Last week I was delighted to announce the start of a new support network for researchers at The University of Sheffield. The Emotionally Demanding Research Network is a group for researchers engaged in sensitive, traumatic, or upsetting research. Our network is locked to Sheffield researchers so we can cultivate at least a semi-private space for researchers to discuss their experiences. However, when we tweeted this, it got a huge response from researchers at multiple institutions, wanting to know how they could gain this kind of support too. This blog will share where we’re up to with this project, and why.
Although engaging in traumatic or sensitive research themes can be exceptionally rewarding, it is important to be mindful of how our own wellbeing may be affected. Research has shown that exposure to traumatic research (without adequate support or coping strategies) may lead to vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma is the negative change in our thoughts, perceptions and interpretations as a result of repeated engagement with traumatic research related materials and experiences.
So what might those adequate support or coping strategies look like?
The initiative was the idea of Emma Nagouse, PGR in the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) whose own research is on an emotionally demanding topic, analysing biblical and contemporary rape narratives.
She approached me to see how we could usefully bring together researchers from across the university, and together we recruited Sarah Bell, a team member leading on ‘#ResearchWell’ — the Think Ahead team’s strategy for researcher wellbeing.
And in November 2017 we hosted the first informal meet up of researchers engaged in sensitive, traumatic, or upsetting research. I took the opportunity to facilitate several discussions in this session, asking researchers about how their research topic impacts their health and wellbeing, how they can self-safeguard, and what support, events or conversations they’d like to receive through the network. Photographs of our whiteboard mapping are below.
Importantly our researchers shared the impact of their research topics on them, which I’ve listed below — please take time to absorb this list because it’s very important we support our research staff and students who find themselves in this situation. Rising concerns PGR Mental Health (and in fact general academic mental health) mean that good Mental Health strategies are being given centre stage currently, and deservedly so. Here’s another strand in the big intermingled spaghetti-bowl of stressors that can surface in the PhD (and beyond).
Impact of engaging in emotionally demanding research themes:
- Sleeplessness and/or nightmares
- Anxiousness and Anxiety
- Being triggered
- Sapped energy and Tiredness
- Being unproductive
- Feeling ‘rubbish’
- Necessitating a change of research topic and wasted time
- Necessitating a Leave of Absence from studies, or contributing to withdrawal
- Increasing Imposter Feelings — feeling ‘not cut out for research’, especially when others around you are desensitised.
We hope you agree this is very worthy of attention!
We also asked researchers what would help (picture 2 right land list) – and what would be their worst nightmare vision of this group (picture 2 left hand side). Worth factoring in if you’re designing your own!
So what have we planned?
Step 1 was to create and launch the network, creating a place for researchers to ‘join’. Emma and I will be taking on facilitation roles in the online space, posting articles, hosting discussions, and helping our members access what they need. Member too will be posting and sharing their ideas and good strategies.
I’m leading Step 2a which is to liaise with our University Counselling Service to help the network commission face-to-face workshops (and hopefully online resources) on Self-safeguarding for Emotionally Demanding Research.
Emma’s taking on Step 2b, organising some semi-regular drop in session for members.
And Step 3 will be to raise the profile of the network during Researcher Wellbeing Week (upcoming in June 2018) — which brings together everything we do to support the wellbeing and mental health of research staff and students.
We think networks, led by researchers, and that respond to the real needs of researchers are the most important way to support self-care, peer-learning and healthy relationships with work and study. And in celebration, two more researcher-led networks are in the making! Watch this space for details of the Disabled and Ill Researchers’ Network and the Parent-PGR Network!
Your questions, comments and feedback are welcome as always.