Self-care when conducting qualitative research

There is a lot of focus on ensuring the physical and emotional safety of research participants when designing a study. And rightly so. But what about the safety of those who are conducting the research?

When it comes to Big Science studies involving chemicals and heavy equipment most ethics boards would ensure the researcher’s physical safety. I suspect few would apply the same consideration to qualitative research and the heavy emotional labour it can often involve.

When conducting qualitative research—particularly on sensitive topics—both the participant and the researcher are vulnerable. This will obviously vary with the topic and method used but it can be hard to foresee. For example, you may design a study about women's attitudes towards exercise thinking it is unlikely to arouse anything particularly emotive. It may then surprise you when participants report their experiences of sexual abuse in gyms or parks; this is not unlikely given that 1 in 6 women in Australia experience sexual assault (compared to 1 in 14 worldwide). 

Something to ponder: Anecdotally, it seems that a lot of qualitative research is conducted by women or members of a minority group. Sometimes before something can become of scientific interest it must first become political and it’s often those who experience the political ramifications who lead the way in this endeavour (e.g. AIDS activism, women’s health movement). The fact that the safety of qualitative researchers has received little attention by institutions (or that qualitative research itself is not always respected) and that this research if often led by those whose safety is otherwise not guaranteed in society is, I’m sure, no coincidence. 

Self-care for qualitative researchers doesn’t end after data collection where you have likely come face-to-face with people and their stories. If you used an oral method (e.g. interviews, focus groups) and are doing your own transcribing you will again encounter the voice of your participants. Sometimes hearing the audio version in your own privacy—where you are not preoccupied with other thoughts and actions (e.g. putting on a professional stance)—may have a different impact on you.

And then you have the hours of immersing yourself in the data and perhaps repeated discussions with colleagues about its meaning.  You may also have given participants the option to contact you again with updates on their experience and are thus subject to unexpected re-exposure. The need for self-care may be more apparent when conducting research on a topic that you identify strongly with (e.g. either you or a loved one have the health condition you are researching).

As you can see the issue is complex and clearly worthy of consideration when designing and reviewing studies using qualitative research methods. The following are self-care practices that I found useful when conducting research for my PhD:

  • My supervisors encouraged me to think about and prepare for self-care in the early stages of my research; I highly recommend making a self-care plan and discussing it with your supervisors/collaborators.
  • During the interview I was primarily focused on doing the best job I could do as a researcher (while also being a human being; there is no need to become a robot) and in a way this shielded me from experiencing the full emotional impact of women’s stories at the time.
  • After each interview I made sure to emotionally download to someone else (while preserving participants’ privacy). I would discuss the interview with my supervisors in our fortnightly meetings or just by popping into their office afterward. For the heavier downloading, I would also discuss it with my partner at home.
  • Eventually I learnt to do no more than two interviews a week as they were often quite lengthy, emotionally tiring, and typically involved an hour or two of travel to participants' homes. It's important to be aware of the potential for physical and emotional exhaustion.
  • I found it useful to put a buffer activity between work and home on the days I did interviews. For example, I went to the gym or had dinner with a friend so that by the time I got home there had been other things to fill my day with.
  • Arthur Frank said, "One listens to ill people's stories not in order to fix them by doing something 'therapeutic' but rather to honour them." It was such a privilege to hear the stories of the women in my study; remembering this eased the weight of the emotional labour in doing so.

What self-care practices have you incorporated into your work as a qualitative researcher?

Kate xx

Image: Death to the Stock Photo