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close this bookManaging Stress in the Field (IFRC; 2001; 20 pages) [FR] [ES]
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentWhat is stress?
View the documentCumulative stress
View the documentCoping with traumatic experiences
View the documentThe psychological support programme for delegates
View the documentShort questionnaire on stress*
View the documentBibliography
View the documentBack cover

Cumulative stress

Cumulative stress results from an accumulation of various stress factors such as a heavy workload, poor communications, the frustration of not being able to meet the beneficiaries' needs, having to cope with situations in which you feel powerless, lack of basic comforts, and inability to rest or relax. Under normal circumstances, it can be monitored by adequate personal and team stress management, but in some stressful situations such as disasters, cumulative stress can escalate quickly and develop into professional exhaustion known as "burn out".

Cumulative stress is the most frequent form of stress encountered in delegations. Delegates and heads of delegation should not underestimate it. Although it is, to a large extent, inherent in humanitarian and emergency work, staff must ensure that it remains within reasonable limits, taking into account the prevailing circumstances.

How to recognize cumulative stress?

The key to identifying cumulative stress in an individual is changes in his/her behaviour.

The most common signs of cumulative stress include:

Physical symptoms: overtiredness, diarrhoea, constipation, headaches, abdominal and back pains, sleeping disorders, appetite changes.

Emotional signs: anxiety, frustration, guilt, mood swings, undue pessimism or optimism, irritability, crying spells, nightmares, apathy, depression.

Mental signs: forgetfulness, poor concentration, poor job performance, negative attitude, loss of creativity and motivation, boredom, negative self-talk, paranoid thoughts.

Relational signs: feeling isolated, resentful or intolerant of others, loneliness, marriage problems, nagging, social withdrawal, antisocial behaviour.

Behavioural changes: increased alcohol, drug and/or tobacco use, change in eating habits or sexual behaviour, increase in risky behaviour, hyperactivity, avoidance of situations, cynical attitudes.

Collapse of belief systems: feeling of emptiness, doubt in religious beliefs, feeling unforgiven, looking for magical solutions, loss of purpose of life, needing to prove self-worth, cynicism about life.

It is important that:

• you realize that feelings of distress in yourself and others are legitimate and not signs of personal weakness or lack of professionalism;

• you take the responsibility for noticing the signs and symptoms showing that your coping mechanisms are overloaded; and

• you ensure that you get support, not only to deal with the symptoms of stress that are emerging within you, but also to identify and tackle the cause of the stress.

In a team, the following group reactions may be the effect of cumulative stress:

Anger towards managers
Lack of initiative
Clique formation (inner and outer "circle")
Conflict between groups
High turnover of personnel
Negative attitude towards workplace
Critical attitudes towards colleagues
Scapegoat mentality

Role of management

Managers can play a vital role in the prevention of cumulative stress, thereby maintaining a healthy work environment. Not only can they serve as a healthy role model for their staff, but they can also create opportunities to speak about tensions and communication problems arising in the delegation, facilitate the pursuit of extra curricular activities - such as sports - or organize a variety of social events.

If they notice negative trends they should provide the person affected with an opportunity to rest and talk about the causes of his/her stress. Depending on the seriousness of the situation, this may involve giving a long weekend off or R&R (rest and recreation) out of the country (where this policy rule applies).

Cumulative stress is avoidable and reversible: delegates and management have a common responsibility for its prevention.

How to prevent cumulative stress?

Take care of yourself.
Recognize the importance of an adequate support system.

Use your personal resources fully

• Social network.
• Sufficient leisure activities.

Know yourself

• Your resources.
• Your limits.
• Your stress reactions (see questionnaire on stress).

Share - communicate - be clear

• Find someone to share your doubts, fears and disappointments with.
• Express your needs (to head of delegation, colleagues).
• Say "no" (for example, to unreasonable work demands).

Bjorn EDER / Federation

Support each other

• Show that you care for your colleagues and listen to them.
• Avoid criticizing or playing down their remarks.
• Be alert to changes in behaviour and propose action if necessary (e.g., take a long weekend off).
• In case of security incidents, take time to talk and share emotions.

Ask for support from Geneva

• From the health officer.
• From the stress counsellor (support by phone, e-mail or fax; visit, if necessary).

Some tips

• Whenever possible, respect normal working hours. Avoid working on weekends.
• Allow sufficient time for rest, relief and relationships.
• Eat well-balanced meals at regular times. Avoid excessive alcohol.
• Keep your body fit. Do things that you enjoy.

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