Supporting researchers through ‘emotionally demanding’ research

By Susie Smillie, researcher in the School of Social and Political Sciences and founder of the Emotionally Demanding Research Network in Scotland (@EmotionalResrch), supported by Kay Guccione Researcher Development Team.

A cartoon head silhouetted and showing a tangle of thread within the brain space. A cartoon white man pulls on the thread, de-tangling it into a coil.

In this post I use the term ‘emotionally demanding research’ to describe research with participants, data or environments that have the potential to impact upon the emotional wellbeing of the researcher. Kumar and Cavallaro (2018) provide a more in-depth definition and acknowledge that this definition is not exhaustive and is ever expanding.

Examples of research that can have an emotional impact are projects which involve the analysis of sensitive, traumatic, or high-risk research materials, participants or locations; projects that link to personal circumstances, experiences, or challenges previously experienced (e.g. working on a disease or condition that impacts someone in your family, investigating the experiences of a demographic group you yourself belong to); and other unexpected events that arise during research previously thought not to be emotionally demanding (e.g. a complaint, interpersonal difficulties between research team members, a data breach, or online trolling).

Although engaging in research themes that have an emotional impact can be exceptionally rewarding, it is important to be mindful of how our own wellbeing may be affected. I’ve been doing emotionally demanding work, in and out of academia, for more than half my life now but the way I’ve been supported in doing this by supervisors and institutional structures has been very mixed. What is clear is that support for researchers engaged in emotionally demanding work is needed, both for the safety and wellbeing of the researchers, and to ensure good research integrity.

Research has shown that without adequate preparation, debriefing, or coping strategies repeated engagement with emotionally demanding research related materials and experiences may lead to vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma negatively impacts our thoughts, feelings, health, perceptions and interpretations.

I believe there is a real need to improve the way emotionally demanding research is planned for and approached, in order to better support those who are carrying it out, and so in 2021 I started the Emotionally Demanding Research Network in Scotland to try and contribute to this improvement. However, the network is just one of many possible supports that could be in place and there is a need for a more consistent approach to providing support that recognises that in order to do our best research, we need to support the emotional health of those who are doing it and to acknowledge the impact that emotionally demanding work can have.

How to take care of emotional health in research

Below are some points to consider as a researcher, research supervisor or PI, a grant panel member, a Grad School manager, researcher developer or ethics reviewer.

Plan for emotional demand: When planning and proposing the research, or supporting others to do so, give as much consideration to emotional wellbeing and researcher safeguarding, as you have to other important aspects of the study e.g. have you thought about the intensity of the work and planned regular time away from the materials? Have you budgeted for the additional resources needed to maintain and support the emotional wellbeing of those involved in doing the research?

Don’t assume your project will not involve an emotional demand: Although a lot of literature on emotionally demanding research centres on qualitative work with human participants in the social and health sciences this doesn’t mean it can’t be an issue in other types of research. From my own experience collecting quantitative survey data face-to-face with participants living in difficult circumstances and with chronic health conditions, interaction with participants can be emotionally challenging even when the data you end up with are ticked boxes, not lines of text.

Resilience is a practice: Avoid framing ‘resilience’ as a skill to be achieved that requires no maintenance thereafter. Being emotionally affected by the research you’re doing is an experience you can have regardless of whether you’ve done this kind of work before, the level of training you have, the years of experience under your belt or your rung on the ladder. Coping with it is an ongoing process that requires active consideration, and input.

Seek and utilise the available resources: Seek information on good practice in safeguarding in research, training (for example our UofG Preparing for Research Fieldwork module), one-to-one sessions, workshops and groups (e.g. via your staff and student wellbeing services) and support networks for yourself and for those you supervise. Most importantly, make sure that your research team and colleagues are aware of the concepts of emotionally demanding research, and vicarious trauma, so that they can recognise them, should they arise.

Encourage regular practice of:

Noticing ‘your normal’. Keeping an eye on what good wellbeing feels like for you and noticing the signs of moving into a more stressed state are essential tools in managing emotional load. This article, part of the ‘Are You OK?’ Supervisor Toolkit helps you to recognise the signs of stress, for yourself and in others, and start a discussion about wellbeing.

Setting physical boundaries. This might be thinking through choices about location of the research not just in terms of personal safety or emotional impact of the location but also how to create physical boundaries in personal space, especially while so many are working at home.

Communicating role boundaries. Depending on the setting of the research, but especially in clinical, educational, or therapeutic settings, participants can be understandably confused about the role of the person speaking to them. Ensuring that study documents clearly explain the role of the researcher and the boundaries of that interaction can be helpful as well as setting this out verbally at the beginning of interactions with participants.

Safeguarding and referral. Feeling a sense of responsibility for participants’ wellbeing can create emotional load on researchers during and after interactions with them. Making sure researchers are well prepared to signpost or refer participants where appropriate, or escalate their concerns, and have clear and effective processes to support them to do this, is important for safeguarding participants. It can also lessen the emotional burden that the researcher carries, even if the situation never arises.

Marking data and findings. Using content warnings on data can be important if you’re sharing those data but it can also be useful for the same researcher returning to the data they have collected. Being reminded about the content of certain interviews can help them to make decisions about where and when they plan to do certain tasks and how long they set aside to do them, for example, coding a transcript with a lot of upsetting content.

Managing workload. This seems obvious but there’s such a desire to ‘get things done’ and to be flexible with our participants that the need to take pre-emptive measures to limit the impact of emotionally demanding research can be forgotten. In my experience switching from a research job role to a PGR status has brought with it a very strange change in how I view my workload, and the permission I give myself to spread out emotionally demanding tasks or take time out. This is not uncommon, and so encouragement and reminders to manage workload from colleagues and supervisors can be very welcome.

Using coping strategies. Encourage researchers to identify their own most helpful self-care and coping strategies. I can’t over emphasise the importance of a supervisor or PI giving ‘permission’ for this and acknowledging the value in it. Some helpful resources for doing this are the Self-care Checkup, and the Coping Skills Inventory.

Debriefing and checking in. During a time that is particularly and acutely emotionally demanding (e.g. interviewing regularly or analysing emotionally demanding data) it might be worth discussing how you spend supervision time and how this is spread out. For example regular small check-ins might be more beneficial than longer supervision sessions that are further apart. If this is difficult to manage is there an alternative (e.g. group, peer, or paid professional) option available for allowing the researcher to debrief? For a number of reasons you might not be the best person to provide support directly but you can facilitate your researcher having access to peers, networks or services.

Don’t forget yourself. Practice what you preach in terms of how you plan and manage your own responsibilities and how and when you seek support. You are an important role model. Even if you’re not doing emotionally demanding research yourself, you may still be vicariously affected by your PGR/research team’s experiences and the data they collect.

I hope this has been a helpful introduction. Please feel free to continue the conversation and add your own good practice and coping strategies in the comments below.

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