Memory & Emotions

Researcher Wellbeing and What We Can Learn from Mental Health Professionals

Over the first few months of 2021, as we slowly emerged from the third national lockdown, a group of early career researchers working in history departments and a counsellor met online to imagine changes to our working conditions that would meaningfully improve our wellbeing. This timing was significant. There has been a growing conversation about mental health and wellbeing for university researchers. However, the continuation of overwork and precarious employment conditions, alongside the ongoing silence within most history departments about the negative impact that research can have on wellbeing, all pose significant barriers to change. Over the past eighteen months this has been compounded for many by an intensification of work pressure and isolation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Image credit: @finnnyc via unsplash.

The project focused on the impact that challenging, sensitive and difficult research can have on researcher wellbeing. We took an open approach to challenging research, recognising that all researchers have personal vulnerability factors and respond to material in different ways. Members of the group research histories of race, slavery, illness, death, mental health and sexuality, and many of us have a personal connection to our work. Yet we have also felt the impact of unexpected traumatic disclosures and stories within an interview or the archive.

As a group, we wanted to recommend a set of practical steps that could be taken to improve researcher wellbeing; by researchers themselves, their supervisors or line managers, ethics committees, institutions and funders. We also wanted to show how therapeutic safeguards could be brought into historical research for the benefit of both researchers and participants. We hope to promote and support ongoing work in this area through our open access publication Researcher Wellbeing: Guidelines for History Researchers.

In this article we discuss the barriers to good wellbeing and ways to mitigate risks, which underpin the guidelines, as well as exploring the project’s collaborative process between researchers and mental health professionals.

Barriers to Researcher Wellbeing

Researching difficult histories and telling complicated stories in a way that is both intellectually rigorous and sensitive is hard work. This can impact researchers in various ways – the cost of bearing witness. Researchers might experience vicarious trauma after hearing the traumatic accounts of others 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. We can also face compassion fatigue if we are required to sustain high levels of empathy with subjects (living or dead). We all have 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.

When we care for our research participants, we are concerned about the impact our work might have on their wellbeing and feel a sense of responsibility to represent their histories adequately and in a way that they feel comfortable with. Having an ‘insider perspective’ or emotional connection to our work can enable significant insights, while potentially making the work harder still. It is especially important that researchers with lived experience of traumatic events or systematic disadvantage are supported to remain within academia. We need structures within our workplace to do difficult research effectively, in ways that do not seriously compromise our own wellbeing.

Ethics committees rightly require thorough and appropriate procedures to protect participants. Unfortunately, the same attention has not been paid to either the physical or emotional safety of researchers. This disregard is often reflected in the attitudes of researchers themselves, even amongst oral historians who have usually thought deeply about participant care. There are important exceptions: Emma Williamson and colleagues have been pushing for clinical supervision to be provided to researchers working on challenging topics; and Emma Vickers advises researchers to use grounding techniques and peer supervision to cope with unexpected and challenging disclosures. More broadly, historians including Tracey Loughran and Katie Barclay have written about the value of thinking through our personal and emotional connection to the work we do and the importance of being open about it.

Wellbeing has become a significant research agenda, but discussions about the emotions of researchers remain marginal. The powerful words of Audre Lorde – the African-American lesbian poet – are now oft-repeated to encourage and legitimise self-care: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare’. And yet, although challenging research is often intellectually and politically important, researchers rarely feel that they are given permission to be emotionally affected by that work; let alone demand a support structure to manage the impact. Deliberately so or not, university research environments offer little support to staff working with difficult or sensitive material.

High workloads present a significant obstacle to prioritising wellbeing. Many researchers feel under too much time pressure to practice self-care. Indeed, there is little awareness of the wide range of activities that might aid ‘self-care’; during the workshops, for example, we discussed counselling, peer-support, reflexive writing, grounding techniques, decompression activities and activities to help support overall physical and mental health. Even when we are able to find the time we feel guilty for doing so; we worry that colleagues might consider self-care unnecessary or think that it should be confined to our leisure time. In addition, many researchers continue to feel a pressure to appear emotionally detached, or to maintain a ‘professional distance’ from their work for it to seem ‘objective’ and legitimate. As a result, even if individual colleagues are sympathetic, discussions about our wellbeing at work do not feel like an aspect of our work. Moreover, complex hierarchies and dual roles within many university departments make it difficult to talk to someone who doesn’t have competing responsibilities – a supervisor may also be a line manager and hold a departmental leadership position – so conversations can feel even more risky. Institutional cultures fail to normalise conversations about mental health and wellbeing; this would be an important first step in promoting support structures that are accessible and effective.

Employers have legal responsibilities to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of their staff. We believe that universities could do a lot more to protect staff from the easily predictable effects of their work. As universities increasingly ask researchers to undertake impactful work, they must understand the risks that those projects pose – especially those involving challenging material and working methods – and provide significantly more support to researchers to help them do that work safely. This would not only fulfil their duty of care to staff, but also produce more intellectually significant, creative and exciting research.

The Collaborative Process

The negative effects of hearing, reading or seeing traumatic media affect a great number of professions, from judges to social workers. Counsellors and therapists have embraced the significance of these negative effects, and actions to combat them, as core to their work. As a result, it was truly enlightening to collaborate across this disciplinary divide. The process highlighted great similarities and even greater differences. Whilst historians and counsellors share an exposure to difficult and traumatic accounts, it was clear that historians have little access to protection against the potentially lifelong negative consequences of their work. As all historians know, language is powerful; but it was only through collaboration with a counsellor that we developed the terminology to express the negative effects we were facing. Along with this came a sense of legitimation.

Fundamental to our aims was practicality. The everyday protective steps that counsellors undertake provided us with a framework for this, whilst also challenging our working methods and the assumptions we make about what is best for our participants and ourselves. Along with prioritising self-care and personal safety, we integrated therapeutic safeguards into our guidelines, such as: boundaries, pacing and planned endings; limiting the length of exposure to trauma; and accepting our emotions as an inevitable part of the work. Importantly for our participants and ourselves, we recognised the need to distinguish therapeutic safeguards from therapeutic techniques, so that we are clear in our role as researcher and we are not seen as a mental health professional.

Through exploring the working methods and safeguards in place for counsellors it has been clear that, although there is much work to be done, it is achievable. Poor researcher wellbeing does not have to be the norm: appropriate support structures have been developed not only in other sectors, but also in different university departments. Our wider working cultures, how we plan and assess our projects, and funding structures are all in need of change. However, the guidelines that we have developed offer manageable and practical changes that can make a significant difference. In doing so, we can protect against vulnerability factors; support researchers who have an invaluable ‘insider view’; reduce the risk that skilled and experienced researchers will be lost; and improve the research process through increased reflexivity, empathy and emotional connectedness.

You can read reflections by members of the workshop group on how this project has impacted their practice and methodologies, in another article for HWO on Emotions, Vulnerabilities and Care in Sensitive Research.

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