People often associate the life of a diplomat with a privileged life abroad. In fact, as a diplomat you have access to the key actors of the political, economic, social and cultural life of a country. Accepting a diplomatic mission means accepting important responsibilities: representing your country’ or organization’ foreign policy, negotiating and implementing ambitious projects in a given country.
We often see the tip of the iceberg of this profession, an exciting and very rich learning experience. However, as with all professions, diplomats are not immune to the global epidemic of burnout.
I have not found any specific studies on the risks of burnout for diplomat colleagues.And yet, if we were to invent a well-oiled machine for stress and burnout, the diplomatic profession would be a very good candidate to test it!
Indeed, we recruit young people, ambitious, hardworking, committed to strong values with a tendency to perfectionism. Added to this, long working hours, missions in the country, public events not to be missed etc. As consequence, the days are longer, the nights shorter, and the weekends full of demands. The boundaries between professional and private life are tenuous. Stress, sleep problems, difficult balance between professional and personal life are also common features of diplomatic engagement.
The diplomat often comes with his/her family and/or partner and the question of their adaptation is essential. In case of difficulties, this could bring additional anxiety and stress for the diplomat colleague who feel responsible for his family’s well-being. In addition, a diplomat coming on his own in a new country face loneliness which could turn for some into a burden.
Accepting a diplomatic job is also accepting to serve your country in difficult conditions and to find yourself on the front line of a conflict, as it happened in Ukraine. You are part of the essential staff staying in the country. This means navigating in the middle of a storm of reports, meetings with its share of cold blood, stress and anxiety.
A former diplomat colleague told me that the essential quality of a good diplomat is courage and resilience. I also think that vulnerability is also a primary quality. It is still difficult in this profession with its smooth image to talk openly about mental health and yet there is much to be gained by expressing one’s vulnerability, one’s emotions, one’s doubts and one’s moments of stress, helplessness or suffering.
While posted few years ago in Nigeria at the EU embassy, I was convinced I was sufficiently prepared for this experience. I was a passionate worker, a perfectionist, I could no longer set limits, nor did I know how to express my emotions, my moments of overflow, of great stress, of shock following a bomb attack, etc. I observed my colleagues experiencing difficult and tense situations in silence. I felt that talking about our difficulties was taboo. In addition, distance from your Head Quarters reinforces this feeling of isolation or misunderstanding on what you experience in the field.
I learned the hard skills for the job of diplomat but not the soft skills, I didn’t have the tools to manage the stress and the unexpected of this job.
I interviewed fellow diplomats for Pacify Your Mind podcast. I felt inspired listening to their stories, how they managed stressful situations with their own inner resources. I committed myself through Pacify Your Mind to break mental health taboo in the diplomatic sector, to provide tools for organizations and colleagues to take care of their health and balance before, during their assignment and upon their return.
The stakes are high. Investing in the mental health of diplomatic colleagues means ensuring an alignment between the values of their organization or country and the professionals who embody them abroad.
How can you represent the interests of your country, ie the values of peace and cooperation if you are close to burnout and therefore no longer at peace with yourself?
This is a major issue because climate change crises, wars and conflicts will require more efforts and commitment from diplomatic colleagues. At the same time, it is key for International organizations and Ministries of Foreign Affairs to step up their support to colleagues in the field and help them face these new challenges without compromising their health.
Current and future diplomacy needs healthy diplomats.
Adeline Torcol, consultant, coach on well-being and stress prevention for diplomats working for EU, International Organizations and MFAs abroad.
www.pacify-your-mind.com “Your well-being at the heart of your mission abroad”.