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Long Past Time to Talk About Trauma—Raising Awareness and Resilience



Taking better care of employees—from pre-employment to post-employment—makes economic sense, creates better morale and is the right thing to do.

The Foreign Service Act of 1980 mandates a “career foreign service characterized by excellence and professionalism” as “essential in the national interest to assist the President and the Secretary of State in conducting the foreign affairs of the United States.”

Excellence and professionalism are difficult to maintain in an environment that requires repeated exposure to stressful and potentially traumatic situations. The January-February Foreign Service Journal, devoted to mental health care, contained the poignant and distressing stories of 45 anonymous Foreign Service personnel.

These reports describe an insensitive and inadequate response from the department to an unprecedented level of trauma in the workforce.

The testimonies of those who wrote to the FSJ illustrate powerfully that Foreign Service employees enjoy no separation between home and job, at least not when they are posted abroad. The experience is immersive. Note also the following realities for the typical Foreign Service professional:

• During the past two decades, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and other researchers have documented that trauma is prevalent in daily life in the United States. Therefore, the department must assume that at least some of the persons it hires have had previous exposure to trauma—even before being sent abroad. Any employee joining the workforce may have life experiences that weigh heavily and negatively on his or her wellness.

• More than 25 percent of today’s Foreign Service members have served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya or Yemen—the Priority Staffing Posts. Many more have served and are serving in other dangerous places such as Somalia, South Sudan and Lebanon. Prior to September 2001, embassies were generally evacuated once they came under fire from hostile forces, but since the ramping up of “expeditionary diplomacy” in the post-9/11 era, that is no longer the case.

• Of the 200-odd American posts worldwide, between 30 and 40 percent may be classified as “unaccompanied” at any one time. Scientific studies show that being separated from family members is one of the most traumatic experiences an individual can face.

• More than a quarter of FS personnel, after serving in so-called “danger zones,” have moved on to other posts and to Washington, D.C., presumably bringing along with them unaddressed mental or emotional issues.

• No baseline study of trauma in the Foreign Service workforce has ever been done.

• Traumatized individuals are working in Washington, as well as abroad. For example, during an October 2015 open meeting at State on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), department-based employees reported “secondary trauma” from constant exposure, via phone calls and email, to the catastrophic experiences of their colleagues working in foreign countries.

• Traumatized individuals may also pass on the effects to family members in the form of domestic violence and abuse. Research has shown that abusers are often themselves the victims of trauma.

The obvious bears repeating: The State Department is the only federal agency that requires a subset of employees—Foreign Service personnel—to spend a majority of their careers abroad. And it requires them to work in combat or otherwise extremely difficult posts to qualify for promotion into the senior ranks. To comply with international best practice with regard to managing personnel posted abroad, State leadership can no longer turn away from the reality of trauma in the Foreign Service experience.

The good news is that there are new models of management that can help. Increasingly, international organizations that operate globally are adopting a concept of “duty of care” regarding employees. Medecins sans Frontières and the German Development Agency (GDZ) are among the organizations that have recognized that taking better care of employees—from pre-employment to post-employment—makes economic sense, creates better morale and is the right thing to do.


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