I’ve done a lot of personal work on the self-care front over the last few years and am experiencing the benefits of doing so. In fact, my lack of blogging over the last few weeks are simply down to needing some time to myself. However a recent experience got me thinking about other areas of my life where self-care might be lacking. In particular, the area of conducting research and having contact with participants.
Ethical guidelines and standards aim to ensure that participants are protected during the research process, but can the same be said for the researcher themselves? The researcher is coming into contact with other people, and in some instances, particularly psychology, some really sensitive and emotive topics might be covered.
When I was developing my ethics proposal I thought a lot about reducing any possible distress for my participants and making sure that I did not cause any harm. I did think of myself in amongst this ethical application, but on a very matter of fact physical level. My recent experience has made me consider other factors, mental and emotional, that perhaps need to be taken into account. As a result of all this thinking and considering, I’ve developed myself a bit of a tool kit which will hopefully help me in the future to manage any potentially difficult situations in the moment and afterwards.
This is the one that I did actually consider before starting my current study. My research involves home visits, up to three, in order to meet the participants and deliver materials, collect the materials and then conduct an interview. This requires me entering another person’s home, on the first occasion with no idea of the place I might be entering. To ensure that I am kept safe I have an arrangement with my supervisors that I will text them prior to a home visit to let them know exactly where I am going and at what time I expect to be finished. When leaving, I ensure that I text them to let them know I am all done and am ok. The protocol is that if my supervisor hasn’t heard from me by the stated time, she’ll try getting in touch and after that will take steps to check that I am ok. This does seem like a horrible and pessimistic way to think, but it’s really important to ensure my own safety.
Boundaries are really important in all areas of our lives, and I feel like it is vital for me to have clear boundaries between work and personal life, and I manage this quite well. However these boundaries can be challenged quite considerably in the context of a research interview. For example, it is important to know your position and what you are there to do. In my situation, I am conducting interviews as a researcher, not a counsellor or an intervening individual of any sort. This is really important for me to be clear on and I take a moment before my interviews to ensure I am in researcher mode.
If you have someone telling you some really difficult or emotive stories about their lives it can be super hard not to fall into counsellor mode and it takes quite a bit of self-awareness to remain in researcher mode. It can be particularly hard to know how to respond to some pieces of information, for example a self-deprecating participant may spend some time talking about themselves in a negative way and it’s difficult to know how to respond. For me personally, based on my recent experience, I will be taking that as a moment to remind myself of my position in the research process taking place and act in a way that is aligned with both my position and my own personal values, ensuring that my boundaries remain in place but I can walk away feeling like I dealt with a situation well.
I plan to have a different debrief process in the future, whereby I can state that I am not in a position to provide support or help in anyway, as I am just a researcher, but I will take that opportunity to provide information and possible contacts. This way my responsibilities are clear and I will (hopefully) be able to feel comfortable leaving the interaction and know that unless significant risk has been identified, I am not responsible any further.
Debriefs are deemed incredibly important for participants, but rarely are they considered for the interviewer or researcher themselves. It’s important to take time to process after an interview or difficult encounter. To establish our feelings or work through any triggers that may have been brought up.
Often, but not always, our research areas reflect an experience we have had or someone we know has had. As a result, triggers are likely and they may come from the most unexpected places. Therefore, it’s really important to take time to process after an interview. To decide on a way that will enable a ‘download’ of everything you’ve experienced. This might involve writing it out in a reflective journal, or it might mean making use of your supervisors. Sometimes just sharing with someone what you did, how you handled a difficult situation and getting some reassurance can help massively.
If things are really personal and emotive, it might be worth considering taking the talking and debriefing a step further and contacting a professional. A university counselling service or perhaps a private therapist. It can be very helpful to discuss issues with someone completely removed from your life and with no judgements or assumptions being made.
This is a thing. Where stress is caused due to intense or heavy amounts of compassion. Symptoms include feeling drained, sad or irritable after a conversation that is particularly emotive or difficult. This is a high possibility in psychological research and I can safely say that I have experienced this after some interviews. So I think it’s important to consider this when planning research. Pacing is vital. I was exhausted after my experience of a difficult and emotive interview and I know that attempting another one would have felt impossible. The urge to collect ALL THE DATA is tempting to follow, but I know that the quality of my interviews will be significantly affected should I start over doing it and not looking after myself. As a result I will be planning my interviews carefully in the future, ensuring there is some debrief and reflection time and that I feel grounded enough to move onto the next one.
It’s also important to remember that in the case of qualitative research such as interviews or focus groups, it often doesn’t end when the data collection itself has been completed. Repeated exposure is a high possibility, with transcription meaning you are going to hear the account again and qualitative analysis frequently involving ‘immersion in the data’. It’s worth considering this when working on timelines, again bringing in some breathing room to digest what is being heard or analysed.
Developing a tool kit
I know that I now have a tool kit of go to options should I feel unsettled or that an interview has been difficult. For me it will involve journalling, offloading to a supervisor and if needs be calling in more professional assistance. I will also be really careful when planning my interviews and booking them in.
Finally, I will now be thinking ahead. The planning stages of my study will include plenty of consideration about me! What I might experience, what might be difficult and how I will cope in those instances. To me, in hindsight, it’s the most important part of it all. At the end of the day, for me to carry out my research, I need to be able to. I need to be on my best form and that means looking after myself. I personally think that there needs to be a much heavier emphasis on this aspect of research and it needs to be discussed more openly. It should be the first thing that is considered when planning research.
How do you cope with difficult experiences in research? How are you boundaries? Can you leave an experience at work at the end of the day? Do you feel that more emphasis needs to be placed on self-care in research? I would really love to hear from you about this.
On the topic of self-care, I am now officially signing off for Christmas. I’m looking forward to some rest and recuperation. I hope that you can take some time to breathe and rest during the festive period and remember that any time to yourself is a gift and investment.
I also want to take a moment to thank everyone who has supported my blogging journey so far, I look forward to sharing more in the New Year.
Til next time 😉