Managing emotionally demanding research

Published: 23 October 2023

What is emotionally demanding research, and how can individuals, managers and supervisors navigate the challenges of this type of work? SHW's Julie Riddell explains...

MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit's Julie Riddell highlights the issue of emotionally demanding research and signposts sources of support for staff and students who work in this field.  

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What is emotionally demanding research? 

Kumar and Cavallaro (2018) define EDR as "research that demands a tremendous amount of mental, emotional, or physical energy and potentially affects or depletes the researcher’s health or well-being". This might include

  • research on sensitive issues (e.g. violence, abuse, mental health, chronic or terminal illness, death)
  • research similar to personal trauma previously experienced by the researcher
  • the researcher’s experience of traumatic life events while conducting a study
  • unexpected events that arise during research in what was previously not identified as a sensitive issue. 

What is the problem/why should we think about it?

Many areas of research have the potential to be emotionally demanding for staff and students, therefore a key area in improving and sustaining researcher wellbeing is understanding, and preparing for, the impact that research can have in this way. Whilst there may be topics or types of research that may be more obviously challenging, it should be recognised that there are many different ways in which research can be, or become, emotionally demanding for staff or students.

Research can be emotionally demanding across different disciplines, using different methods and in different settings. Different individuals involved in research can experience different levels of emotional demand depending on their own life experiences, and at different points across their career. Awareness, training and mitigation strategies are important but these considerations should not be limited to one particular type or research, or one particular role or career stage of those involved.

Considerations about researcher wellbeing should, therefore, not be limited to physical safety but should also include strategies to support the mental wellbeing of researchers throughout a project and their career. The MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences unit have developed guidance to consider when thinking about research projects. These guidelines are freely available and can be used by project teams to support the development of strategies and processes to support wellbeing.

What can managers/project leaders do?

  • Consider guidelines – how could they work for your team?
  • Consider emotional wellbeing of researcher within risk assessments.
  • Factor into timelines/funding (e.g. will you need specialist support for researchers?)
  • Embed in discussions from the start and throughout.
  • Encourage openness and honest discussion about wellbeing and impact of research.

Where can I find support?

What can I do?

  • Anyone working on, or supporting, research they consider to be emotionally demanding (either previously, currently or in the future) can join the Emotionally Demanding Research network.
  • Learn what works for you and put strategies in place to support both your own and others emotional wellbeing.
  • Don’t be afraid to set boundaries for yourself.
  • Remember, finding something emotionally challenging is not a sign of weakness.

Additional reading

  1. Kumar S, Cavallaro L. Researcher Self-Care in Emotionally Demanding Research: A Proposed Conceptual Framework. Qualitative Health Research. 2018;28(4):648-658 
  2. Guidance on Facilitating and Supporting Emotionally Demanding research developed by the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit
  3. Supporting Emotionally Demanding Research: Developing Guidance for a University Research Centre: book chapter regarding the development of the guidance above
  4. Supporting researchers through ‘emotionally demanding’ research" Blog written by Susie Smillie

Further resources and reading can be found on the Emotionally Demanding Research Network website

Julie Riddell 
Research Assistant (MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit) 
Joint Coordinator of Scottish Emotionally Demanding Research Network

First published: 23 October 2023