To ensure staff wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) launched an innovative staff welfare initiative in early 2020 with UNV and recruited staff counsellors. The IOM Staff Welfare team now includes eight UN Volunteer Staff Counsellors. So, how have they contributed to staff health and wellbeing during COVID-19 times?
UN Volunteers are serving with IOM as Staff Welfare Counsellors to support and ensure staff mental health and wellbeing. These mental health professionals reach out to staff affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including those impacted by organizational restructuring and temporary suspension of projects/programmes, and others engaged in the response. They are a crucial part of the wider Staff Welfare service.
Anna Aisenbrey, a UNV Regional Staff Counsellor in the Middle East and Northern Africa office of IOM, speaks highly about the dedication of her fellow UN Volunteers and other colleagues and how their multicultural and multilingual background is effective in delivering on the counselling initiative.
The IOM Staff Welfare team now includes eight Staff Counsellors, fluent in eleven different languages, namely: Russian, Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, German, Italian, Farsi (Dari, Tajik), Arabic (Tunisian dialect), Azeri and Swahili. --Anna Aisenbrey, UN Volunteer Regional Staff Counsellor with IOM, Middle East and North Africa
Anna provides staff welfare in the region, offering tele-counselling and in-person counselling in allocated global locations. Together with colleagues, she prepares educational materials, seminars, e-bulletins and interactive webinars on stress management and self-care for staff.
Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world to rapidly adjust to a new working environment. This has also posed new challenges in having interactive conversations and sessions — and counseling is no exception.
Agathe Ragira, serving with the Regional Office for East and Horn of Africa as a UN Volunteer Staff Counsellor, shares some of the challenges they face.
The lack of physical presence of another person in the same room may make some people feel less emotionally intimate and less comforted in times of distress… Being at a distance from my clients, it can be difficult to react quickly enough when a crisis or difficult situation arises during the session. --Agathe Ragira, UNV Staff Counsellor with IOM, East and Horn of Africa
In an online setting, it is harder to capture body language, visual clues and understand how people feel – that means it is also harder to communicate one’s understanding and empathy. In order to resolve such issues, Agathe highlights the importance of being attentive to the client’s words and emotions, to ensure that colleagues feel heard and understood even in this new communication setting.
Additionally, there are challenges with technology and time differences, for example, Agathe highlights that sessions require additional preparation – such as checking the network, preparing an alternative platform, and finding a comfortable time and space for both client and counselor – to help continuity.
Another experience comes from the South America region, where Andrea De Garay is working tirelessly as a UN Volunteer Staff Counsellor in delivering services. Together, she and other volunteers and colleagues have been able to support staff members and their families.
We were fortunate to have a very experienced supervisor who trusted us with the task. We reached out, offered webinars and advertised our presence and service through digital means. Our main challenge was to be creative enough to reach ALL the staff. --Andrea De Garay, UNV Staff Counsellor with IOM, South America
The UN Volunteer Staff Counsellors agree that it was challenging at first for the team, as they had to offer support even to people who had not yet realized the effect of COVID-19 on their mental health. Also, in some countries, the culture is such that psychological services are still not accepted by everyone. Despite this, they attest that the results were amazing and satisfying.
Andrea shares that most staff members were open and receiving. Some reached out directly to the team, not only for COVID-19 related matters, but also out of general interest to improve the quality of their lives.
Being part of the global response in such a major crisis and using my skills to improve wellbeing has been one of the most satisfying professional experiences I have ever had. --Andrea De Garay
In October 2020, UN Women awarded IOM’s multilingual and global team of UN Volunteer Staff Counsellors with certificates of appreciation for their service for their efforts and meaningful contribution to ensure availability of psychosocial services to all staff.
This came after IOM reported to UN Women on how it applies the Field Enabling Environment Guidelines, highlighting: "Starting in 2020, the IOM Staff Welfare team, which consisted of four fixed term international and national counsellors, was augmented by eight UN Volunteer Staff Counsellors to assist with mental health-related activities globally and in relation to COVID 19. They provide tele-counselling support, webinars and facilitation of wellbeing support networks in eleven languages."
This was recognized as a good and forward-looking example of the application of the guidelines and promotion of SDG 3, which seeks to ensure health and well-being for all, at every stage of life.
The partnership between UNV and IOM is guided by the Enabling Environment Guidelines for the United Nations System, which were deployed in 2019 in response to the UN Secretary-General’s Gender Parity Strategy.