19 Oct 2016

Like counsellors and psychologists, program evaluators can spend a significant part of their working day listening to emotionally laden, and sometimes heartbreaking, stories. This can include stories of violence, neglect, and disadvantage.

At times, our work can also be emotionally sensitive due to our own personal histories echoing those issues we are working on. We know from experience that a strong emotional connection with participants enhances our work, but we are also aware of the impact this emotional connection can have on evaluators in terms of their own emotional wellbeing. 

The Urbis Economic and Social Advisory team has a fantastic culture of encouraging personal self-care and embedding team-care strategies into our working practices. To present a paper on these issues to the recent Australasian Evaluation Society conference in Perth, we talked with our colleagues about their experiences. 

We heard stories of difficult moments, but there was a general feeling that we are all privileged to be exposed to a fuller range of human experience and emotions than we might if we were working in some other professions. We also heard stories of innovative approaches to personal self-care and set out to document the ways in which professional self-care is undertaken within the Urbis team.

The impacts of exposure to emotionally distressing or traumatic experiences for researchers and evaluators can be quite similar to that of psychologists and social workers.

In the course of a year, our team might work across health and social services issues including mental illness, domestic violence, palliative care, child protection, substance use, and homelessness. Looking at it this way, it’s clear that evaluators can be exposed to the same types of emotionally-laden stories and experiences as social workers and psychologists. 

We were struck by the fact that many of us have forged careers in this space without formal training and preparation and (in some previous workplaces) without strategies in place to process this information, and to look after ourselves and each other. 

The impacts of exposure to emotionally distressing or traumatic experiences for researchers and evaluators can be quite similar to that of psychologists and social workers. These impacts fall into three key categories, all of which were reflected in the stories we heard in our team:

  • secondary traumatic stress disorder which occurs when an evaluator relates to the firsthand traumatic experiences of what we hear, to the extent that we begin to experience similar symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder;
  • vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue which is usually a response to an ongoing exposure to the pain and distress of others and can result in a change in evaluators’ world view and belief system; and
  • burnout, which is usually the result of prolonged stress, which may or may not be related to hearing stories of distress but can still be an issue for evaluators.

These very real potential impacts of working as an evaluator have a range of implications for how we do our work, how we train and prepare staff, and how we undertake personal self-care and team-care in the workplace.

When thinking about personal self-care, there was a general acknowledgement that each evaluator needs to cultivate and maintain their own unique combination of personal self-care strategies. Some examples we uncovered in our team included journaling, exercise, meditation and mindfulness, and talking through experiences with a friend or professional. 

When it comes to professional self-care, we’ve found it’s important to embed professional self-care strategies in team systems.  These work best when they are not too contrived, and are tailored and sensitive to individual experiences. 

Some examples from Urbis include:

  • a buddy system for evaluators who are on the road doing fieldwork – someone to check-in on how they went, offer a chance to debrief if needed;
  • a self-care plan to map out the possible impact of exposure to emotionally heavy material along with suggestions for mitigating negative impacts and aids to ensure recognition of negative impacts; and
  • modelling of good personal self-care from team leaders and senior evaluators to encourage others.

Reflecting on our own experiences, we agree that professional self-care strategies are most likely to have a broad, consistently positive impact on an evaluation team when there is an ongoing commitment to, and training for, self-care across the team, with more targeted strategies developed for individual projects.  It is also, based on our experience, important to have access to trained professionals, who can be quickly drawn upon (either by the evaluator or their supervisor) if needed.

After presenting our paper in Perth we had several evaluation peers approach us to talk further. There was a general acknowledgement of the role that emotions play in our work, but agreement that this has not always resulted in attention being given to how including evaluators cope.

We were really thrilled to discuss our strategies for personal and team-care and hope this helps our peers consider the issues, for their own wellbeing. 

Poppy Wise View Profile
Caroline Tomiczek View Profile