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Thing 16: Emotionally Challenging Research and Researcher Wellbeing

Updated: 6 days ago

Dr Tina Skinner, Senior Lecturer, Department of Social & Policy Sciences, University of Bath


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Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

This Thing discusses the potential impact of our research on our own wellbeing, especially research into traumatic or challenging topic. Dr Tina Skinner provides an account of her own work and experience in this area, which we hope will ignite some important conversations in your pods.


You can also still access the slides from our wellbeing workshop with Nikki Fahey (University of Otago) on the Discord server.


A head-shoulder shot photo of Dr Tina Skinner showing a white woman in a striped shirt looking into the camera.
Dr Tina Skinner

Whilst several disciplines and topic specialisms have started to discuss the personal impact on researchers of studying emotionally challenging topics (such as death, poor mental health, and crime) and research projects in this area are mushrooming, there are still only a small number of data driven studies. As a new area of research, and emerging field of practice, how the intersection of gender, age, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, region, nationality and/or dis/diff-ability/neurodiversity impacts on the lived experience of researchers doing this potentially distressing work is also relatively unbroken ground.

 

If you are about to embark on research that you think could be very difficult emotionally, I cannot give you a definitive answer on how to protect your mental health, as we all have differing needs and contexts. However, I hope that sharing my own experience and some of our findings, guidance and resources developed as a result of the Researcher Wellbeing Project here at the University of Bath, might help you to start to think about your own wellbeing (and that of your colleagues), if you have not done so already, and start to plan how you might better protect yourself and others.

 

It was in the late 1990s early 2000s, when undertaking research funded by the Home Office in England, that I had my most challenging experience in research. The project I was leading was evaluating a counselling and support service for young victim-survivors of rape (aged 14-16) that had been set up by a local police service. Whilst I had undertaken a PhD focused on rape support service provision and had worked in the voluntary sector with victim-survivors, I had not at any point been trained on how to look after my own wellbeing, as a researcher or otherwise. We didn’t really talk about the possible impacts of our research then, other than the occasional offhand comment like ‘now I only watch films with happy endings and no violence against women’ because we could no longer cope with violence in entertainment.  My worst experience linked to this research was when I was trying to code the victim-survivor’s cases into an SPSS data base, trying to work out if their case was ‘No further Action’, ‘No Crime’, ‘Decision Not to Prosecute’ or ‘Conviction’. Not only was the data a confusing mess, but a pessimistic picture of the potential of conviction for these young people was emerging. This, coupled with the heart-wrenching interviews where victim-survivors told of the difficulty for them of the police investigation, their sense of being the ones under the microscope and not believed, the acute loneliness and regret for ever reporting felt by some and the hope held by others that they would see their day in court (which I subsequently read they would not), left me devastated.


I did not know it at the time, but this experience is a clear example of secondary trauma. Secondary trauma can include intrusions (e.g. I had and sometimes still have distressed memories linked to this research); avoidance (e.g. I unsuccessfully tried to avoid doing research around gender-based violence); alteration in arousal/reactivity (e.g. I found it very hard to concentrate on the data set to analyse it); and alteration in condition/mood (e.g. I was/am particularly worried about my children’s safety and had/have to proactively prevent myself from being over-protective). 

 

Since this experience I have spent over 20 years working with the early career researchers that I supervise to try and ensure that they are supported better than I was. This eventually led to us working together to publish on the topic, and the subsequent development of the Researcher Wellbeing Project in 2023 funded by the UKRI Research Culture fund at the University of Bath. Through in-depth interviews and 3 questionnaires with academics at a range of career stages researching diverse topics within humanities and social sciences disciplines, we analysed the impacts of their research, their current coping mechanisms (if any) and what help they wanted to improve their wellbeing in the future.


Although many participants in the Researcher Wellbeing Project had mechanisms in place to help them cope with their research, such as swimming, taking breaks from their research, and talking to friends and family, it was rare for them to have a wellbeing plan or any formal support from their research institution. Indeed, those who had any clear plan of how to look after themselves gained that from professional experience outside of academia. When we asked what they wanted in terms of support, they echoed “a toolbox of options […] both informal and formal” to help stop them feeling like it was their responsibility to cope with this emotional work alone. In short, they wanted their supervisors/managers, teams and institutions to help them, including:



We have included the above in our Bronze, Silver and Gold Standard recommendations for institutions and funders which provides guidance on how institutions can progress from awareness raising and written processes to improve researcher wellbeing (key to Bronze standard), to move to proactive inclusion of funded Researcher Wellbeing Plans in funding bids (progression to Silver standard), and a whole institutional response with proactive support for all (key to a Gold standard approach). A few institutions are now working towards implementing these standards, and some topic specific organisations are also advocating for change, for example the Sexual Violence Research Initiative in South Africa has this as a theme at their 2024 Forum.  However, if you are an early career researcher just setting out on a research project or even a seasoned researcher, the idea of persuading your supervisor that your wellbeing is an important consideration might be intimidating, let alone taking such a proposal to your whole institution! This is why we have set up the Researcher Wellbeing Strategic Change Group, where we provide guidance on how toapproach this topic with your supervisor, and if you are a supervisor how to approach this topics with your department/institution.

 

Individual Task

Using the Researcher Wellbeing Plan guidance, and the Researcher Wellbeing Plan Template that you can access under ‘Resources for researchers, supervisors and institutions’ on our webpage, start to write your own wellbeing plan.

 

Pod Discussion

In your pod channel or at your next meeting, you could discuss how difficult research topics have affected you (only share what you feel comfortable sharing, and make sure that everyone in the group knows that the information shared should be kept confidential)? What support did you have or wish you’d had? What exists at your institution? How might you start a discussion within your institution (or with your supervisor) about this issue? What differences could you make?

 

If you are interested in attending training on this topic

Tina and her team provide online training sessions (usually in 3 hour blocks) accessible to researchers, supervisors, managers and funders on: impacts of emotionally challenging research, coping mechanisms, how to set up a Researcher Wellbeing Plan, and Risk Assessment. If you would like to attend this training please contact Alison Borgelin on sssasw@bath.ac.uk.


On request Tina can also provide online and in person talks and training on researcher wellbeing for teams / institutions / networks / associations. The sessions range from awareness raising on secondary trauma and the possible impacts, to bespoke sessions on how to set up and manage Researcher Wellbeing Plans in your teams, how to supervise/manage emotionally challenging research topics, how to risk assess emotionally challenging research, how to change the culture in your institution around potentially distressing research. If you would like to talk to Tina about hiring her to provide this kind of talk/training please contact t.skinner@bath.ac.uk directly.


Additional top tips from the 23 Things community

If you have any tips you would like to share on how you and/or your team cope with emotionally challenging research please share these with us in Discord.

 

Further reading

Skinner, T., Brance, K., Halligan, S., Girling, H. Chadwick, P. and Tsang, E. (2023) The Researcher Wellbeing Project Report, University of Bath.



Tina Skinner has worked in the field of gender-based violence since 1993, initially in a women’s refuge, then as a PhD student and academic. She gained her PhD from the University of Sheffield in 1998 and is currently an Associate Professor at the University of Bath. She has undertaken/supervised projects on: police, court and support service responses to rape and sexual assault, friends/family/partner responses to victim-survivors, healthy relationship and domestic abuse education for young people, Independent Domestic Violence Advisors, and domestic abuse perpetrator programmes. As a disabled person herself, she has also undertaken leading studies on the intersection of dis-ability and gender, and the impacts on work and wellbeing. She is currently leading the Researcher Wellbeing Project (funded by the UKRI Research Culture Fund) and GW4RWELL.




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