Why is Amnesty’s ‘Staff Wellbeing Report’ required leadership reading?

On 31st January 2019 Amnesty published the outcome of the assessment conducted by KonTerra following the suicides of Gaëtan Mootoo and Rosalind McGregor and against a backdrop of culture and restructuring challenges. The scope of the assessment explored two questions:

(1) What are the major lessons that Amnesty International can learn from these tragic incidents?

(2) What additional measures, if any, would be recommended…to ensure adequate support to our staff and their wellbeing..

You can access the report here and I don’t intend to rehash the contents but to answer the question I set out in the title. The report is easy to navigate although uncomfortable to read: it serves as a case study in leadership failings, ‘people services’ that didn’t serve the people and transformational change that destroyed. It’s required reading because I challenge you to read this report and not use its findings for your personal and business development.

You may take a quick look and discount the relevance to your own organisation: Amnesty is cause driven, it’s a charity and its work is highly specialised. You may consider that the people who have the opportunity to serve are “lucky” in their opportunity or that the problems of this type of organisation or employee are unlikely to align with what you see around you.

Amnesty’s work may be niche but the motivation is not unique; I know many individuals, roles or professions who strongly believe in the values and rights that they seek to uphold. It’s that motivation that helps them ‘go the extra mile’ and it’s also the challenge that can create a sense of martyrdom in approach to work or create secondary victims. These are themes picked up in this report but they are not the catalyst for an unwell organisation.

So if its not the tragedy and horror that people deal with every day that is undermining wellbeing and the overall organisational health what is it? The answer to question number 2 is that the root cause of stress is the internal culture, work environment and leadership. The top 5 identified causes of stress are:

  • Conflicting priorities and demands
  • Heavy workloads and long hours
  • Time/resource insufficient for the job
  • Ineffective communication
  • Overly hierarchical structure

Sound familiar? Amnesty, for its specialist function, is still a people ‘business’: 49% of respondents did not feel able to ask questions or challenge the status quo. The consistent theme is a negative workplace culture that is long established escalating in consequence of a lengthy programme of “transformational” change. Views of the Leadership and People and OD teams must make for exceptionally uncomfortable reading (recognised in Amnesty’s response) but also present a smorgasbord of feedback that you’d be hard pressed not to improve upon.

A stand out quote for me was on the need for leaders to continuously ‘walk the talk’ to remain authentic, true to mission and to avoid the ‘hypocrisy’ label that fatally undermines trust: “They (Amnesty) need to be honest and they need to be transparent. They tell governments that they’re speaking truth to power, but they have been secretive, dishonest and corrupt themselves“.

Towards the end of the report you’ll find some recommendations which include a series of interventions and timelines to move towards becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organisation along with insight into what the participants need from Amnesty. There are many take-aways and I hope the read prompts some reflection. One final point from me is the reference in the report (at page 54) to the tragic catalyst for action: the two individuals who took their own lives. Don’t wait for crisis to be the impetus to make wellbeing a priority. The time is now.

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