Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) among overseas development workers: A qualitative study
March 5, 1999
BACKGROUND: A relatively high proportion of overseas development
workers may develop chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). A
qualitative study was conducted in order to investigate how
such people perceived their condition.
METHODS: Twelve people
who had developed CFS while working overseas with development
organizations, or shortly after visiting development projects,
were interviewed about their experiences. Their responses were
analyzed using a grounded theory approach.
RESULTS: Most of
the participants considered themselves to have been extremely
healthy before they developed CFS. The syndrome did not appear
to have been caused by depression. The symptoms which were
reported covered the range of symptoms typically found in
studies of CFS. Respondents described difficulty in receiving,
and accepting, a diagnosis. All of the participants attributed
the CFS to multiple causes, the principal causes being
overwork, stress and infections. Among the consequences of CFS
reported to be the most difficult were having to leave the
development project prematurely; pain; powerlessness; loss of
independence, and the unpredictability of CFS. Factors which
had helped respondents cope with these difficulties included
religious beliefs; comparisons with people who were worse off
than they were; thinking about positive consequences of the
condition, and talking with supportive people.
Some theories have suggested that CFS symptoms arise as a
result of depression or other emotional difficulties, which
the individual is not able to acknowledge. The results
indicated that such theories may not apply to this subgroup of
people with CFS. Further research on the etiology of CFS is
warranted. Respondents described high levels of work-related
stress as common to the experience of development work. It
might be beneficial to train development workers in stress
management techniques. Development organizations should be
encouraged to ensure that their workers take sufficient time
to rest, and attempts should be made to reduce work pressures.
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