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Penelope Curling: Helping UNICEF staff deal with stress


NEW YORK, 21 March 2005 – Since January 2003, Penelope Curling, stress counsellor for UNICEF, has been looking after the well-being of some 15,000 staff and contractors. worldwide.  After more than two years as the organisation’s only stress counsellor, she  will be handing over some of her duties in mid-April to UNICEF’s first regional stress counsellor, Ehavna Adatia. Adatia will be based in South Asia.

Among Curling’s responsibilities  is training other members of staff as Peer Support Volunteers (PSV’s) to assist her wherever UNICEF works.  There are currently 45 people under her instruction.  PSV’s are not themselves counsellors; instead they learn how to recognize the symptoms of stress and how to put mechanisms in place to help staff deal with it. Follow-up supervision and support are available for them to draw on if needed.

Curling liaises with other agencies working in the same parts of the world as UNICEF  and networks with local counsellors. The PSV’s keep these channels alive in her absence.

As humanitarian aid workers, UNICEF employees often have to deal on a personal level with the same situations as the people they’re trying to support.  In fact, it was Curling’s shock at seeing the heavy price paid by relief workers during the Kosovo crisis that made her realize that stress counselling was an area she wanted to work in.

Stress is an inherent part of life

“In Albania, I saw the impact on aid workers. So many were close to burnout and there was no one there to care for THEM.”  Expanding upon her comments, Curling explains that she used to see staff ignoring their own stress levels caused by living through an emergency situation in order to help others.  The workers who had to leave when it became too much would simply be replaced, and talk of stress was almost “taboo.”

She says the culture has now changed, and although humanitarian aid workers still remain as committed to their jobs as ever, there is no longer such a fear of admitting to the stress of such demanding work.

“My main objectives are not to get rid of stress.  It’s impossible to get rid of stress.  It’s inherent, it’s a part of our life,” says Curling. “It’s to make people aware of stress.  It’s to make people aware of how dangerous it can be, of how it can impact you psychologically, physically, impact on your relationships, your behaviour. And to make them motivated to do something about it.”

Travel is key

One of her key activities now involves travelling to emergency zones to facilitate access to counselling and support for staff living and working in critical situations. A recent visit to tsunami-affected areas of south Asia is an example.

The travel aspect of her work fits in well with Curling’s itinerant past.  She was born in South Africa, and moved to Holland in the early 1980’s. Curling says all of the interesting jobs took her away from home. Before working for UNICEF, she lived in Namibia and worked with The Peace Centre, an NGO co-funded by the Dutch government.  The Peace Centre runs a trauma care facility for survivors of organized violence, including ex-combatants, refugees and torture victims.

For now, Curling is based in New York, and says she’s come to terms with the fact that she’s not the type to put down permanent roots.  She claims to have simply “rolled into” her current job with UNICEF. “I think just following my heart has led me in the right direction eventually.”




11 February 2005: UNICEF stress counsellor Penelope Curling discusses the challenges of her job.

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