Q&A: Helping researchers avoid emotional burnout

Summary

Charlotte Benoot, who experienced an emotional burnout after working with cancer patients, is organising an event to highlight the challenges faced by young researchers working on sensitive topics

Emotional burden

Charlotte Benoot of the Mental Health and Wellbeing research group at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) spent two years interviewing cancer patients living alone; the emotional burden resulted in a six-month burnout. She’s now organising an event for novice researchers and will present the results to supervisors, research groups and ethics committees, in the hope of better supporting young PhD students.

How did you approach the interview project?
It was my first job, and, looking back, I was completely unprepared. The job interview was the only time when it was mentioned that it might be hard, but of course if you’re applying for a job, you hide your fears. And you adapt your emotional behaviour to the expectations of your work environment. In an academic setting, that means being a neutral, detached researcher gathering information.

When did you begin to feel distressed?
There’s a cumulative effect. You come back to the office, and the story isn’t over; you have to rehear the whole conversation, and there’s nothing you can do. Then you ask yourself ethical questions about making abstractions of people’s suffering. You’re not really conscious of the emotions it evokes, so it gets at you slowly. I began to have nightmares about getting cancer myself, for example.

Have you adapted your methods?
If I look at my first interview, it’s quite different from how I do it now. I’ve learned a lot. Now I’m doing research again, with a palliative cancer population – meaning people who are dying. It’s hard, but I’m communicating with my supervisor and other researchers about the experience. That’s my way of protecting myself. The most important thing is self-reflection. You have to give yourself feedback all the time, to ask what emotions an interview has evoked.

What do you hope for from the congress?
We have a lot of training in methodological challenges, but we need more collaboration between researchers working on sensitive topics. Last year I organised an event focusing on the stories behind the research. It was an overwhelming success, so this is the second edition. We’ll formulate recommendations and present them to everybody involved in qualitative research, to show the challenges we’re facing.

Photo: Ingimage