Counseling staff
A challenging yet rewarding task for Mary Bridget Leahy, UNOG staff counselor
2 Mar 2022

What does your job involve?

I am a UNOG Staff counselor, covering regular staff (including interns, consultants, and retirees) and support staff from international organizations based in Geneva such as OHCHR and UNCTAD. Counselors are usually trained in clinical psychology, counselling and psychotherapy, social work, or even psychiatry. I manage the Staff Counsellors Office (SCO), so I attend meetings with our clients and partners to discuss how we can implement the UN’s Mental Health Strategy (2018-2023) and, for example, reduce stigma around mental illness. The UN has recognized that many hardworking staff who are dedicated to their mandates can become ill due to the demands and pressures on them. My role is to analyze what staff tell me and see what both the organization and individual teams and managers can do to support them in order for them to stay healthy.

I also see staff individually, and in the SCO we offer confidential psychosocial support sessions. Our approach is to problem-solve with our clients and, if needed, refer to internal partners who can provide assistance (UNOG Medical Services, HRMS, the Office of the Ombudsman, etc.), as well as to psychologists and psychotherapists for those who may need more specific support, such as for relationship breakdowns or depression.

What did you do before?

I have had many different jobs. Growing up in Ireland, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, except that I wanted to travel and work with people from different cultures. I began as a flight attendant, I loved the job and enjoyed the perks of travel for 11 years. While working with United Airlines in the US, I joined their volunteering program, did some work with Habitat for Humanity, and with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

In my early 30s I took English literature at university, then moved to London and volunteered on a helpline for the Terrence Higgins Trust, an HIV/AIDS charity. I was trained to provide a listening ear and give advice to people who were either newly diagnosed with HIV or were concerned about risk.

I decided to stop flying and worked full-time with homeless people and those who had complex mental health needs with regard to substance misuse. My first job was as a specialist support worker with female street sex workers. I received basic training and a lot of support from fantastic colleagues who taught me a lot. I worked with the homeless for eight years. It was both of these experiences that motivated me to study for an MSc in Psychodynamic Counselling and Psychotherapy. I wanted to explore behaviour in more depth so I could help my clients and provide the best possible professional care.

Were you able to have an impact on the lives of staff who came to see you?

I hope so. Many staff are grateful for a confidential space to talk. They often don’t want to report feelings of harassment or conflict in their teams, and it’s good to tell someone what they are going through. I won’t disclose any individual stories, but I can say that I have worked well with several staff who have been on long sick leave and who needed extra support, for example, with someone who has over 15 years of service. She dedicated herself to her career, making sacrifices in her relationships and with her family. She was drawn to humanitarian work in conflict zones, finding this work meaningful, and had abundant energy to help in times of crisis. She moved to Geneva to use her experience and knowledge to influence the policy makers and political partners she worked with, yet once she ‘relaxed’ in Geneva her mental health suffered. Ordinary life became overwhelming, and she struggled to make decisions, but with time and specialist psychological support she is now getting better. We can survive on adrenaline and push ourselves when we have to, yet research shows that our brains and bodies can only take so much. We need to pace ourselves, slow down, rest and listen to the signals from our mind.

Do you ever report systemic issues that you might encounter to Human Resources?

Yes, UNOG has a working group dedicated to staff well-being. This group consists of HRMS, the Legal and Policy Team, the Staff Co-Ordinating Council, the Office of the Ombudsman, UNOG Medical Services, the UN Gender Focal Point, UNSMIS and UNJSPF. We meet about twice per year to discuss trends that are of staff concern, gather information from surveys, and from our work with teams and individuals. Many staff we work with give their permission to share their experiences in a way that will be non-identifiable, yet may help colleagues and the organization improve. The working group reports directly to the DG of UNOG.

What have you learned the most from this role?

It takes a great deal of patience, tact, and diplomacy to work in the UN, more than in other organizations since each team has a mix of people from different cultural backgrounds, traditions, languages, educational systems, and life experiences. I have learned that UN staff are resilient and strong. It is a great pleasure to work with staff who are so dedicated and passionate about their work and supporting others. I also learned to ask for help when I need it, and that there are kind souls here who help support me and my team during the difficult days.

* Christopher Mason is a former WIPO staff member.
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