Research England: Enhancing Researcher Wellbeing by Acknowledging and Reducing the Potential for Secondary Trauma in the Research Process

Project: Research-related funding

Project Details


Whilst awareness of the need to protect research participants (e.g., ESRC, 2021) and trauma workers (e.g., Fidley,1995) is well established, secondary trauma in researchers is only just being acknowledged. The small-scale studies that exist indicate that researchers who view, listen to, or read stories of trauma (e.g., rape, war) can experience secondary trauma, with consequent mental health symptoms, anger at the employer/situation, and potentially loss from the profession (e.g., Bately, 2022; Williamson et al., 2020). Appropriate frameworks to support affected individuals are lacking, both institutionally and nationally.

Symptoms of secondary trauma include intrusions (e.g., distressing thoughts, dreams, memories), avoidance (e.g., of possible threats), increased arousal/reactivity (e.g., hypervigilance, limited concentration/sleep, irritability), and alterations in cognitions/mood (e.g., withdrawal, negativity). The British Psychological Society (2020) state that the symptoms of secondary trauma are alike to the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder felt by a victim-survivor of a direct traumatic event. Secondary trauma can be experienced at any time in a research project (British Psychological Society, 2020), including whilst conducting interviews, coding quantitative/qualitative data, reviewing the literature or during policy campaigning.

Despite growing recognition of secondary trauma in researchers by key professional bodies, and pockets of excellent practice, a robust framework to address this problem is lacking. There is no systematic approach, policy or training at undergraduate/postgraduate/professional levels to help researchers identify/address the potential for secondary trauma. Our project will address this, by listening to the experiences of researchers at risk of secondary trauma, gathering information about the support they need to address this, and developing an institutional framework for this, which could ultimately be adopted more widely.

Year 1 Aim:
To improve understanding of secondary trauma in researchers and establish what can be done to address the problem.

Year 1 Objectives:
(i) Commence/continue discussions with key players (research/ethics/policy/wellbeing leads, HR, HoDs/DoS/DoT) and external service provides (e.g. for staff counselling).
(ii) Undertake interviews with a purposeful sample of 30 researchers who have undertaken research on topics that could cause secondary trauma.
(iii) Thematic analysis of data.
(iv) Present preliminary findings to key stakeholders at all levels.

Year2 Aim:
To develop and pilot a package of measures to help prevent and mitigate secondary trauma in researchers.

Year2 Objectives:
The exact objectives for this year will depend on the findings from Year 1, but will likely include:
• Develop a university researcher wellbeing strategic framework, researcher wellbeing protocol and wellbeing tools.
• Piloting wellbeing tools (e.g., safety and risk assessment, proforma wellbeing plans).
• Writing and piloting of secondary trauma awareness training for Masters, PhD, junior/contract researchers, supervisors/researchers, including ‘train the trainers’ to pass on skills.
• Evaluation of pilot services, for example: workshop questionnaires, observation of workshops.
• Write up and prepare for publication the findings from the Year1 study.

Depending on Year1 findings, the objectives may also include piloting of projects to help maintain better researcher wellbeing, for example:
• Clinical supervision for researchers.
• Mindfulness workshops.

Layman's description

Researchers investigate a wide range of topics to enhance understanding of the many issues that affect people in today's society, sometimes this involves the more disturbing and distressing sides of human experience.

There is growing recognition that undertaking this type of research can pose many difficulties for researchers, including secondary trauma, yet there are few examples of managing their wellbeing effectively.

Our project will address this, by listening to researchers at risk of secondary trauma, identifying appropriate support mechanisms (for example, identifying the challenges of ‘fieldwork’ through risk assessment), and developing an institutional framework for supporting researcher wellbeing at the UoB.
Effective start/end date1/02/2330/09/24

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 5 - Gender Equality
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions


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