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Duty of care and the importance of staff wellbeing and resilience

by Chris Abbott

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Duty of care is a concept that causes much concern and confusion among senior managers and board members. While the humanitarian aid sector has been grappling with the issue since the 2015 Dennis vs. Norwegian Refugee Council case in particular, human rights groups, peacebuilding organisations, funders and other NGOs and civil society organisations are rapidly waking up to their own duty of care obligations.

We understand duty of care to be:

The obligation for an organisation to provide a reasonable standard of care to those performing activities on their behalf that could bring them to foreseeable harm.

The drivers behind this obligation can be multiple; they may be legal, moral or contractual, for example. A key point is that duty of care obliges us to safeguard against harm that can be foreseen. As such, organisations – rightly – place great emphasis on security risk assessments and creating and maintaining appropriate security plans and crisis management plans.

The challenge is that with all the emphasis on physical safety and security, organisations are all too often overlooking the importance of staff wellbeing and resilience. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), vicarious trauma and chronic stress, for example, are very real risks for those working in insecure or hostile environments, and can have serious physical health implications as well as long-term mental health repercussions.

In 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that 47% of its staff experienced difficulty sleeping and 57% reported symptoms of sadness, unhappiness or emptiness. In another study, Antares Foundation found that 46% to 80% of staff working in high-stress situations in their home country experience symptoms of distress. This data is consistent across sectors that work in high-stress and insecure environments. A recent study on human rights defenders found that 89% of the study were exposed to secondary and primary trauma through interviewing witnesses and 19% had significant symptoms associated with PTSD.

At the same time, there are numerous studies that demonstrate that resilient staff are essential for the healthy functioning of an organisation.

If we accept that duty of care is the obligation to provide a reasonable standard of care to those performing activities on our behalf that could bring them to foreseeable harm, then it is clear that staff wellbeing and resilience has to take its place alongside security risk management as part of the duty of care framework. However, too often discussions around stress, wellbeing and mental health are taboo, and staff worry that their career will be impacted if they reveal how they are truly feeling.

Open Briefing is committed to working with organisations to change this narrative and improve staff wellbeing and resilience. Through audits, training and direct service provision, we can begin to change the script, helping both staff and organisations to increase their resilience, and, ultimately, programme more effectively. First launched on Time to Talk Day earlier this year, our staff wellbeing and resilience services now include:

We can also support you with safeguarding, which is another related – and often overlooked – element of duty of care. Safeguarding has traditionally focussed on the responsibility that organisations have to ensure that their staff and programmes do not harm children (including preventing sexual exploitation and abuse); however, it has recently expanded to include vulnerable adults as well protecting staff from inappropriate behaviour, such as bullying and harassment. It is essential that all organisations have robust safeguarding policies and procedures in place in order to meet good practice standards. Open Briefing can conduct an evidence-based safeguarding audit of your organisation in order to help you assess your current safeguarding policies and procedures, identify strengths and gaps, and develop an action plan to address the gaps and build on the strengths.

Please contact us if we can help you or your organisation with any of the above staff wellbeing or safeguarding services on an ad-hoc basis or through a retained service contract.