This blog aims to highlight some of the ways that researchers working in the homelessness sector can build trust with research participants while minimizing burnout and mental fatigue. The burnout and mental fatigue experienced by researchers is often discussed differently than for practitioners working in the homeless-serving sector since researchers are usually not viewed as “frontline workers”. However, researchers also need to be supported and given the tools needed to allow them to process some of the experiences they have had while in the field. These supports are especially important for researchers who self-identify as having lived experience of homelessness.
Part of our training as researchers is learning how to build trust with someone who is not only a stranger, but whose lived experiences may differ from our own. Researchers are forced to recognize the obvious power dynamics between them and the participant while remaining accountable to the research design (i.e., research questions, methodology, and expected outcomes).
Nearly five years into our Making the Shift Family and Natural Supports demonstration projects (MtS DEMS), our research team has worked to build trust with dozens of youth participants. However, building trust did not happen without running into roadblocks along the way. As a team, we worked together to help one another move past these roadblocks by asking:
- What happens when you encounter a roadblock (e.g., last-minute cancellations, missing contact information, participants are no longer interested in sharing their experiences, participants have relocated, and so on)?
- How can you create spaces within your work environment to process emotional experiences you may face as a result of a roadblock?
- What additional spaces are being put in place to reduce the negative impact of these experiences?
- How do we emotionally protect ourselves when being exposed to difficult stories?
One of the tools we used to help manage difficult experiences is called reflective practice. Reflective practice is used to help a researcher process their experiences in various stages of the research study. Writing reflections as a consistent practice can deepen our understanding of past experiences and influence our future actions around similar circumstances. Reflections are an uninterrupted writing or journaling exercise and can be scheduled at any time for between 5 to 20 minutes per day.
What happens when a researcher encounters a roadblock?
A few months ago, one of our MtS DEMS researchers shared their fieldwork experiences with the broader team as part of a reflective practice exercise. In their examples of working with young people experiencing homelessness, the researcher shared stories that had left them wrestling with self-doubt. In their reflection, the researcher explained that contacting participants can sometimes become tedious, especially when the initial contact with the young person was so positive. The researcher describes such experiences as ‘hitting a brick wall’. Not being able to reach a participant may cause the researcher to internalize this as a lack of communication or trust on their part.
Our research shows that these experiences are not uncommon, especially when working with vulnerable groups. For instance, when working in the homelessness sector researchers frequently experience ‘no-shows,’ unanswered calls, last-minute cancellations, disconnected phone numbers, and relationship breakdowns with the service or personal relations. If researchers are not adequately supported through the process, they can be left to feel isolated from the research process, with minimal access to people outside of the research space that they can rely on for social support.
How can we create spaces within the work environment to process “roadblocks” in research?
- Establish practices that facilitate collaboration, and communication, and address power imbalances, both between the researcher and participant as well as the researchers and senior research team members.
- Encourage reflection with and across researchers in your organization. Reflective practices and debriefing sessions can be used to raise and discuss questions about the risks and benefits of the research being done, what the roles and responsibilities of researchers are, and how researchers can establish and manage boundaries in their work.
- Recognize and educate researchers on the limits of the protections that research assistants can offer participants.
- Assess and (re)assess study risks, with attention to how well-prepared researchers are to interact with marginalized populations, such as youth experiencing homelessness.
What additional spaces are being created to reduce the negative impact of these experiences?
Researchers need to maintain an objective ‘detachment’ throughout the research process. This can be challenging for field researchers, especially when they are doing community-based research. One MtS DEMS researcher shared that in some cases, research can pose conflicts, such as when working with two research participants who may be involved in a personal relationship with one or more participants. Regardless of the circumstances, the researcher must be able to protect the participant’s privacy. If the field researcher believes that they are unable to honour the protection of the participant’s identity, the researcher should transfer the participant to another researcher to maintain the integrity of the study’s objectives. Researchers may also feel an attachment to participants based on shared experiences. In both of these cases, the researcher must be able to detach themselves from the research participant to ensure that the participants’ identities remain hidden. It is also important to respect research participants’ wishes if they express that they are no longer interested in participating in the research study as was the case in this example.
Transferring participants to a different researcher is not a simple process. It takes time to build trust between the participant and the researcher, which can be broken when a participant is ‘passed’ on to another researcher. Knowing this, organizations must actively create space to allow researchers to talk through uncomfortable experiences. These spaces are extremely important to help the researcher process any feelings of guilt that may result from the broken trust of the participant.
How do we emotionally protect ourselves when exposed to difficult stories?
Researchers who work “on the ground” are the most actively involved with study participants once a study is underway. As such, researchers carry considerable responsibility in protecting participants and ensuring that research interviews and surveys are completed in a timely manner. However, the examples above reveal that these projects can be complex and challenging.
The following are some steps organizations can take to help prepare researchers to do this work effectively, to help manage interactions, and to help researchers learn how to set personal boundaries:
Identify what skills and knowledge are needed for the study and ensure that time and resources for ongoing training, support, and supervision are built into budgets and research plans
Prioritize training in sensitivity, compassion, and adaptability, in addition to technical or procedural research training and knowledge.
- Design research processes, protocols, and trainings that are adaptable and designed with the needs and experiences of participants in vulnerable circumstances.
If you or someone you know is about to embark on research with youth who identify as homeless, we suggest reviewing the following resources before starting the project:
- What are the needs of Frontline Workers in the Homelessness Support Sector?
- Internal Report. HF4Y Ottawa Program Implementation Year One Lessons Learned from the Research team
- Research Assistants Caught in Limbo: Considering Their Role in Quantitative, Longitudinal Research with Vulnerable Populations