Though the novel coronavirus started in China, it is now spreading out all throughout the world, with many countries affected. At the frontline, medical staff is fighting to cope with one of the biggest challenges in care workers’ careers: saving the lives of as many people as possible while knowing that the capacity of the health system is limited. At the same time, specialists are working day and night to develop a vaccine, knowing that the deadline was yesterday rather than tomorrow.
Beyond the frontline, social scientists have a crucial role to play in foreseeing, understanding, and analyzing the ongoing societal transformations, and in developing solutions that help our societies to move forward. How are our societies evolving from the geopolitical to the local level? What challenges are presenting themselves in the political, social, and economic fields? How will people cope—or not—with this societal crisis? Over the coming months and years, social scientists will tackle these issues. And they will often do this in “a field” that is also part of their “home,” interconnected with their personal lives. How can we safeguard the mental health of our scholars? How can we reinforce researchers’ resilience? Here, I invite universities and scientific institutions to think about how to adequately cope with the emotional challenges of research “in crisis.”
Emotional challenges of research in crisis“Many researchers who have worked in crisis situations have experienced high levels of emotional stress.”
With 20 years of research experience in conflict and postconflict situations (particularly in central Africa), I have experienced the toll that passion for research can exert. Of course, situations of war and violence are different from the current crises. But there are similarities: societies are profoundly disrupted; people’s lives are affected; people suffer or die; and from there, the debates on which policy choices are legitimate or not are tense. Many researchers who have worked in crisis situations have experienced high levels of emotional stress. This stress is even higher for researchers whose professional and personal lives are tightly interconnected. Doing research “at home” intensifies its emotional challenges.1See An Ansoms, Aymar Nyenyezi Bisoka, and Susan Thomson, eds., Fields of Vision: Navigating Researcher Vulnerability at Home & Abroad (James Currey, foreseen publication April 2021). First, it mingles “on duty” and “off duty” situations, with (barely) any opportunity to escape from “the field.” The feeling of continuously being embedded in the midst of “the field” reduces researchers’ ability to temporarily distance themselves from their research. Second, the emotional toll of research tends to be more intense when one’s research topic potentially affects their lives, or the lives of family and friends. Third, the urgency of one’s research may turn into a very personal matter, which may reduce researchers’ capacity to maintain the necessary serenity.
Overall, social scientists are rather poorly trained when it comes to engaging with the emotionality that their research generates. As Campbell points out, scientists have been trained to “devalue emotions as a source of knowledge.”2See Rebecca Campbell, Emotionally Involved: The Impact of Researching Rape (New York, Routledge, 2002), 15. There are exceptions. In anthropology, researchers are encouraged to engage with and reflect around their emotionality and positionality in research spaces and subjects. In some other fields, there are emerging streams of literature that put this topic on the agenda.3See, for example, Susan Thomson, An Ansoms, and Jude Murison, eds., Emotional and Ethical Challenges for Field Research in Africa (Palgrave, 2012). However, the inherent focus often remains limited to the instrumental value of emotions for the research process (as a positive that creates more intense interaction with the field; or as a negative that inserts bias in the analytical process). What is largely ignored is emotionality’s unavoidable presence in any type of human encounter (including those in the field). It is a reality, as such, that interacts with researchers’ well-being—regardless of emotions’ usefulness in the research process.
Toward an institutional strategy for research “in crisis”
It is therefore crucial for us as researchers to be aware of how our emotionality interacts with our research, and how we can take better care of ourselves. But it is also crucial to reflect upon an institutional strategy for research centers that includes training, coaching, and care modalities oriented toward researchers’ resilience with regards to the emotional challenges that research in crisis entails.
We need to provide training on the emotional challenges of research. In the coming years, many researchers will work with people who are vulnerable, who feel disrupted, who have suffered or still suffer. Researchers will observe societal dynamics—positive but also negative—that have an impact upon their own lifeworld. They will engage themselves or be dragged into tense political debates in which their legitimacy as researchers might be attacked. Some researchers have experience working in stressful and emotionally intense situations. Others don’t. In order to successfully face the challenges of research in emotionally intense conditions, trainings for researchers can take two important orientations.
First of all, it is crucial to raise awareness around the risk of compassion fatigue. As Van Dernoot Lipsky points out “the thought that the pain around us can actually change our own psychological and physiological responses, altering our worldview, may never have occurred to us. We often assume that our very status as helpers grants us immunity from the suffering we witness. We are often wrong.”4See Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky with Connie Burk, Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2009), 42. Italicized for emphasis. Van Dernoot’s analysis is oriented to care workers, but it is as relevant for the research community. The feeling of powerlessness, a sense that one can never do enough, a sense of guilt or fear, of anger and cynicism, and an inflated sense of importance related to our work as researchers may culminate into hypervigilance, chronic exhaustion, dissociative moments, numbing, and addictions. Adequately identifying the symptoms of compassion fatigue early can help to develop efficient strategies to reduce its negative impacts.“We often tend to downplay the mental burden that our research imposes upon us out of fear of showing vulnerability to the outside world.”
