Secondary trauma: The impact of researching sensitive subjects on researchers 

By Emma Williamson and Alison Gregory 

Published: 23rd November 2020

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For those of you working in frontline direct services, where clinical supervision is the norm, this may seem a strange blog. Academic researchers, irrespective of the nature of their research, very rarely get clinical supervision.   

Earlier this year we wrote a paper which outlined our experiences of working on a large research project looking at justice, inequalities, and gender-based violence. That paper highlighted the ways research can impact on researchers – the trigger points, the coping strategies – and advocated for more support for researchers to address the potential negative impacts of researching in this area. 

Since publishing that paper we have been involved in a number of webinars where researchers have discussed the issues. Sometimes these have been alongside those working in direct services, sometimes with a more academic-based audience.

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased some of the challenges regarding conducting any kind of research, but where research was already impacting on researchers, it has served to exacerbate those impacts. To address this, we wrote an additional blog, which raised concerns about working from home, maintaining boundaries, and discussed how to access support remotely.

Why is this an issue?

From our experiences of conducting research in the area of gender-based violence, we are aware of the different ways that conducting sensitive and difficult research can impact on researchers’ wellbeing. This is not unique to our area of research; others conducting research on abuse, suicide, mental health issues etc. may also recognise the issues we highlight here.

There are also costs to the institution if they do not address the ways in which research can impact staff and students. These include staff being off sick and highly trained staff leaving academia. In addition there is the personal impact on those who don’t have the support to deal with the emotional impacts and/or have the space to come to a realisation that this type of work may not be emotionally safe for everyone.

Types of research

We recognise that potentially negative impacts can take place in all types of research. Qualitative research interviews are perhaps most likely to be seen as potential sites of impacts, but analysing quantitative data, case files, reviewing literature, transcribing interviews, and interview data analysis can all be spaces where the impact of engaging with the trauma of others or the horror of events can have negative effects.

Additional negative impacts can also occur beyond the academic research itself, through public engagement activities and dissemination, particularly when there are areas of contention in the issues discussed. Specifically, the increasing emphasis on engaging with social media to communicate findings has resulted in some researchers receiving negative comments, attention and feedback (including trolling and stalking behaviours).

Trigger points

Trigger points may include the explicit mention of detailed accounts of abuse and other harrowing experiences, and/or the witnessing of trauma symptoms displayed by participants. Trigger points can also be linked to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness when hearing or reading about accounts of injustice. Triggers may come from a variety of sources. They can come from interactions with participants, from the actions or inaction by relevant professionals or by people informally supporting participants, or internally, connected to the researcher’s own personal experiences. Having an understanding of previous trigger points – and anticipating future ones – is difficult, but is necessary in our attempts to ameliorate the negative impacts of conducting difficult research.

Coping strategies

The literature on coping strategies, both healthy and unhealthy, tends to be individual in nature. Whilst considering these strategies is crucial to enhance the wellbeing of individual researchers, we also acknowledge the importance of broader structural constraints which can determine whether coping strategies and self-care are possible. For example, excessive workloads, unrealistic expectations by other staff members, and challenging relationships with colleagues can make reflection and de-briefing more difficult to achieve.

Conflicts of interest

The academic sphere is one of intense competition for both temporary and permanent posts. Where posts are temporary and short-term, researchers can feel that academic institutions view them as somewhat expendable. Thus, researchers frequently feel that they need to continually ‘prove their worth’, and they may be concerned that experiencing any distress about their work will be viewed negatively. As a result, some researchers may be reluctant to speak about any impact their work is having on them with their line manager, or within a broader research team.

Proactive and reactive approaches

Most approaches to researcher safety, in terms of emotional wellbeing, are reactive in nature. Researchers may be referred to staff or student counselling services, but this happens predominantly after fieldwork has begun or when it is already taking place. We recommend a more proactive approach and encourage researchers to engage with support prior to the commencement of research in order to identify and discuss potential impacts, coping strategies and trigger points.

Making change

We believe that in order to address all of these issues researchers who work on difficult and often traumatic subjects should be routinely offered external and independent clinical supervision. It is only in such spaces, we believe, that researchers can remain emotionally safe and well, explore how to work in this field, and find healthy ways to balance the positive rewards of this work alongside the negative impacts we all at times experience.

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