Emotional distress among frontline research staff

Megan Nguyen, Lloyd Goldsamt, Nonhlanhla Mazibuko, Sanelisiwe Zondo, Rebecca Fielding-Miller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Public health research frequently deals with sensitive topics. A growing body of evidence suggests that frontline researchers who elicit or process participant's traumatic experiences are themselves at risk of developing emotional distress or secondary trauma from daily immersion in these data. This both threatens a study's data quality and calls into question how the harms and benefits of conducting research are distributed across a study team. The objective of this study was to explore how frontline research staff in Eswatini experience and process emotional distress as part of their daily work and to describe potential strategies for resilience and coping using qualitative research methods. We conducted 21 in-depth interviews with informants who had worked in data collection, data entry, and transcription on a number of sensitive topics, including HIV, sex work, and LGBT health. We found that emotional distress is a salient experience among frontline research staff working in Eswatini. This distress stems from conducting research against a generalized backdrop of high rates of HIV, violence, and poverty, particularly since research staff are drawn from affected communities and have their own firsthand knowledge of the phenomena they are studying. Moreover, the qualities study staff are often hired for – empathy, compassion, and emotional intelligence – are also traits that may increase their likelihood of feeling distressed by the narratives they encounter in their work. The workplace can serve as a prism, exacerbating or potentially mitigating these risks into harm at the individual, interpersonal, and community level. While not all study teams may have access to formal mental health services, several informants recommended incorporating regular meetings with a trained counselor as part of the overall project. Others recommended building time for team-building or debriefing conversations into the normal workweek, a strategy that would address both the issue of workload and could bolster the already existent strategy of relying on team members for mental health support.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number114101
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
StatePublished - Jul 2021


  • Eswatini
  • Global health
  • HIV
  • Public health
  • Research ethics
  • Researcher trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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