Second, there is a strong need for preventive strategies that may enhance researchers’ resilience in dealing with emotional stress. Researchers are mostly trained in strengthening their cognitive analytical skills while our training on ethical challenges generally focuses on “the other” involved in the research process—research participants, interlocutors, fixers, interpreters, research assistants. Posing questions and orienting reflections around how to safeguard their physical and mental safety is definitely a core concern. However, the safety of the researcher herself is often a minor topic in those reflections, which reduces the legitimacy to put it on the forefront of one’s research agenda. We often tend to downplay the mental burden that our research imposes upon us out of fear of showing vulnerability to the outside world. This results into a behavior that ignores pain and promotes competitiveness, which is further induced by the way our institutional environment functions. In the current age of cognitive capitalism,5Francesca Coin, “On Quitting,” Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization 17, no.3 (2017): 705–719. academics worldwide are pushed into a homogeneous model of deliverology, conforming to evaluative metrics defined by a market-oriented logic (i.e., the quantity of profitable knowledge they produce), to move ahead in their careers. In such a model, “the constant mismatch between organizational strain and personal values produce burn-out and ethical conflicts.”6Coin, “On Quitting,” 712–713. Such an institutional environment reduces the space for researchers to be open about the emotional confusion and loyalty conflicts embedded in their research. The stakes are even higher for the many researchers working on temporary contracts. Preventative training should create a culture in which it is legitimate to take care of ourselves, to temporarily step back, and to safeguard our mental health.
Next to providing more generalized trainings, another crucial way to support researchers is by providing coaching throughout the research process. Coaching refers to tailor-made forms of guidance, specific to the researcher’s trajectory, research topic and the context in which the researcher navigates. Given that each research field is specific, there is no standard approach that can provide a “typical coaching blueprint.” Instead, I see five potential paths.“Various forms of training can help a researcher gain insight into how emotionally engaged research can affect one’s own mental well-being.”
First, a very efficient form of guidance can happen through self-coaching. Various forms of training can help a researcher gain insight into how emotionally engaged research can affect one’s own mental well-being. For example, understanding how secondary traumatization emerges, what signals announce it, and how to cope with it, can help one gain the capacity to search for help when needed. Understanding how the delegitimation of scientific research in unstable societies is part of a political game between opponents, may help the researcher to cope with the disappointment when such a challenge presents itself. Being trained to recognize the emotional challenges and burdens of research can increase researcher’s capacity for self-coaching and raise their awareness of when external input and help is needed.
A second form of guidance is horizontal peer-coaching. It is important to provide spaces in which people can reach out to their peers. Providing people with opportunities to discuss difficult topics and stay in touch can be a very useful starting point. Through these spaces, peer-coaching can emerge spontaneously among people who share common concerns. Spontaneous matches often facilitate discussions about emotional quagmires. By giving researchers the freedom to find their own coaches, this formula may spontaneously generate emerging forms of interaction around emotionality in research.
Vertical coaching between a researcher and their superior is a third option. These forms of coaching have to be institutionally structured. Logically, the first referent in vertical coaching is one’s immediate supervisor. However, there are traps. First, supervisors do not necessarily have the right social skills to address the challenges that emotionally intense research entails. Second, they do not necessarily have the time to engage in depth with their team members’ quagmires. Third, researchers might not feel comfortable enough to allow them to open up about their emotional struggles. The existing power relations may stand in the way of openness around sensitive topics. It is therefore crucial to create, in vertical coaching, mechanisms that stretch beyond the level of the immediate supervisor, and that are accessible when reaching out during moments of vulnerability.
A fourth form, mental health coaching, could be provided by mental healthcare professionals. Researchers who are engaging with emotionally intense topics should be followed-up on a regular basis by counselors. Such formula should not necessarily be intense, but it can help raise awareness about mental health care, allow to detect potential problems at an early stage, and—most importantly—reduce the boundaries and reticence when asking for help. When researchers are familiar with the channels through which mental health care can be provided, the likeliness of turning to those channels in times of need will increase.
A fifth and final form involves coaching for the coaches. Within most research institutions, there are training sessions on team management. However, it would be useful to provide specific forms of coaching for teams engaged in emotionally intense research in order to avoid supervisors having to “improvise” through it. Receiving additional input on how to provide safe spaces to discuss emotional struggles in research, and on efficient ways of coaching their students/subordinates when facing intense political pressure, can help coaches navigate these quandaries more efficiently.
Care“Knowing there is a back-up channel of professional care can indeed reduce the stress on superiors in their interaction with team members’ emotional struggles.”
Finally, training and coaching is not sufficient. There is a firm need for institutionally organized mental health care—including initiatives that offer modalities for decompression and therapy—for those researchers who have been exposed to extreme forms of mental stress. In the same way other professional groups (journalists, soldiers, medical staff, care workers) benefit from this care, posttraumatic stress therapy, specific for and oriented toward the research profession, could help researchers receive more adequate care. These initiatives should be easily accessible, cheap (or preferably free of cost), and oriented to researchers’ specific needs. Their availability can provide a safety net to the researchers themselves but can also provide relief to their supervisors. Knowing there is a back-up channel of professional care can indeed reduce the stress on superiors in their interaction with team members’ emotional struggles.
Ultimately, the health crisis will pass. But the toll of this virus will be high, both in and beyond the medical field. It might be a time for reflecting on the systemic flaws in our societal systems—and on potential alternatives. Science and research will play a crucial role in those reflections. Let us make sure that our scientists are capable of fully committing to the passion of research by giving them room to address their emotional challenges, and by helping them take care of their mental health.