Emotionally challenging research and researcher well-being

Researchers who navigate emotionally challenging topics need support that includes well-being plans, advice on handling distress and risk assessment guidance, writes Tina Skinner. Her work has led to a series of resources for universities

Tina Skinner's avatar
University of Bath
6 Jun 2024
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • Additional Links
  • More on this topic
Woman taking history from young woman
Source: iStock/lithiumcloud

You may also like

Trauma-informed care within academic settings
3 minute read
A hand resting on a shoulder in a display of support and care

At the start of the 2000s, I was an early career academic who had just got my first large grant and my third lectureship (in as many years). I was co-investigator on a Home Office project evaluating sexual assault referral centres (SARCs), working with some of the best (and kindest) academics in the UK. I was leading a work stream on the experiences of young survivors of rape and sexual assault in relation to the criminal justice process and a new support service they were being offered.

I had worked with victim-survivors through a women’s refuge and read about criminal justice responses to rape and sexual assault. But this was my first time managing a large research project and generating and analysing victim-survivors’ data. To say this was hard would be an understatement. As I read their stories – not only their words but also support service case notes – I felt like a sponge soaked in other people’s pain as case after horrendous case led to “no further action” by the police, the “decision not to prosecute” by the Crown Prosecution Service or a “not guilty” result in the courts.

I also felt inadequate and guilty. Not only because I could not help them but because my wonderful research assistant, Helen Taylor (now a clinical psychologist), had to do the interviews with victim-survivors alone at the University of Leicester as I moved to the University of Bath (we lacked the money for me to commute, and this predated Zoom and Teams).

Job moves and a highly sensitive research project were not the only challenges I faced at that time. A miscarriage soon after changing jobs floored me physically and mentally, followed quickly by the joy of our two children, which left me sleepless, exhausted and struggling to keep up at work. My most vivid memory of analysing the data is sitting in my parents’ conservatory, my new daughter in the other room, reading one of more than 200 case files and thinking: “At least that is not as bad as the last one”, before being shocked by my own callousness.

While I wrote at the time – in an introduction to Researching Gender Violence – about the challenges of emotional research, I didn’t realise I had secondary and vicarious trauma.

Secondary trauma tends to be understood as the response to witnessing a single traumatic event, whereas vicarious trauma is seen as a process that builds up through witnessing the trauma of others over time. Both can occur in an individual, and reactions to both can be very similar. The work of Ginny Sprang and colleagues indicates that symptoms of secondary trauma can include intrusion (for example, I used to think about my research when I did not intend to), avoidance (I do not watch or read fiction that I know contains rape), altered arousal/reactivity (I found it hard to concentrate on the data) and altered mood or cognition (I was extremely disillusioned with the system that was supposed to help victim-survivors).

It was my experience, and my work with Helen and previous research assistants and PhD students, where we reflected on and improved my supervision over the years, that led me to set up the Researcher Wellbeing Project.

Our most recent work clearly indicates that other variables can compound vicarious and secondary trauma in research. These include being an early career researcher on an insecure contract and life challenges such as moving, parenting, workload, health issues and being disabled.

I’m pleased to say that most of the academics we interviewed who undertake emotionally challenging research were passionate about and wanted to continue their research. Like Helen and me, they do not regret their topic choices. However, symptoms linked to secondary trauma were common across topics and disciplines.

When asked about their most distressing research experience, most respondents reported trouble concentrating, negative emotions and thinking about distressing aspects of their research when they didn’t intend to. Just under half had more severe indicators of secondary trauma such as gaps in memory, feeling jumpy, and avoiding people and places linked to the distressing topic. One participant said: “I remember sitting on a bench, and I couldn’t enjoy anything, […] I was totally out of it in many ways, and I couldn’t even enjoy eating an ice cream!” However, it is important to note that not all impacts were seen solely as detrimental. Anger, in particular, was constructed as a positive driver of their research, while sadness was linked to empathy.

Many participants had mechanisms in place to help them cope with their research, but these were usually ad hoc and varied in terms of success. One described going swimming after tough times at work and submerging themselves to “wash off the day” before heading home.

When asked about the formal support they were offered, one interviewee said: “Never was I asked about my emotional well-being or how I was coping or what I was coping with, what my self-care plan was.” When we asked what they wanted, a common response was “a toolbox of options…both informal and formal”.

In short, to go beyond an ad hoc, individualised approach, which our interviewees and I experienced, we argue in our report that changes are needed to management and provision for emotionally challenging research. We have also used our findings to develop a series of resources to help researchers, supervisors and organisations navigate emotionally challenging topics, including well-being plans, advice on handling distress and risk assessment guidance.

The following recommendations come out of the Researcher Wellbeing Project findings. It may not be possible for an organisation to implement all of them at once, so our report describes a phased approach whereby they could build to a gold standard, eventually providing:

  • A well-funded strategy on prevention of and provision for secondary and vicarious trauma in research.
  • A supportive research culture that acknowledges and discusses the issue proactively and positively. This can be facilitated through awareness raising and specialist training on impacts of emotionally challenging topics, how to develop well-being plans, risk assessment and supervision/management of emotionally challenging research.
  • Easily accessible written processes, guidance and clear pathways, so staff know what to do if a researcher or participant needs help.
  • Researcher well-being embedded in ethical procedures and the processing of funding bids to prompt researchers to think about the issue and how they will address it.
  • Regular and effective supervision.
  • A team approach (including team discussions of well-being and sharing the “burden” of data analysis and impact work).
  • Proactive funding of researcher well-being plans, including independent individual clinical supervision, specialist trauma-focused counselling if required and other elements important for well-being (such as gym membership).
  • Specialist mentoring or coaching for researching emotionally challenging topics.
  • Creating organisational researcher well-being networks, and linking in with national networks, including the Emotionally Demanding Research Network Scotland, and international networks such as the Researcher Wellbeing Group for PGR/T and early career researchers, Research Resilience Community of Practice and the Challenging Research Network.

Tina Skinner is a senior lecturer in the department of social and policy sciences at the University of Bath. She is also the founder of GW4RWELL and a co-founder of the Researcher Wellbeing Strategic Change Group.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the Campus newsletter.

You can find out more about the Researcher Wellbeing Project here. If you would like to attend training on how to use the tools and guidance developed as part of the project, please email Alison Borgelin at sssasw@bath.ac.uk.

The University of Bath is also running an external training workshop on secondary trauma, “Addressing secondary trauma in emotionally challenging research: impacts, coping and proactive interventions”, on 21 June 2024.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site