Targeted support is needed to protect the wellbeing of researchers working with emotionally challenging material

Jessica Hammett, Senior Research Associate, University of Bristol
Claire Nunan, Senior Accredited Counsellor, School of Applied Mental Health

People around us do not see the huge emotional impact that our research has on us. Our peers and line managers do not know about the emotional toll of the work we do, so it is practically invisible for them. Most of them think that it is just a matter of being positive, or just taking a break.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

For early career researchers working with sensitive and challenging material there are many barriers to good wellbeing. Over a six-month period, we worked with a small group of researchers from the arts, humanities and social sciences to better understand how emotionally challenging material impacts their wellbeing, what strategies they have in place to mitigate these risks, and to test out peer-support as a new method to promote wellbeing. The results of our findings have been published as a policy briefing, and in this article we explore the thoughts and feelings of our project participants in more depth.

The project began with a training session in self-care and an introduction to peer-support led by Claire Nunan, a counsellor at the School for Applied Mental Health. During the session we established ground rules and discussed some of the risks of challenging research. Researchers might experience vicarious trauma after hearing traumatic accounts over a long period, leading to a change in world view and cognitive schemas. Secondary traumatic stress can develop more rapidly, even after hearing a single traumatic account. Researchers can also face compassion fatigue if required to sustain high levels of empathy. Everyone has personal vulnerability factors which mean research can impact us in different and sometimes surprising ways, and these can change over the duration of a project. Participants told us that gaining this technical language to describe and make sense of their own experiences made them feel empowered and de-stigmatised.

The peer-support groups aimed to meet monthly for at least six months, and while this was ongoing Karina Garcia-Reyes investigated existing support provided by the University of Bristol. Like many institutions, the University is committed to improving the wellbeing of its staff and students (e.g. Mental Health and Wellbeing Plan, 2022) but we found two significant gaps in provision. Firstly, researchers working with emotionally challenging material need specialist support which acknowledges the specific risks they face. Secondly, this support needs to include interactive and talk-based tools. Our research focused on the University of Bristol but our findings are relevant to the whole sector; systemic change is needed in Higher Education to improve wellbeing and reduce talent loss and staff absences.

At present, researchers are facing significant additional burdens in both organising and financing the mental health support they need to continue with their work. The need for universities to provide clinical supervision free of charge for staff has been stressed by other researchers (e.g. Emma Williamson et al (2020), Secondary Trauma: Emotional Safety in Sensitive Research), and we agree that this is essential to appropriately support the wellbeing of academic researchers. In addition to clinical supervision, we propose peer-support as a low-cost complimentary intervention, but one which must be properly administered and supported by the institution.

In this article we begin by outlining some of the barriers to good wellbeing experienced by the participants of this project and the coping strategies they already had in place. We asked all participants to complete an entry and exit survey and these two sections use this feedback verbatim to centre the voices and experiences of the group. The final section highlights both positive and negative experiences of peer-support, and we outline how institutions can put in place an effective programme for peer-support to address the mental health crisis that we see in universities.

Barriers to good wellbeing

Participants reported a wide range of challenges:

There is a lot of onus on individuals to make time for their mental health. Sometimes this is hard, especially when you’re snowed under with constant workflow.

Overall, lack of meaningful support from universities. Mental health is an issue, they make that clear. Yet, implementation of programmes is poor.

The other thing is the high cost of therapy and counselling, and activities like yoga.

Working with community researchers on sensitive topics has often left me feeling responsible for their wellbeing, I worry and that impacts on my own wellbeing.

The biggest one for me is the worry that if I fail/don’t live up to expectations then others will be negatively impacted/other’s voices won’t be heard.

You may be seen as ‘biased’ or ‘too value-ridden’ to be able to scientifically complete empirical research if you are seen as a being mentally vulnerable.

There is always a struggle of not putting ‘value judgement’ into research, when you care about the topic. It can be hard to ‘dehumanise’ research subjects in order to correctly collect empirical data to create sound conclusions.

Time! There’s often such a need to work intensely and move on that you don’t always process emotions.

There is a toxicity around work and productivity which feels all-consuming and is near impossible to navigate as an ECR. This has a huge effect on my wellbeing, let alone the challenging settings that I work in and the issues that I face in my research.

Precarity if the biggest issue for me – not feeling valued.

The lack of a permanent contract makes you feel like you are constantly battling for your role and constantly needing to prove yourself.

The expectation that you will move for the next job and having to build up a completely new network each time. And since the pandemic working from home has been a struggle – not being around people day-to-day who I can talk to about my research or who will distract me from it.

