Managing Researcher Self-Care While Working with Sensitive Research: A Retrospective from a Science Shop Project
This blog post was written by student researchers from the Research Shop. Below, they reflect on managing their own care while working on projects with potentially sensitive and intense subject matter. Their work on this project and reflections throughout fact have expanded our understanding and practices of care in the research context at CESI. We will build on this work as we move forward and actively work to create a workplace culture that is humane, accessible, and enabling for all.
What does it mean to prioritize researcher well-being in emotionally sensitive research projects? Often, so much of the focus of research is placed on participants that we can overlook the needs of key individuals who are part of the research process – those conducting the research itself. As we embarked upon what we knew would be an emotionally sensitive, at times potentially traumatic research project, our research team took a moment to step outside the research process and ask – how would we care for our own and each other’s emotional and mental wellness needs during this research journey we were undertaking together?
It has been well-documented that qualitative researchers in the social sciences may potentially be at risk of experiencing what is called ‘emotional burden’ when dealing with emotionally sensitive topics, and in particular topics related to death and dying (Six, 2020). Emotional burden or burnout has been defined as a “reaction to stress caused by one’s environment that may be characterized by feelings of emotional and physical exhaustion, coupled with a sense of frustration and failure” (Franza, 2019: 438). Emotional burden in research can occur in diverse ways – for instance, through the suppression of emotions, through vicarious traumatization, or through the emotional burden incurred with overidentification with the participant (Benoot & Bilsen, 2016). For researchers working on sensitive topics in the social sciences, excessive emotional burden or burnout may be a common phenomenon, but not one that is talked about enough or planned for proactively in designing research projects (Six, 2020).
To provide some background on the research project, CESI’s Research Shop partnered with Hospice Wellington (HW) during the fall of 2020 to design a collaborative research project. HW is an organization that works to support individuals in Guelph and Wellington who are living with life-threatening illnesses, caring for those who are experiencing life-threatening illnesses, or are facing a time of bereavement following the loss of a loved one. One of the many services offered by HW is an Art Therapy program, which uses the creation of art and accompanying written reflections to help participants explore their relationships with grief and find a sense of meaning in their experiences of loss.
To help support the Art Therapy program, the Research Shop conducted 32 interviews with past participants of the program focused on understanding their experience of loss and how the program’s structure and activities were able to support them during bereavement. Throughout this process, researchers typically engaged in one to three interviews per week, with each interview running approximately one hour in length. Due to the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic, interviews were conducted over the phone or by Zoom, with two researchers present in each interview – one as a facilitator and the other offering support as a notetaker and in the interview as needed.
Understandably, these interviews would often become incredibly emotional by their conclusion, as discussions would cover topics such as grief, loss, trauma, and other emotional tolls levied on individuals following the loss of a loved one. It was not uncommon for tears to be shed by participants or researchers (or both) during the interviews, as each of the experiences recalled by those interviewed had the potential to dive into very deep emotional topics. These tears and feelings were prompted both by the heartbreaking nature of many of these stories of loss, but also by the incredibly inspiring way in which individuals were able to come to terms with the reality of their loss and commit to creating or maintaining a fulfilling life for themselves despite their grief.
We knew going in this would be an emotionally ‘heavy’ project from the outset. Our research manager at the Research Shop took the time and care to make sure that each of us were emotionally prepared for the topics we would be covering, and so our team of five researchers came together. As a team, we approached these topics – death, dying, end-of-life care, grief, bereavement - with an openness, gentleness and sense of curiosity, all while knowing that we would be interviewing research participants about one of the most difficult time periods of their entire life. Grief, we would soon learn, involved more than the loss of a loved one, but for many entailed a reframing of their entire worldview, their sense of self, and their perspective on life and death. How could we prepare for the project, knowing we would be holding space not only for our participants to be vulnerable, open and honest, but also holding the space needed to care for ourselves and one another?
Under the guidance of Hospice Wellington’s trained Art Therapist, Nicole Fantin, we were able to have discussions as a group about how we could co-create the research process to support researcher and participant well-being throughout (for more on researcher wellbeing and practices of care, see Dickson-Swift 2007 and Kumar 2018). We were privileged to have their support (as a team and individually) throughout the whole research process. Being more familiar with the experiences of the participants of their program, Nicole was able to anticipate the emotional weight that would be inherent to the interviews we were about to engage in. Accordingly, they provided for us and encouraged us to make use of a general system of self-care and check-ins that we would be able to rely on as a supportive measure throughout the course of the interviews, as well as the reviewing of responses.
What did embedding researcher self-care into the research process look like for the HW AT research project? It meant having regular, bi-weekly check-ins with Nicole where we engaged in group exercises that involved journaling, voluntary sharing of answers to tough questions that related both to the research and our own personal lives. These sessions allowed us the chance to sit with the stories we had been trusted to hold, and to understand how they might relate to our own lives. Some of us heard stories that resonated with us deeply, and we were able to share these experiences with one another in a safe and deeply respectful environment. Through these sharing's we were able to strengthen our bonds as colleagues, as we learned with an open mind about how the stories we had heard landed with each of us in our different life experiences.
Nicole offered us practical tools that we could take with us to each interview. Before the interview, the pair of interviewers would check in with one another 15 minutes early – whether to prepare for the interview, or just to chat. After the interview, we checked in with each other again, before taking some time for ourselves to go for a walk, journal, have a shower or just relax – granting us the mental space to digest the story we had just heard. During the interview, Nicole suggested that we pick an object that held meaning to us – say, a rock from our garden, or a favourite book – and that we hold the object tightly in our grip if points of the interview got hard for us. These tools were all built into the research process so that they became quite natural for us as researchers by the end. Nicole always encouraged us to consult with them through phone or email, and this close involvement with our partner and the therapeutic capacity that they took on supported our well-being as researchers. Throughout the research process, our manager at CESI’s Research Shop also let us know that we could take time away from the project, for as long as we needed, without any explanation needed.
Co-creating a research process with our team that supported researcher well-being ultimately benefited not just ourselves, but the research in general. It helped us to dive deeper into difficult conversations, and to hold space for clients to be able to express themselves and to help them feel comfortable to ask for more support when needed. It helped us to understand more about the Nicole’s role and how Art Therapy had helped the participants we were speaking to. It helped us to create stronger bonds between researchers, creating an ethic of care for one another that went well beyond the research. And it allowed us to be more human, more present, and more intentional in our work - to not only be better researchers, but to co-create better research.
Benoot, C., & Bilsen, J. (2016). An Auto-ethnographic study of the disembodied experience of a novice researcher doing qualitative cancer research. Qualitative Health Research, 26(4), 482–489.
Dickson-Swift, V., James, E. L., Kippen, S., & Liamputtong, P. (2007). Doing sensitive research: what challenges do qualitative researchers face? Qualitative Research, 7(3): 327-353.
Franza, F. (2019). The emotional and psychological “burnout” in families of psychiatric patients. Psychiatr Danub, 31(3), 438-442.
Kumar, S., & Cavallaro, L. (2018). Researcher self-care in emotionally demanding research: a proposed conceptual framework. Qualitative Health Research, 28(4): 648-658.
Six, S. (2020). Anticipating doing a study with dying patients: an autoethnography on researcher well-being. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 19, 1-14.