By Neesha Seth & Anton Botha
“There is strong evidence to suggest that a proactive approach to managing the well-being of our Peacekeepers can protect, manage and enhance their long-term psychological health and in turn, improve mission outcomes”
Since the end of the Second World War, the United Nations (UN) has worked tirelessly to secure international peace and security. Even though this multilateral collective of sovereign nations has enjoyed many successes, a lot of challenges remain. None more so than the ongoing efforts to secure peace in some of the world’s most troubled areas through Peacekeeping operations, the majority of which are in Africa and the Near East. Much as it is the image of the soldier in the blue helmet that symbolizes these efforts, it is the civilian men and women from across the world working in areas as diverse as human rights, disarmament, satellite telecommunications, and child protection, to mention a few, that are the lifeblood of these missions.
Securing the necessary talents and technical expertise to operationalize these efforts is of fundamental importance. However, by all accounts, securing international civilian staff remains one of the UN’s greatest challenges. Not only does the UN need to recruit individuals at the top of their respective substantive fields, but it must also ensure that it selects people that can endure the hardships, be they physical or psychological, that accompany life in some of the most dangerous parts of the world.
Hardship duty stations, as their name suggests, can be challenging places to work in for prolonged periods of time. There are the obvious physical discomforts that accompany austere living conditions as well as the stress brought on by pervasive threats to personal safety. However, it is often the subtler psychological elements that can make or break a civilian peacekeeper. And when staff struggle in these environments, it may result in maladaptive coping mechanisms such as substance abuse, deficient performance, a drop in engagement, presenteeism and turnover (brownouts), all of which represent significant roadblocks to the UN achieving its mandates in Peacekeeping.
Even so, to date, to the best of our knowledge, the UN uses no formal assessments to screen staff for their psychological or social preparedness for hardship deployments. This is where we believe that, by giving both the staff member and the Organization a deeper understanding of the psychological risks of deployment, the field of psycho-social risk assessment has much to offer.
What is psycho-social risk assessment and why it is important?
While the UN’s peacekeeping environment is certainly unique, many of the stressors faced by its staff are not. Indeed, there are many other workplaces where employees face similar challenges, these include mines, deep sea oil rigs, and other work environments that are characterized by pervasive threats to physical safety, isolation from social support systems, and high-stress job demands. Staff working in these industries may also engage in maladaptive coping mechanisms, which in turn may threaten the well-being and safety of workers and also disrupt operations.
Out of concern for these employees, an approach has been developed to assess the psychological and social risks that they face. This approach entails determining the staff member’s psychological preparedness for their role by paying attention to sources of risk to psychological and social well-being within the workplace itself and by working to mitigate these as far as possible.
In order to assess a staff member’s mission preparedness and mitigate psycho-social stressors, a mission should first ask the staff member to undertake a psychosocial risk assessment. This assessment uses a holistic approach by taking into consideration the opinions of management and staff, the risk factors inherent in the role and the physical environment of the mission itself.
The assessment involves a multistep process including:
- Gaining stakeholder-buy in, most importantly senior leadership buy-in – ensures that the proposed initiatives are implemented by enabling senior leaders to take ownership of the work environment, providing accountability, and influencing the culture of the duty station.
- Information gathering – this step assesses the workplace risk factors to staff members’ psychological health and identifies psychological symptoms and early warning signs.
- The implementation of risk management measures – prevention is better than cure is the philosophy here. In this step, the risk factors identified in step 2 are reviewed to see how they may be mitigated.
- Continuous monitoring, review, and plans for improvement – in this step, systems are put in place to keep an eye on critical risk factors as well as ongoing efforts to maintain the risk mitigation process.
How can missions mitigate psychosocial stressors?
Psychosocial stressors are varied and not all can be controlled by the manager, the mission, or the United Nations. However, simply knowing what they are is already a step in the right direction. Studies have shown that the elements in the list below can impact the psychosocial experience of an employee:
- High or low job demands
- Low job control
- Poor environmental conditions
- Poor support
- Low recognition and reward
- Poor workplace relationships
- Poor organizational justice
- Isolated work
- Low role clarity
- Poor organizational change management
- Remote work
- Violent or traumatic events
Therefore, it is in the interest of the organization, the mission, and the manager to determine which of these factors are within their realm of control and to take proactive steps to either minimize those stressors or, in the event that they cannot be mitigated, provide support mechanisms when they are faced.
How do we assess a person’s psychosocial preparedness for mission life?
Unfortunately, in the real world, it is unlikely that all stressors can be mitigated. Therefore, it is important to assess incoming staff for their ability to cope with these stressors. This process goes as follows:
- Pre-deployment assessment – Prior to deployment, and under the supervision of a professional psychologist, a staff member completes a battery of psychometric tests. These assessments aim to obtain insight into a variety of relevant psychological dimensions to mission life and could include measures of general well-being, potential psychopathological risk areas, levels of resilience, general self-efficacy, levels of burnout, etc. The goal of each measure is to provide incremental and useful insight into an employee’s psychological preparedness for mission life.
- Psychologist one-on-one Interview – Following the completion of these measures, a brief interview is conducted by a qualified psychologist to ascertain further relevant contextual factors as well gather the necessary follow-up information on the self-report measures.
- Reporting – A report is then drafted reporting on the individual’s mission readiness including a profile containing their psychosocial strengths and weaknesses.
- Feedback and Coaching – the psychologists and staff member then meet virtually to discuss the findings. Here the psychologist helps the staff member navigate the contents of the report by highlighting possible risk areas, providing some coaching on possible productive and unproductive coping strategies and identifying which to use and which to avoid.
- Feedback to Management – with the consent of the staff member, this report can then be shared with their new manager. The manager can then see what potential stressors pose risks to the incoming staff member. The psychologist can then assist the manager to make the required provisions to support the employee by reducing exposure to the identified stressors and providing the necessary tools to help the employee cope at the duty station.
This process has been shown to be highly effective in mitigating the effects of psychosocial risk factors in staff once deployed.
The direct and indirect costs to UN Peacekeeping due to poor psychosocial risk management leading to maladaptive coping mechanisms, disciplinary issues, reduced performance, and staff turnover, are substantial. Millions of dollars are lost as staff drop out and new staff have to be recruited and deployed. An even bigger loss is the lost productivity, re-directed resources, and misdirected attention. This all compounds to diminish UN’s ability to deliver on its peacekeeping mandates – to help those who are most vulnerable.
As we have discussed, psychosocial risk assessment is a proactive approach that has been demonstrated to reduce the negative consequences mentioned. A study conducted by PwC showed that psychosocial risk management is more than just a fluffy intervention. The study presents convincing data that the adoption of proper psychosocial risk management processes has a return of 2.3 times that invested. In UN terms that would translate to a cost saving of 2.3 times along with improved mandate delivery. At around $1,000 USD per deployee, a psychosocial risk assessment has the potential to help organizations like the UN (and NGOs in the field) not only to greatly reduce financial waste, but also to improve mandate delivery and, most importantly, save lives.
* A big thanks to Christelle Robertson for her feedback and input into this blog.