Individual coping strategies

Although participants had developed coping strategies, maintaining them was not always easy:

Yoga, meditation, walking, climbing, running, general self-care, talking therapy (private), journaling, taking supplements, sleeping, not drinking alcohol, eating adequately and healthily, talking to peers. This is a daily practice – as in, I do at least one of these daily.

I go for a massage quite regularly, which I have found very helpful.

Workout is the best routine to switch off my mind and focus my attention to something else. Still, because of stress and workloads, finding the time and energy for my workouts can be hard.

I go for a walk almost every day and make sure to look to the horizon and take an interest in things.

I go to therapy 3-4 times a month.

I keep a reflective journal, in which I reflect on my week and use creative practice to explore thoughts / issues that have arisen. I find that this helps me work through things, although when I am really busy I struggle to make time for this.

I manage my days so that I aim to work no longer than an 8-hour day on the research, and I have plenty of other projects to do once I’ve finished ‘work’ for the day, including creative projects.

Throughout data collection, I checked in with my supervisor after every day.

There was a period during my ethnographic research in which I felt very overwhelmed and knew I was running out of steam for the process. This was a good indication that it was time to phase out of the data collection. So I guess I was aware that the research was going to tax me at the start and have tried to pay attention to that to ensure that my overall wellbeing wasn’t impacted too much.

I don’t push myself as hard as I used to by taking more breaks and not working in the evenings.

I have been trying to learn more about mental health and research, and have been actively attending workshops and participating in projects like this one.

I try and celebrate really small achievements in my research and life generally.

Experiences of Peer-Support

For some participants peer-support was hugely beneficial, opening a new space to discuss experiences and feelings that felt safe, comfortable and supportive.

I think that having a set time and place to meet with the peer support group to discuss how our research is going, challenges, mental health etc, was really conducive to regularly reflecting on how I was feeling which I might not have done with other friends or peers.

I think it’s essential in support people in precarious roles to build meaningful relationships with others who understand them.

It was vital that the project began with a bespoke training session led by a mental health professional who had knowledge of the risks faced by researchers working on sensitive topics. Most importantly, during this session we discussed ground rules and boundaries for the peer-support groups. We propose that training sessions in self-care and peer-support should be organised annually by university faculties.

I think it has incredible potential BUT, I think the coordination needs to be facilitated by the university not by academics – it just adds extra burden.

The main obstacle is to find a group of people who can understand your problems (and you should understand theirs too) and develop trust.

This project was run by early career researchers and there are a number of reasons why peer-support programmes need to be administered by faculties. The time, energy and emotional engagement required puts an additional burden on staff who may already be overworked or overwhelmed by their own research and at risk of burnout. As a result, initiatives that rely on individuals are unsustainable.

Reliance on informal organising and networking is also an EDI issue, and may exclude those whose protected characteristics mean they lack their own informal support networks within universities, including: members of groups who are underrepresented in universities; researchers who were the first generation in their family to attend university; and those with caring responsibilities. Precarious workers also suffer as they move between institutions on short-term contracts. In addition, formal administration is needed to adjust groups if, for example, they are not a good fit, members leave the institution, or to ensure supervisors are not placed in with supervisees (preventing open and safe discussion).

I think if it worked it would be brilliant, but as it didn’t it was more harmful than anything.

I wonder if a little bit more work done on expectations, and maybe an occasional visit from someone external to help with that would have made it more beneficial and a little safer.

This was a pilot project which allowed for important learning before scaling up. Regretfully not all participants had a positive experience of peer-support, and it is important to recognise the risks involved in interventions that fail. However, we believe that if rolled out in the way that we propose these risks will be reduced significantly. Firstly, training in peer-support and self-care should be provided annually by a mental health professional who has an understanding of the specific risks of emotionally challenging research. Secondly, peer-support groups must be formally administered by university faculties to ensure equal access, proactive recruitment, appropriate training and ongoing administration and support.

I think peer-support is an invaluable tool in supporting researchers’ wellbeing. I have found it so incredibly supportive over the past few months. It is refreshing to be able to be honest about how you feel / the issues / challenges you may be facing, without worrying whether it may affect your role / future career. The safe, supportive space created by working with peers and the sharing of similar experiences has made me feel empowered to try and make changes to support my own wellbeing.

Peer-support is a low-cost intervention which can have a huge positive impact on researcher wellbeing and should be routinely provided by universities as part of a package of support to address the mental health crisis within Higher Education.

We would like to thank all our project participants for generously sharing their ideas and experiences with us, and Karina Garcia-Reyes for her research into mental health and wellbeing resources. This project was supported by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Account award. Thanks also to PolicyBristol for their brilliant work on our policy briefing, which can be found here.