Mental and physical health of international humanitarian aid workers on short-term assignments : Findings from a prospective cohort study

Research findings show humanitarian work impacts one’s health. We conducted a prospective observational study among 618 international humanitarian aid workers (iHAWs)’ recruited from 76 countries to investigate health changes and ill-health risk factors after mostly short-term (<1 year) medical emergency assignments. The aid workers were assigned to 27 countries. Data collected between 2017 and 2020.


We also compared a gold-standard clinical interview with self-report questionnaires to assess whether self- report scores overestimate the  prevalence of  clinical anxiety, depression and PTSD. Analyses consisted of repeated measures ANOVAs and adjusted odds ratios, using pre-assignment (T1), post-assignment (T2) and two- month follow-up data (T3). Humanitarian workers experienced on average, 2.6 experienced and witnessed po-tential traumatic events, and 4.8 male and 5.6 female assignment-related stressors. Self-report health indicators demonstrated a significant increase in emotional exhaustion, loss of vitality, decreased social functioning and emotional well-being between T1 and T2, all of which improved between T2 and T3. PTSD, depression, expe-rienced role limitations, physical functioning, pain, and general health – remained stable. Anxiety levels decreased significantly between T1 and T2. The presence of DSM-5 disorders anxiety (6.6 %), depression (1.3 %) and PTSD (0.3 %) was low compared to norm populations, except for alcohol-use disorder (13 %). None of the reported T2 risk factors was significant at T3. Compared to the clinical interview, self-report cut-off thresholds inflated the presence of a potential anxiety disorder (3×), PTSD (8×) and depression (25×). Humanitarian work is highly stressful but most iHAWs remained healthy. Looking into how iHAWs stay healthy may be a more useful way forward. 

K. De Jong , S.E. Martinmaki , H. Te Brake, J.F.G.Haagen , R.J.Kleber | 2021
In: Social Science & Medicine ; ISSN: 0277-9536 | 285 | september | 114268
Anxiety Disorders, Burnout, Depressive Disorders, Effects, Epidemiology, Humanitarian Staff Care, Interpersonal Interaction, Mental health, Personal Interview, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Psychotrauma, PTSD (DSM-5), PTSD (en), Quality of Life, Research, Stressors