When I first became the CEO of a global humanitarian nonprofit years ago, I heard powerful words of advice that have shaped the way I live and work. They came from the elderly founder of that organization, who was looking back at a life of accomplishments and regrets.
He looked me in the eyes somewhat sternly and said, “Don’t make the same mistake I did.”
Yes, sir, I thought, and then asked, “What mistake?”
He recounted how the depth of his commitment to serve people suffering from poverty and disease around the world had upended his commitments at home, to his family and his own health. The amount of suffering he saw in the world drove him to give everything he had to the good cause of working to alleviate it. One result was that for too many years, his life was out of balance. And now, looking back, he regretted it.
I know this bottomless sense of obligation can be a trap for people who dedicate their lives to works of mercy, compassion and healing. I was reminded of that again this week while reading a blog about physician burnout on Scientific American’s website.
“The real problem,” the authors write, “is in the medical culture that tells us to take care of our patients and their families before ourselves. This extends to all clinicians, not just physicians. And it’s understandable. After all, for many of us, it often is a matter of life and death.”
I think the same can be said about humanitarian workers. Staff from Americares and our many sister agencies know that their work is often an essential bridge between despair and hope, poverty and opportunity, illness and health for the vulnerable people they serve — at times even life and death. How could they not give everything they have?
Using language common to his religious upbringing, the founder reminded me: “Your family is your first ministry.” In other words, take care of yourself and your family first, so you are healthy enough to take care of people in need around the world.
For the most part, I have tried to live by his advice. I preach “family first” to my staff whenever I can — and model it too. Leave your phone at your desk, walk the dog, leave time for sunsets and hugs. I know my colleagues don’t always heed my words; I see too many of them work too hard and long. They are passionate people, driven by an ethos of service and an understanding that the people they serve are much more vulnerable than they.
I fly a lot and like many, tend to ignore the safety demonstrations or videos that are required before takeoff. We should at least pay attention to one message that has a larger meaning relevant here: If cabin pressures drops and oxygen masks fall from overhead, put yours on first and then assist others. The point is we won’t be much good to others if we pass out ourselves .
The advice is good for physicians, health workers, humanitarians and others who give much of themselves in service to others. Take care of yourself (and, I’ll add, your families), so you can help care for others. The world will be richer for it.