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Stop Equating Being Mission-Driven With Being Super Human

Dimple Dhabalia


“It goes with the territory. Just tough it out.”

This was the overwhelming sentiment over a decade ago when I first experienced signs of vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout, while on a humanitarian assignment in Zambia.

After all, when you work with the world’s most vulnerable people — refugees, displaced people, people who are impoverished, sick, oppressed, or otherwise suffering — things like vicarious trauma and burnout are just a couple of the occupational realities that aren’t just tolerated, but continue to remain the unacknowledged challenges faced by many who work within what I call “high human impact” or HHI professions and sectors.

Planting the seeds of vicarious trauma.

By 2010, I was no stranger to this. I always knew I wanted a career that would allow me to serve vulnerable people. What I didn’t realize at the time was that doing this work might come at a cost to my mental and physical well-being. My first post after law school was with an organization where the unit I worked for was charged with protecting children who had survived trauma and neglect.

As a young and energized new attorney I believed that my ability to review cases over lunch as I ate a sandwich was a sign of resilience and strong mental health (spoiler alert — it wasn’t). Far from of being resilient, I later learned that this was when the first seeds for vicarious trauma had been planted.

After a couple of years I switched gears and began working with asylum seekers and refugees, and with each story I heard, additional seeds of vicarious trauma continued to be planted, until ten years had passed and the impact of the work eventually caught up with me on assignment in Zambia. On assignment I found for the first time in my career I couldn’t sleep or keep my emotions in check while interviewing refugees, and I felt a near constant state of anxiety. The experience made me begin to question my ability to continue doing the work that had always connected me to a sense of purpose.

What made things even more challenging was that at that time there was virtually no discussion about the occupational challenges of working in HHI sectors. There was also so much stigma associated with the topic of mental health that people wouldn’t talk about it — especially in the workplace. With an unspoken understanding that you were expected to simply tough it out until you couldn’t cope any longer, I quickly realized that I’d have to do whatever I could to take care of myself.

As I explored my options, one thing became clear:

I wasn’t the only one.

The more research I did, the more I realized that what I was experiencing was common in HHI occupations, and I knew that if I was experiencing this, other people must be experiencing it too — we just weren’t talking about it.

And that was the real problem.

High human impact workers are human too.

HHI workers face a myriad occupational stressors, from long hours and back-to-back deployments, to ongoing exposure to traumatic and even dangerous situations. Vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, burnout, and even moral injury often “go with the territory.”

But here’s the thing — we can mitigate the impact. We can help workers across HHI sectors learn to more effectively manage stress and alleviate, and ideally avoid, getting to the point of crisis and burnout. And we absolutely can provide HHI workers with the same caring and compassion we provide to those that HHI organizations are designed to help.

Since my experience in Zambia, I’ve been committed to starting this discussion with people: to talk about the occupational stressors of the job and how they affect those employed by NGOs, non-profits, the government and other organizations that work to make the world a better place through the service of others.

And from having these discussions, here’s what I know:

Having discussions and listening to people helps, but it’s not enough. Creating stand alone programs and treating workforce well-being as something to be checked off a list doesn’t work. And intentions alone, without action, aren’t enough.

Because occupational challenges aren’t really what cause burnout.

HHI organizations are packed with mission-driven individuals that are incredibly connected to the work they do. People that work for organizations that have an ethos of impeccable care for the people they serve — but it’s an ethos that doesn’t always extend to the people who serve. There seems to be a misconception across HHI sectors that being mission-driven somehow equates to being superhuman. This coupled with the constant urgency and high stakes nature of the work often results in workplace cultures that prioritize metrics and the bottom line over workforce well-being. This way of doing business erodes trust within the organization and leaves individuals feeling expendable and unsupported.

And it’s that — the organizational trauma that has been woven into the fabric of the culture with its subtle, lasting impacts on communication, connection and policies, more than the occupational challenges like vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue — that actually pushes people over the edge. It’s the organizational trauma that leads to burnout.

So here’s what we do about it:

We champion a complete culture change in HHI organizations.

I KNOW there is a way to put humans back at the center of this, to get the head, heart, and metrics working together, to truly create that sense of belonging and equity in the workplace. A way to ensure that people feel a sense of connection to their colleagues and to their purpose, and wake up every day feeling like where they are is exactly where they want to be.

And I KNOW that there’s never been a better time to focus on creating that culture change.

Between the pandemic, the renewed calls for social and racial justice, more people working from home, and changing demographics in the workforce, everything is changing. As people continue to navigate grief and experience post-traumatic growth, we are beginning to see that post-pandemic work standards are here to stay. We’re beginning to recognize that for people from historically untapped groups and communities, having a seat at the table isn’t enough if we don’t actually feel like we belong at the table. It’s time to acknowledge that it’s about sitting at the table AND having the right to use our voices to co-create with every other person in the room.

All of this contributes to our well-being as whole human beings, and that’s what I’m here to help with.

I want to help organizations see that they have a choice. By taking steps to help their workforce feel empowered and connected to each other, they can create a culture in which everyone feels seen and supported, a culture of belonging built on the principles of true equity and inclusion. A culture steeped in well-being and resilience.

And I want them to know that, in so doing, they will create a scenario in which people are willing AND able to keep showing up and delivering their best work BECAUSE of the organization, rather than IN SPITE of it.

If you’d like to learn more about how your organization can start working towards building a more human-centered culture of belonging and connection, I’d love to have that conversation with you. Let’s schedule a time to talk now.