Call to fund counselling for researchers in traumatic subjects

Academics studying gender-based violence highlight emotional impact of their work

February 6, 2020
Source: Alamy

Academics who are indirectly exposed to traumatic experiences through their research should be offered clinical support, and funders should be prepared to help pay for this, according to scholars.

The exposure to pain and suffering – particularly through face-to-face interviews – for those investigating sensitive topics can result in “secondary trauma” in researchers, a group of academics from the University of Bristol say.

As members of a team working on a large-scale project on gender-based violence, the scholars found that they had been affected by the emotional toll of the interview and data collection process.

Team members recalled a number of instances where they had felt a “profound impact” from their work, such as anger and frustration at official indifference, lack of solutions or helplessness at being unable to intervene.

In a paper outlining their experiences, published last month in the Journal of Academic Ethics, they contrast their experience with the traditional view of scholarship as being “objective, detached and neutral, where researchers are not supposed to feel anything…about the work they undertake”.

In reality, “research is rarely an entirely neutral process, and researchers are often neither impassive nor unaffected by the research they conduct”, the paper says.

The authors – six female academics – highlight that research projects require scholars to immerse themselves in an issue for long periods, and say that it is “not uncommon” for people who have personal experience of something like gender-based violence to gravitate towards a research career in a related area.

Arguing that academics working in this area need better support to ensure that they do not become overwhelmed and leave the field, the authors observe that the scope of existing support is often determined by a researcher’s relationship with their line manager, who may simply want to get the job done.

The researchers say funders and employers should consider providing specialist support for academics working in traumatic areas, just as counsellors who hear upsetting stories routinely get clinical supervision.

“A proactive clinical supervision arrangement may provide better safeguards than a reactive approach to addressing the needs of researchers in distressing sensitive subjects,” they write. “This might take the form of a pre-fieldwork session to identify potential triggers and coping strategies and bi-monthly check-ins so that arising issues can be identified and discussed.”

There should be “additional specific funding so that those applying for research funding and who need such support are not penalised financially for including such support within their proposals”, the researchers say.

Emma Williamson, one of the authors and a reader in gender-based violence at Bristol, said researchers in this area “hear pretty traumatic stuff”.

“Our team was very supportive of each other, but in academia there is often a prevailing attitude ‘to just get on with the job’”, she said.

“Funders and employers don’t seem to be doing enough to support researchers in dealing with the emotional impacts of their work and therefore avoiding the burnout that can result from it.”

Although researchers should not be obliged to access counselling, such services should be made available, Dr Williamson said. This, she said, would allow them to focus on the positive aspects of their work: making a difference and giving the marginalised a voice.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Scholars: offer clinical help to the wrung-out

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