sets of drivers that lead to such pronounced mental health challenges. The first of these drivers is gender. On average, women are more susceptible to a decreased state of mental wellbeing, with 70 % being unable to disassociate from work compared to 48% of men. Not just that, 54% of women reported feeling stressed due to unsatisfactory monetary compensation compared to 35% men.

The second driver is age and the level of seniority. 80% of junior staff members are unable to disassociate from work compared to 55% of those in leadership roles. Symptoms like disruptive sleep patterns or reduced quality of sleep due to work-related stress are more pronounced amongst the junior staff (47%) compared to the organisation’s leadership (26%).

The structure, geography, and budget of an organisation make up the third factor. Employees at relatively large organisations with a budget of more than INR 5 million annually are 1.6 times more likely than those at smaller organisations to worry about work situations that are out of their control. Also, a larger percentage of people working in rural areas showed more severe mood swings compared to their urban counterparts.

On the positive side, access to a support network of peers and recognition of their work were two distinct positive contributors to mental wellbeing. 75% of people who engaged directly with the end-beneficiaries felt positive mental health effects due to this. People engaged in activities involving high-risk work, such as ending human slavery or working with refugees, considered the recognition of their work to be a positive influence on their mental health.

So, what can be done then? The study highlights the need to act at two different levels. There seems to be some low hanging fruit that can improve matters relatively quickly. These include providing impact professionals with access to a support network comprising of peers within and outside their organisations.

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“We are generally more open towards emotional intelligence and discussions than most other sectors,” said Gayatri, shedding light on how an in-house support team of colleagues could help many employees.

At a more structural and deep-rooted level, however, the study recommends three strategic steps to begin resolving the challenge. First, social sector organisations need to recognise that the mental wellbeing of their workers is non-negotiable and should commit to addressing this issue. Secondly, creating an environment with a strong in-house support system and ensuring that employees feel heard and appreciated should become the organisation’s cultural mandate.

Most importantly, the entire impact ecosystem must invest in diagnosing the problem and developing effective solutions at an ecosystem level so that hundreds of thousands of passionate social impact professionals can cope better. The end goal of such a diagnosis would be to develop institutionalised programs or interventions and make these available to development sector professionals seeking support.

In closing, it is important to remember that social impact gets realised, not just through donors or organisations, but individual professionals who are driven by their passion. Not caring for people who care for others, and viewing them merely as resources, can reduce motivation, and lead to significant mental health issues for them, a large talent drain, and also reduce the productivity of the impact sector.

This issue must become part of the agenda for all donors and actors working in the social impact ecosystem and they must invest to better understand and tackle this problem with the needed urgency.

Nirat Bhatnagar is a partner at Dalberg where he heads the Dalberg Advisors’ Water and Sanitation practice.