Chapter 32: Looking after yourself

Danielle Berkovic

Learning outcomes

Upon completion of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Describe the emotional burden of qualitative research.
  • Identify strategies to cope with the emotional responses of participants in qualitative research.
  • Learn how to look after yourself during the qualitative research process.


Why do qualitative researchers need to look after themselves?

As described throughout this textbook, qualitative research for health and social care spans many disciplines and topics. Each individual researcher brings their own lens and experiences to the qualitative landscape, and some research topics may require the researcher to undertake emotional work. This type of research can be highly demanding in terms of mental, emotional or physical energy, at the expense of the researcher’s health or wellbeing.1 For example, Chapters 9 and 10 describe two potentially emotionally charged phenomenological and ethnographical studies: one investigating abused mothers’ lived experiences and another seeking to understand the perspectives of women who use drugs intravenously.

What types of emotions might qualitative researchers experience?

The Economic & Social Research Council (ESCR), the ESCR National Centre for Research Methods and Qualiti (all UK-based organisations) led the Commissioned Inquiry into the Risk to Well-being of Researchers in Qualitative Research.2 They identified six emotional and psychological ‘risks’ that qualitative researchers should be aware of (Table 32.1):

Table 32.1: Six risks to qualitative researchers

Emotional and psychological risks to qualitative researchers Definitions and examples
Role conflict During data collection (particularly interviews), the researcher may incorporate elements of self-disclosure to the participant, drawing the researcher and participant into an unexpected dynamic. This can inadvertently lead to the researcher acting as a health or social care provider, or a friend. Conversely, the participant may also disclose more personal detail than is required for the purposes of the research, which can also lead to the researcher acting as a friend and feeling conflicted about their role.
Anxiety Data collection with participants who have experienced trauma can cause the researcher emotional or moral unease. The researcher may empathise with the participant to the extent that it causes the researcher discomfort.
Isolation Working in unfamiliar settings can heighten a researcher’s sense of isolation; for example, during an extended period of data collection in an unfamiliar country. The research topic itself can also have an isolating effect on the researcher.
Resistance Some participants can be uncooperative or obstructive to the research process, and gatekeepers may represent barriers to access.
The unanticipated long-term impact of research The long-term mental toll that can come from research spanning several years
Staying emotionally and psychologically safe The emotional strain of having to deal with distressing research encounters can be acute. This not only applies to the researcher collecting the data, but also to those who are tangential to the research, such as interview transcribers.

The role of bracketing

Given the emotional and psychological risks, it is important for those undertaking qualitative research to understand their positionality (see Chapter 26) with regard to the research topic. Researchers should undertake a bracketing exercise (described in Chapter 26) to identify their personal strengths and weaknesses, and potential biases, so they might learn about the types of research that have potential to cause distress. Fenge and colleagues found that researchers with social work or psychology backgrounds who conduct research in the same field can especially benefit from identifying their positionality when working with high-risk populations, such as sex offenders in the criminal justice system or survivors of family violence.3

How to look after yourself

Table 32.2 presents some tips and tricks offered by Rager4 for how researchers might look after themselves in the three stages of the research process.

Table 32.2: Coping strategies for researchers

Ways of coping Explanation Example articles
Journal writing The researcher writes their thoughts and feelings about their research. Writing has been acknowledged as an effective reflective exercise and is commonly used in psychology research. Anticipating doing a study with dying patients: an autoethnography on researcher wellbeing5


A researcher’s reflective account of conducting qualitative research with people who are dying, with journal writing suggested as a means of dealing with their conflicting role between researcher and confidant.
Peer debriefing The researcher confides in a colleague or someone in the workplace whom they trust about how the research is affecting their health and wellbeing. This relationship can be established as an informal catch-up, or at regular intervals. The mental health of people doing qualitative research: getting serious about risks and remedies6

CC BY-NC 4.0

Describes the importance of workplaces and communities openly sharing the potential challenges of undertaking qualitative research, and learning from each other about what works in caring for the self.
Personal counselling The researcher talks to others – counsellor, colleagues, friends or family – about maintaining personal boundaries in their research. The safety of researchers and participants in primary care qualitative research7

© British Journal of General Practice and not available for reuse under CC BY-NC

Describes a general practitioner’s experiences with conducting qualitative research and their involvement in a counselling program to identify and manage their emotions.
Member checking Member checking enables the researcher to touch base with participants after data collection, thereby creating a sense of closure at the end of the research. Member checking: can benefits be gained similar to group therapy?8


Describes the therapeutic benefits of member checking for both the researcher and participants.
Maintaining work–life balance Social and emotional support networks when conducting research are key, in addition to social events, hobbies, exercise, etc. Blurring boundaries: balancing between distance and proximity in qualitative research studies with vulnerable participants9

CC BY 4.0

Reports on the experiences of social science researchers conducting various types of qualitative research projects and what they did to take care of themselves; maintaining a work–life balance was key.


It is important for researchers to look after themselves, especially while undertaking qualitative research that is emotionally challenging. There are different techniques researchers can use to help them cope with research that is personally challenging, including finding the self-care methods that work for them.


  1. Kumar S, Cavallaro L. Researcher Self-Care in Emotionally Demanding Research: A Proposed Conceptual Framework. Qual Health Res. 2018;28(4):648-658. doi:10.1177/1049732317746377
  2. Bloor M, Fincham B, Sampson H. Quality (NCRM) Commissioned Inquiry Into the Risk of Well-Being of Researchers in Qualitative Research. 2008. Accessed 25 June 2023.
  3. Fenge LA, Oakley L, Taylor B, Beer S. The Impact of Sensitive Research on the Researcher: Preparedness and Positionality. Int J Qual Methods. 2019;18. doi:10.1177/1609406919893161
  4. Rager KB. Self-Care and the Qualitative Researcher: When Collecting Data Can Break Your Heart. Educ Res. 2005;34(4):23-24.
  5. Six S. Anticipating Doing a Study With Dying Patients: An Autoethnography on Researcher Well-Being. Int J Qual Methods. 2020;19. doi:10.1177/1609406920967863
  6. Clark AM, Sousa BJ. The Mental Health of People Doing Qualitative Research. Int J Qual Methods. 2018;17(1). doi:10.1177/1609406918787244
  7. Williamson AE, Burns N. The safety of researchers and participants in primary care qualitative research. Br J Gen Pract. 2014;64(621):198-200. doi:10.3399/bjgp14X679480
  8. Harper M, Cole P. Member Checking: Can Benefits Be Gained Similar to Group Therapy? Qual Rep. 2012;17(2):510-517. doi:10.46743/2160-3715/2012.2139
  9. Garrels V, Skåland B, Schmid E. Blurring Boundaries: Balancing between Distance and Proximity in Qualitative Research Studies With Vulnerable Participants. Int J Qual Methods. 2022;21. doi:10.1177/16094069221095655