How do international humanitarian aid workers stay healthy in the face of adversity?

International humanitarian aid workers (iHAWs) are motivated strongly to travel abroad to help communities affected by war, famine, disaster and disease. They expose themselves to dangers and hardships during their field assignments. Despite working under such challenging circumstances, most workers remain healthy. The objective of the present study was to unravel the mechanism that enables workers to remain healthy under the same circumstances that affect these communities. We hypothesised that the different components
of the Sense of Coherence (SOC) health mechanism mediate the relationship between field stressors and post-assignment health.


Methods and findings
The stress-health model was tested among 465 international aid workers using a longitudinal pre-post assignment study design and structural equation modelling for path analyses. The (health) outcome variables were PTSD, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, and work engagement. Our findings highlight the importance of being healthy before aid assignment and the negative health impact of field stressors that were not potentially traumatic. The SOC components mediated the relationship between field stress and postassignment health, with males and females using different SOC components to alleviate stress. Males are more likely trying to understand the nature of the stressor, whereas females mobilise their resources to manage stressors. In both groups, a high level of meaningfulness of the work was an important component in maintaining health. Regarding using the SOC concept for understanding the process of maintaining health, our findings indicated that SOC is best considered context-specific and multidimensional.


In addition to good pre-mission health, the SOC components help prevent field assignmentrelated negative health effects in iHAWs. Our findings support the idea to compose genderbalanced teams of iHAWs to maintain and promote health. The findings can be used to develop or refine health conversation tools and SOC based health interventions to promote health and wellbeing and prevent ill-health among aid workers and other stress-exposed populations.

Kaz De Jong, Saara Martinmäki, Hans Te Brake, Rolf Kleber, Joris Haagen, Ivan Komproe | 2022
In: PloS ONE ; ISSN: 1932-6203 | 17 | 11 | november | e0276727
Altruism, Anxiety Symptoms, Exposure, Females, Health Personnel Attitudes, Humanitarian Staff Care, Instruments, Intergroup Relations, International Organizations, Longitudinal Study, Males, Predisposition, Prevention, Relief Workers, Sense of Coherence, Statistical Analysis, Stressors