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Saturday, 10th October 2020

Maintaining psychological well-being in paradise

By Lisa Bass

The pictures sent home may give the impression that SEED's International staff are living in paradise – and in so many ways they are – but life can be tough for them from time to time. They have left behind family, friends, a culture that they are familiar with and a language that they know, to come and work thousands of miles away from home. It is a leap of faith for the young professionals who are seeking a start in the world of International Development.  Homesickness, feeling a little lost at times, overwhelmed at others and missing family and friends is a natural part of everyone’s experience in SEED. Over the years SEED has becoming very used to supporting its international staff, but we can often forget how hard it is for them, and how important it is for them to protect their mental health and well-being.

In our 20 years in Madagascar, SEED has found ways in trying to support its international staff, and on World Mental Health Day, we’d like to reflect on how SEED has changed the way we manage time off and how valuable very simple changes have been in supporting people through any difficult times.

We all look forward to a holiday, and holidays and time off are vital in how we balance our life and work. They make sure that we have time to recharge and enjoy life outside of the office and maintain our well-being. However, for international staff taking holidays can be difficult as naturally people want to save up their holiday to be able to go back home and see family. With 2 weeks off at Christmas and a further 3 weeks off throughout the year, on the surface this looks easy, but with return flights often taking 6 days out of any holiday, it isn’t that simple. By saving up their holidays for long trips home it didn’t actually leave very much time for staff to take time off in country for the odd long weekends, or finding the time to recharge their batteries.

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To help staff mange this and maintain their well-being, SEED did two things. The first was to make Malagasy bank holidays optional, so staff could take these off, or work them and add the day to annual leave. With quite a few bank holidays throughout the year, staff could often ‘bank’ at least a week of additional holiday to take whenever they wanted to. This gave them much more freedom and control over their time off.

The second thing SEED did was to introduce two ‘Well Being Days’, which staff could take off with very little notice. We didn’t know how this would work in practice, but after 18 months these have become a central tool in how staff safeguard their mental health and well-being.

Jess during Project Oratsimba field work

Jess works on SEED's lobster fisheries management project and spends some of her time in the bush and she has found a particular use for her well-being days. “Organising field trips can be quite stressful, but knowing that I can have a day to myself when it's over helps me get through. When I get back I can relax and do some of my favourite things, including going to the beach, reading a good book and eating some good food, so that when I return to the office I feel rested and rejuvenated”.

Although taking a well-being day needs to be cleared with your manager, these can be taken with 24 hours notice, and the only reason staff need to give is that they are taking a well-being day. With the ability to take a day off when life just gets a little overwhelming, and it not being either holiday or sick, staff have quickly become used to spotting when they need a well-being day, and giving themselves the space to recharge before life becomes stressful or they become sick.

As Annelin, SEEDs Senior Programme Officer for Livelihoods, explains “I struggle with 'just' taking a day off from my holiday allowance, as there is always that feeling of needing to save them up for a trip or to go home. A wellbeing day doesn't feel like you're 'losing' something, you're just taking a day to recharge”.

With working abroad and having to develop strong support networks outside of family and friends back home, one of the aspects of working with SEED that everyone finds difficult is saying goodbye to those they have been working, living and socialising with during their time at SEED. When you have been living and sharing everything with someone for a year and then have to say Goodbye, maybe knowing you may never see them again, emotionally it is hard, and it can take its toll.

Eve with friends on International Women's Day

Eve, SEEDs Senior Programme Officer for Conservation, describes the importance of one well-being day that she still remembers. “I took a wellbeing day the day that my house mate and another friend left Madagascar. I was able to go to the airport with them, say goodbye and then take the rest of the day to process, which helped me to go back to work the next day with a clearer head about adapting to life without them around. I'm still grateful for having the opportunity to see them off, and I'm not sure I would've automatically thought of doing it if wellbeing days hadn't been an option”

SEED have also continued to include well-being days now that the International staff have been working remotely for the past 6 months. As Jess explains “Well-being days have also been useful when working from home as it has given me the time to take space away from both my home and my office as sometimes working and living in the same space felt a bit claustrophobic”.

When you are away from family and friends, and work and home are so intertwined, well-being days have become a welcomed and effective way of learning when to give ourselves some time to work through the stresses of living abroad, recharge our batteries, deal with life away from work and then step back into the beauty of Madagascar and the work that so motivates us at SEED.