The emotional impact of research

by Annie Crowley

I’m coming up to my 26th interview of this project, and have talked to women working in many organisations, whose work has many different focuses. We talk about their work, how it affects them and their colleagues, and how the pandemic changed things in their organisation. Sometimes I feel energised by the interviews, inspired by the glimpse into the life of the person I have just enjoyed getting to know a little bit. At other times I feel drained, no matter how well the interview has gone, or what a nice or funny conversation we have had. This does depend to some extent on how many interviews I’ve done that week or day, but it’s more than that. I sometimes shut Zoom, and feel I have absorbed the obvious exhaustion of the interviewee, as the descriptions of their responsibilities, duties and anxieties for their clients layer on top of each other, over and over, and I can feel daunted. So many of the interviewees are not only working excessively, but outside of that are also studying and caring for others, to the point that it makes me feel anxious wondering how they themselves can possibly cope, let alone the women they are supporting. Hearing how sometimes it is people’s personal experiences that have led them into the work can be difficult; this is not usually relayed in any detail, but more alluded to, which somehow unintentionally emphasises to me the bravery but also the self-sacrifice of putting this to one side to help others.

“Sometimes I feel energised by the interviews, inspired by the glimpse into the life of the person I have just enjoyed getting to know a little bit. At other times I feel drained, no matter how well the interview has gone, or what a nice or funny conversation we have had.”

The emotional drain that I can feel also comes from the parallels that I keep drawing, both when I’m in the middle of interviewing, prompting me to want to overshare, and after, as I reflect. Often we as researchers have similar background experiences to those we are interviewing, we might have spent some time in the voluntary and public sectors, have educational similarities or complicated career paths. But the parallels I draw in the interviews are often fairly trivial, and I have laughed with interviewees about common experiences during Covid: noisy deaf cats interrupting meetings, sick children off nursery, working from home when pregnant. We are asking women about how their experiences of doing the work affects them, how they switch off, what barriers they are able to put up, and how they cope with and balance everything in their lives. But the same questions apply to our research team of women too, how do we do those things? I am not sure that any of us switch off from work well, I have the sense that we all take it into our personal lives, work outside of our work hours. I certainly know that I’m not always good at professional-personal boundaries: I snap at my partner in advance of an interview feeling nervous as I try to read up on the interviewees’ organisation and prepare my interview set up on the kitchen table. I pick up my toddler late from nursery as I hurry to write up details that I don’t want to forget from an interview I’ve just conducted. I feel very aware sometimes of the emotional labour I am conducting, as at times I have pushed difficult personal circumstances or news to one side in order to go online, bring a smile and a welcome to my face, and switch my brain to engage with the interviewee and the details of the information they are generously sharing. Their descriptions – of the workloads and responsibility they have can also make me feel anxious, reminding me of frontline work I have done in the past, that I knew at the time was risky.

This may sound like self-pity – it isn’t or isn’t meant to be. In fact – far from it, as one of the most emotionally challenging parts of conducting these interviews has been the guilt I have experienced. Yes, we all went through pandemic lockdowns, but some obviously had it so much worse than others, and whilst I was always aware of this and always aware of my own privilege, hearing the details and really accepting that knowledge, can be hard. Interviewees share the increased demand for their services, revealing the scale of need during and following the pandemic. They describe the difficulty of the initial silence from clients, and then the explosion of contact and reaching out to services and of workers themselves depleted and struggling. They matter of factly relay the sense of being the last service standing, and the pressure and responsibility this put upon them. But it can also sometimes be the interviews that you don’t expect to get to you so much, to make you cry, that do. For me, it has been those in particular that lay bare in horrific and unflinching detail the financial crisis we are now seeing as it is hits the most vulnerable in real time. The sense that people have lived through the worst of the pandemic and the lockdowns, however bad, only for it to be followed by a rise in the cost of living that will affect people so horrendously creates a sense of hopelessness alongside the injustice. It is often this – what is happening right now, rather than the reflections of the initial lockdowns – that stick with me following interviews. The interviewees have recounted their fears of how those they are supporting will or won’t cope, and this also leaves a multi-layered hangover of anxiety in my mind following the interviews: fear for the women they support, and fear for those doing everything in their power to help them.

When we set out upon this research project, we described how we saw Covid-19 as a metaphor for major change, and we have been exploring that. But what the interviews have also been revealing is an additional major change in the form of the exacerbation of the cost of living crisis, and how voluntary sector organisations will once more be the frontline workers for dealing with this crisis, at the same time as they emerge from the last. And more than anything for me, the emotional impact of this being revealed in the interviews is the desire and sense of responsibility to turn what we in our small team have heard, into something that is listened to and acted upon, at a far wider level.

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