Whether you realise it or not, as a health writer or health researcher you are exposed to a barrage of health messages and health experiences.
Maybe you’re writing about a life-threatening disease, reading lots of research articles about mortality rates, or talking to people who have been through a traumatic diagnosis. It’s possible that you yourself have also been impacted by the diseases or conditions you are writing about.
It’s important not to minimise the toll it can take.
In my case, I’d specialized in writing and researching about cancer, and been doing it for a long time, before I really started to notice the impact it was having on me.
That’s when I began to untangle my own issues, mostly relating to my friend who had died from bowel cancer years before I started this profession.
What can have a negative impact on health communicators’ mental health?
It’s worth knowing about vicarious traumatisation, defined by the British Medical Association as ‘a process of change resulting from empathetic engagement with trauma survivors.’
It is particularly acknowledged as something that can happen to counsellors, health professionals: people supporting those impacted by abuse and violence. There seems to be less out there examining the phenomenon in people researching and supporting people with serious health conditions. Which in themselves can be associated with trauma.
As well as vicarious traumatisation, there is the general burden of being exposed to lots of negative experiences, worse case scenarios, and unmet needs. For example, when I was working on a project about delayed diagnosis in prostate cancer, I didn’t hear about what went well, but instead what had gone wrong.
In my research work, I don’t often get to hear about things going well (although this has got a bit better now I am working on more evaluations!)
Once I moved into freelance work, I found the work I did had even more of an impact on me, probably because I was more isolated, working alone, had less support and had no boss or supervisor.
I felt passionate about the work I was doing and I didn’t want to stop. But I could feel myself creeping towards burnout. I was even becoming tearful merely reading about some health topics: particularly when I was working on a project about children with terminal illnesses.
I realised I needed a plan to help myself.
Here are a few things that made a difference for me:
Getting more support
This started out as organising clinical supervision. This means different things in different contexts, but for me, it meant speaking to a counsellor specifically about my work and the emotional impact of it.
She helped me establish more techniques to protect myself from becoming overly emotionally involved in some aspects of my work. Over the last few years, I’ve also had a personal counsellor and I see a lovely coach, Tamsin (The Parenthood Coach), who has supported me with lots of work challenges.
I realise I’m in a fortunate position to be able to afford this support and not everyone is. If you’re working for an organisation, find out if they can help with this: they may already have an employee assistance programme. Also, some counselling services offer low-cost or free sessions for those on low-incomes.
Putting on my ‘white coat’
This was a tip from clinical supervision to help me retain some emotional distance from my work. I would imagine myself putting on my ‘white coat’ and getting into professional researcher mode before each interview.
You could set this up for yourself physically as well: perhaps a ritual to mark the beginning and end of your work session? Or simply making sure your workspace is set apart from your living space, even if that just means packing your laptop away at night.
By this I mean big breaks and small breaks. Big breaks could mean making sure you don’t work on the weekends, planning a holiday or day off.
Small breaks could be about working in short chunks, I love using the ‘Pomodoro technique,’ which involves working for 25 minutes with 5-minute breaks in between. This is especially helpful when I’m working on a difficult topic or complex piece of work.
Changing the atmosphere
I often put on some high-energy, upbeat music. Or I literally go and work in a different space, it could be a coffee shop or I am lucky enough now to work in a shared office. Being in a place with other people and having breaks for chats really makes a difference!
Taking time to reflect
After doing a heavy piece of research or a draining interview, I got into the practice of jotting down some reflective notes. I’ve never managed to keep a proper journal, but even writing a few words about how the work has made me feel helps. Particularly before moving on to other activities.
It’s also helped me reframe things and think about positive outcomes from the work I do. Sometimes that gets lost, but I feel privileged to learn a lot from the people I’ve interviewed, like tips for living and appreciating life even when you’re in a very hard situation.
Being kind to yourself
I used to beat myself and be hard on myself about being ‘too soft.’ I often felt that I had no right to feel the way I did.
Now, in reflecting on the impact of my work, I can (normally) give myself a break, and say to myself, ‘it’s ok to feel that.’ I find if I simply acknowledge that something has upset me, and I’m kind to myself about it, I don’t normally get so hung up on it.
Also in acknowledging my emotional reactions, I’ve been able to consider how my own life experiences have an impact on my reactions to my work. That may be easier said than done, you may need support from a counsellor or supervisor to work through that.
Having boundaries: think about what work you don’t want to do
As a freelancer, it can be hard to say no to new projects. But as I’ve gone on in my freelance career I’ve begun to be more intentional about what work I like and what I would prefer not to do. I have now turned down projects where I feel like the work would take too much out of me. And that is ok!
Connecting with others
I’ve established a great network of other freelance researchers and health communicators. I’m collaborating more on projects and it’s been lovely to just chat and debrief about work with like-minded people.
Does anyone of this ring true for you? I would love to hear about your experiences and what else has helped. Get in touch! If you want to read more of this sort of thing, why not sign up to the monthly Thoughtful Content newsletter?
Take care of yourself.
First published on thoughtfulcontent.co.uk