Every one has bad days in the office, but when you’re based hundreds of miles from the nearest big town and thousands of miles from friends and family, how do you share your troubles and let off steam?
The creators of whydev, an internet resource for aid and development staff, believe their new online peer coaching initiative will help tackle high burn-out rates among workers based abroad – staff who are often faced with the challenges of remote locations, high-stress situations and unfamiliar cultures.
Weh Yeoh, the co-founder of whydev, says he first realised the potential of peer coaching when he was working in a remote part of China last year.
“It was very isolating, and I was frustrated that I had no one to bounce my ideas off,” he says.
“I made my own network when I set up the whydev website as a discussion forum, and now the idea is to create a short cut for other people who are in my situation.
“We want to do the hard work for them by putting them in touch with people who can relate to what they’re going through.”
When whydev floated the idea of a peer coaching service with users earlier this year, staff were astonished by the positive response and more than 300 expressions of interest.
Yeoh estimates there are 400,000 aid workers working internationally, and he believes the potential for the project is therefore huge.
Unlike a mentoring scheme, peer coaching is a horizontal relationship.
Participants in the service will be carefully matched, depending on their position and experience.
The role of coaches is not to advise, but to listen and collaborate, to provide support and share ideas.
Yeoh is concerned that aid and development workers are human beings who have needs that are not always recognised, and acted on, by their employers.
His worries are illustrated by the example of Carly Garonne, a whydev user who lives in Sre Ambel village, in Koh Kong province, and works with Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development and Morodok, a Cambodian NGO. As the only Westerner in her village, she sometimes feels isolated.
“I can speak to my family and friends about what I’m going through, but they cannot truly understand on a personal and a professional level,” Garonne says.
”As this is my first assignment as an aid worker, straight from university, I have been placed in a position that requires a lot of decision-making on important tasks that sometimes I feel I need the guidance of someone who has more experience.
“This is not only for specific work-related tasks but also in dealing with cross-cultural communication issues that arise.”
Yeoh says some NGOs provide support and counselling, but more often than not it is a token effort.
He says the benefits of peer coaching will be wide-reaching: not only will the supportive relationships that are formed via Skype and email help alleviate the mental stresses of working in isolation, but the professional co-operation will lead to more efficient and effective work in the aid and development sector.
“Most people working in the aid and development field would say that the way forward is through more collaboration,” he says.
Yeoh believes that there are not sufficient links across NGO projects and organisations – a situation that results in work being duplicated and knowledge wasted.
In a sector that largely relies on donor funding, Yeoh believes that the peer coaching project will be a cost-effective, sustainable solution.
In June, whydev launched a crowd funding campaign, and within a month it had managed to raise almost half of its $10,000 target.
Yeoh and his colleagues will use that money to develop their website and build their database of users, pay a small salary to the three founders and administrators, and create an algorithm that will accurately match up whydev’s users.
Over the coming months, Yeoh and his team’s “labour of love” will take shape, but only time will tell if their project, financed with less than $US5000, will make an impact in an industry worth billions every year.
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