Surveyor well-being during COVID-19
Understanding the impact of survey work on enumerator health, how that may worsen during COVID and ways we can do better
Stress induced by surveying
The stress on enumerators and development professionals and its effects on productivity are well documented. Development professionals often experience feelings of guilt, worthlessness, loneliness, and feel overcritical of themselves at work as this Dalberg study found. Direct survey work whether on the field or over the phone as carried out by field teams can come with even more challenges. Surveying in general is a difficult job, it requires long hours, attention to detail, and patience and is also often of a temporary nature. The NFHS has a dedicated training manual for enumerators on domestic violence which guides surveyors on taking care of themselves and gives suggestions to the trainers on how to make sure emotional well-being is taken care of both at the training and data collection stage. When the surveys are on sensitive topics such as domestic violence or mental health, listening to harrowing tales day in and day out, staying in remote locations, and being involved closely with respondents can be mentally and physically taxing. This can also be emotionally triggering and have consequences on the personal lives of enumerators. They may feel deeply moved by personal stories, recognize the same problems in their lives, or feel a lack of motivation and helplessness leading to dissatisfaction with their work life.
Why this may be amplified during COVID-19
There has been a surge of research on the various socioeconomic dimensions of COVID-19 with existing research projects pivoting to COVID work or new projects coming up dedicated to understanding the impacts of the pandemic and the lock-down. The research covers a wide variety of topics including but not limited to income shocks, job retention/loss, food insecurity, access to government relief and healthcare, life satisfaction, mental health, and emotional challenges of the lock-down such as anxiety, lack of communication, loneliness and experience with police and crime during the lock-down, intimate partner violence, etc.
Surveys of this nature can take an emotional toll on enumerators. Since enumerators are often co-located in the same study area they may be going through the same thing or may have family members who are affected by COVID and its implications. Enumerators are also often trained to probe more. With respondents opening up about the various challenges, enumerators can be deeply affected and moved while listening to their stories.
Remote surveying only adds to these challenges. Enumerators are often juggling household responsibilities along with long surveying hours. It is also not always easy to create a quiet space to work with stable internet access and a comfortable space to call respondents and conduct surveys. Remote working can also add a sense of disassociation or indifference about the importance and impact of their work. Phone surveying has higher rates of refusals and a lower response rate. Enumerators are also often met with hostility over the phone which can add to the discouragement and make them feel pressured about productivity. The pressure can be exacerbated if schedules are strict or there is a lack of flexibility in working hours. If open communication and support between surveyors and the research team are missing this can further contribute to feelings of burnout and discouragement. Phone surveys involve call-backs and appointments at odd hours which can lead to a lack of time or energy to indulge in anything recreational and can make the emotional burden even heavier. With remote surveying, social networks within the field team are also compromised. Having no one to discuss your workday with who also understands and experiences the same challenges as you can contribute to feelings of loneliness.
How to do better on a project level
There are two broad ways we must take better care of our enumerators. One is on a project basis and the other is systemic change in protocols and support provided by the organization to often temporary staff.
On a project level having regular check-ins and debriefs with team members is essential to make sure that surveyors can process experiences together and feel supported. Emotional support for team members can help enumerators to work through the emotionally taxing nature of their job and talk and think through how the emotional impact of the research experience is affecting them. These enumerator check-ins should be led by Research Managers and Research Associates in an effort to create a culture to normalize talking about emotional and mental well-being and reinforce that feeling affected by these stories is not a bad reflection of their performance. These check-ins should be separate from debriefs to discuss the technical aspects of the survey. The purpose of the debriefing sessions should be to explicitly create an opportunity for the interviewers to discuss the content of the interviews and their feelings about the work. The goal is to reduce the stress of the fieldwork and prevent any negative consequences. 1:1 check-ins should be conducted for an open and honest conversation with more vulnerable enumerators and those expressing signs of distress. Young and female enumerators may be more vulnerable to these challenges. These check-ins should also be well documented to track progress while maintaining confidentiality.
Setting up enumerator buddy systems can also help to create a support system of peers within the team. To tackle feelings of disassociation and lack of trust and belief about the importance of their work it is essential to demonstrate the importance of their role and how their work and the data they collect will be used to address pressing issues the study aims to address. For example, showing past examples of similar research studies conducted and the direct impact it had can be helpful or discussing how their study can potentially bring about change in the communities in which they live and work can motivate and encourage enumerators and make them feel like a part of the solution. Actively undertaking steps to create an open environment between the research team and the field team, where enumerators can express feelings of a burnout, need for a break and a culture of encouragement and team building can go a long way.
Organizational level changes
Enumerators should receive special training and support for mental health. There should be separate and professional training on what goes on while listening to harsh realities during an interview. Training and monitoring protocols must be changed and designed specifically for these circumstances. Research Associates and Field Managers should be equipped with additional training and the right tools to help surveyors deal with listening to harrowing tales, creating support systems, and documenting and sharing FAQs and coping mechanisms for surveyors. There is much value in building these skills in field and research teams both for now and in general. There are also considerable gains to be had in terms of retaining talent, productivity and data quality when surveyors feel supported and cared for.
Organizations should provide free mental health services for temporary staff that are accessible across different languages. To make sure these services are utilized and the stigma around them is tackled, those higher up in the organization should make a push by talking openly and honestly and reinforcing that getting help does not reflect badly on professional performance.
To get Research Teams to implement project-level changes and usher in organizational level changes, a push is needed from a deep-rooted level. There must come a commitment to recognize and actively address these issues and help field teams cope betters. Those higher up in the hierarchy should mandate a culture of support and communication and reinforce the importance of taking care of the mental and emotional well being of survey teams. There is a need to invest time and ideas to care better for our enumerators and reflect on the first and foremost impact research work has- on the communities we live and work in.