The pandemic has tinkered with our work/life balance, but despite that, work continues to play an essential role in our lives. It is, therefore, important to cultivate uplifting work environments. But how do we go about achieving that in the global health ecosystem? In this article, as two mid-career African health experts, we share our perspective on key features of an uplifting global health collaboration and enabling work environment.
English and French are often not the first languages of those working in global health. Communication, therefore, plays a crucial role in the global health ecosystem. It is a widely used and versatile commodity that holds a great deal of power. In fact, different types of communication come into play: verbal, non-verbal, written, visual, formal, and informal. Using all forms of communication is key to cultivating fruitful open, inclusive collaborations. Much can be lost in translating verbal communication from one language to another, so other types of communication (non-verbal, for instance) become more relevant and telling. So does active listening, which entails not only giving the other the opportunity to speak, but also listening to the intention behind their words.
Our post-pandemic world today allows us to resume travel and in-person collaboration, which irrevocably provides more channels for communication (informal, verbal, and informal). While the continued existence of remote work also allows for a steady flow of communication, remote work might provide some respite, especially for those who feel exposed to workplace micro-aggressions from colleagues and supervisors when in the office in person. Though such micro-aggressions can also occur while working remotely (in writing and during a call), the ability to work from home, a coffee shop or another self-designated space might provide a buffer and consolation. In these cases, having a steady flow of open, respectful, inclusive communications becomes essential for creating and maintaining enabling work environments.
Humility and Inclusion
Communication allows us to perceive our interlocutor’s point of view. It enables us to knit together a bridge of understanding. Hearing and understanding the other’s perspective goes a long way in research, project implementation, and policy-making. It entails understanding how the sum of one’s lived experiences, culture, data, and academic training shapes one’s opinion, analysis, and management style. Walking in the other’s shoes provides rich insight that can be used to create enabling collaborative work environments.
Similarly, acknowledging the value of ‘local’ expertise is essential. This can be achieved in two steps: 1) recognizing that our impact will never be whole unless we include the perspectives of our colleagues living where we want to enact change, and 2) creating a level playing field for ourselves and ‘local’ staff. We might be the experts on models and other technical levels, but ‘local’ staff are the experts on the ‘local’ problem. ‘Local’ staff are also the experts on what solutions would or would not work. Reaching this step requires humility but also respect and inclusivity. We must accept that we do not know everything. Health is a social construct deeply affected by culture, so we must accept that, our expertise can go only as far as our local colleagues take it. Together, and only together, do we find the right solutions to the right problems. Let’s continuously ask ourselves: how do we use what we collectively know to impact change together?
Once we find an answer to that question and feel comfortable with the answer, we would see no threat in initiating more inclusive approaches to our work. For instance, including ‘local’ staff at the inception of a new project (as early as that first HQ team meeting that leads to a concept note), in the protocol and proposal development, in implementation design and actual implementation, and finally, manuscript development and dissemination. Indeed, this calls for full, unhindered open collaboration.
Once we have learned to establish sophisticated inclusive communication styles, we can see the value in taking the time to understand others’ perspectives. Once we have done that, and we have learned to recognize their insight and include them in every phase of our work, then, and only then can we say that we have shown respect for them as colleagues and as human beings. This form of respect is the cornerstone for any dignified relationship, especially in the global health workplace.
The lack of appreciation of female researchers at the beginning of their careers can lead to a loss of confidence, which may explain why some stagnate or are tempted to leave because they do not feel valued. These are the consequences of a toxic and non-inclusive environment that can result from colleagues not taking the time to understand ‘local’ communication.