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Thinking of working at Amnesty International? Think again

Amnesty International has apologised for the work culture after it was pointed out in a review following two employees' suicide.

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New Delhi: Bullying, stress, crippling workload, managerial apathy, burnout. Amnesty International has been called out for a “toxic” work culture in a staff well-being review commissioned by the human rights group after two employees committed suicide last year.

If not corrected soon, the report says, Amnesty could remain in the “state of emergency” it is currently in.

An online survey was conducted as part of the review by the KonTerra group, a US-based consultancy that supports humanitarian organisations. Around 70 per cent of the staff of the Amnesty international secretariat, or 475 people, participated in it.

Amnesty International operates in 159 countries tackling, researching and documenting human rights abuses in their various forms, be it regarding sexual and reproductive rights or freedom of expression. The international secretariat, from which the respondents were drawn, “is responsible for the majority of the organisation’s research and leads our campaigning work”, according to the Amnesty website.

According to the online survey, 65 per cent of the staff said they didn’t think their well-being was a priority for the Amnesty leadership/management. As many as 39 per cent of the employees said they had developed mental or physical health issues “as the direct result of working at Amnesty”. More than 50 per cent of staff said they did not feel valued by Amnesty’s leadership/management, while 38 per cent claimed they did.

“Many former and current staff describe Amnesty as an environment in which staff do not feel that they are valued, protected, or treated with respect and dignity,” the report reads.

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‘Martyrdom culture’

The mission of Amnesty has spawned a martyrdom culture in the workplace, the report states, where employees feel compelled to sacrifice their personal well-being because of “the critical importance of the work”.

Asked to select the five most significant triggers of stress from a list of 38, 32.4 per cent of the employees identified “heavy workload/long working hours”. Around 33.9 per cent chose “conflicting priorities and demands”.

“…There is a widespread perception among staff that some members of the SLT (senior leadership team), and some managers, do not fully appreciate this dynamic (how motivated and committed many staff are) but simultaneously tend to use Amnesty’s mission as a reason not to attend to staff concerns under the guise that staff ‘should be grateful for being able to work at Amnesty’,” the report adds.

“Due to lack of shared responsibilities among teams, many are forced to check email and be available while on leave, which means there is no true break from the work,” it states.

“In a field where this issue of workload is a perennial problem anyway, the current situation at Amnesty is a clear recipe for overload and burnout,” it adds. “Collectively, members of the assessment team have conducted similar assessment reviews for more than five peer organisations during the last five years. Amnesty appears to have the highest number of staff, by far, reporting that they have experienced severe burnout and had to take months of [sic] work to recover.”

In addition, the report also pointed to instances of bullying, sexism and racism.
“There were multiple reports of managers belittling staff in meetings, deliberately excluding certain staff from reporting, or making demeaning, menacing comments like, ‘You’re shit!’ or, ‘You should quit! If you stay in this position, your life will be a misery’,” says the report.

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Why the report was commissioned

In May 2018, Gaëtan Mootoo, a senior employee who had worked with Amnesty for 30 years, killed himself in his Paris office and left a note that “made it clear that work pressures played a major part in his decision to end his life”, the report states.

Just six weeks later, a young intern named Rosalind McGregor killed herself at her parents’ home in London. An independent inquiry found that her suicide was unrelated to her work with Amnesty, but her parents claimed she had developed “acute anxiety” after joining the organisation.

In its recommendations, KonTerra suggests a number of reforms, ranging from strengthening assessment and recruitment practices to improving grievance redressal mechanisms.

In a statement issued after the report, Amnesty International general secretary Kumi Naidoo said the “senior leadership team (SLT) takes shared responsibility for the climate which emerged where colleagues felt, or continue to feel, undervalued and unsupported, and we are truly sorry”.

“We will now look in detail at the recommendations of the KonTerra review – and in consultation with staff draw up an overall implementation plan, assessing to what extent and in what stages we will deliver on them,” he added, saying he would present the new plan by 2019.

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