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22 Oct 2017

10 things to consider when planning a sensitive project

What we have learnt about how to care for ourselves and others when working on a sensitive project.

The wellbeing of our staff and anyone we work with takes precedence over everything else. We want them to feel safe and supported. We have discussed earlier how we care for research participants and how we look after ourselves after the research as part of our conditions for setting up a positive culture and practice.

We are now thinking about how to prepare for a project that might bring up sensitive issues for staff. We wanted to publish our thoughts as much of this isn’t taught in design education or the quick ‘design thinking’ bootcamps, but we believe this stuff matters.

1. Themes can activate you

Some of the themes you encounter during projects will ‘activate’ you. They hit a nerve, are a bit close to home and could be tough for anyone. Don’t ignore that feeling. Don’t plough ahead. Don’t soldier on. Look after yourself. No matter how important the research is that you’re conducting or what you are designing, it must not come at the cost of your mental health – or that of someone else’s.

2. Reduce the pace

The first thing to do is to reduce the pace of the project when working on a sensitive subject. Schedule in some pauses so that you can take a break if things get tough without worrying about missing a deadline. Planning a slower project will give you time to think, take stock and reflect without rushing. Consider pairing people up so that they can support each other or, step out of a workshop or interview if they need to.

3. Work with subject matter experts

We find it immensely helpful when partnering with organisations that have experience in the field that we are researching. We work together to get the approach, the designs and the language right. For example, we partnered with Chayn, a charity that works with victims and survivors of domestic violence for the Tech vs Abuse project with Comic Relief.

4. Support participants

When planning workshops and research, we go through intermediaries, community groups, support workers and, charities who will be able to support participants on the day (as well as before and after) so that you can be confident participants are getting the support they need – while focusing on what the project is trying to achieve. For the Aye Mind Gif Workshop, we worked with Y-Sort It, See Me and GAMH. A staff member from each organisation supported their young people during the workshop.

5. Assign projects carefully

When you have an idea of who might be working on a sensitive project, talk to them before assigning them. Bear in mind that something that is not ‘sensitive’ for you, might be a trigger for someone else. We all bring our different histories to our work. Give them time to think about it. Treat all information that they give you as confidential. If you feel you will have to share, you must ask for their permission and also give them time to think.

6. Sleep matters

It might sound obvious, but plan to get a good night’s sleep before research sessions and workshops. You might need to arrange to travel the day before, in order to get enough sleep, and preferably don’t travel late at night. If you’re taking public transport, plan for delays. Your workshops or interviews will need all your focus and energy.

7. Debrief rituals matter

Hold your debriefing sessions religiously. Remember to ask your colleagues: “How are you feeling?” Until this becomes second nature, you might want to put little reminders in your diary. If you’re being asked: “How are you?” don’t just brush it off with a “fine thanks”. This is an opportunity to take a moment to breathe and really ask yourself how you are feeling. It can be hard to answer this anodyne question truthfully, but keep practicing.

8. Support your team

Make sure that every team member has a trusted supporter, inside or outside the project team – someone that they can call anytime if they’re struggling. We were reminded recently to keep sharing that practice when we realised that our newest team members didn’t know that they could ask any of us for help at any given time. This is now duly noted in our company wiki and reflected in our on-boarding process which also always includes Mental Health First Aid Training.

9. Learn self-care techniques

Practice your emergency techniques, rituals that help you relax, digest what you are experiencing and keep yourself grounded (new blog post coming soon). Some of the routine can be for yourself, based on what works for you and what you need. The routine can also be used as a team. Keep reflecting on it to find out what works for your team and for yourself. Some of these techniques will feel unnatural at first and may take you out of your comfort zone, but in the long run, they can really help you, and will seem like second nature. Remember that everyone is different and what works for you might not work for someone else. Respect your team members’ styles.

10. Seek professional support

If you’re struggling, ask for help – professional help. All therapists have a supervisor to help them work through what they hear, look after themselves to make sure that they don’t take their clients’ issues onto themselves. Some of the topics we work with are so difficult that we need to plan for professional help for our researchers should they need it. It can be as simple as putting together a list of therapists from diverse disciplines and styles who have come highly recommended and sharing that list openly so that anyone who needs it can access it. You could also suggest to your company to become part of an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP).

Seeking professional support doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment. A single conversation might be all you need to get you back on your feet, or something might have been triggered in you and it’s a chance to get some support.

This blog doesn’t constitute professional advice. It is simple tips and practices that we have found useful over the years and we’re developing at Snook.

We’d love to hear what you think – share your thoughts with us using #snookthinking