Researching poverty series

21 July 2020

Disconnected sharing and emotional labour: Early impressions of researching Welfare from a (Social) Distance

  • “Sorry, I forgot about that bit so hang on, let me start again…”

I’m checking my understanding of how her payments have changed since the autumn. It’s hard to follow the sequence of events - there are a lot of moving parts. Every time I think I’ve understood it, Hanna (not her real name) mentions another time the payments changed. We both start laughing: the complexity is starting to seem a bit ridiculous… I make one last attempt:

  • “…so you move from tax credits onto Universal Credit and the amount changes, then you go into work and the amount changes…”
  • “Yeah”
  • “Then the coronavirus hits and the amount goes up - that’s both for you and your husband”
  • “Yeah”
  • “Then your husband goes back to work and it goes down, then the childcare bit? Then you’re furloughed or is it then the childcare bit?”
  • “Yeah so my furlough kicked in”
  • “So, then the amount goes down, then the childcare changes and it goes down again?”
  • “Yeah”
  • “Then your husband’s self-employed furlough scheme comes in ‘all in one whack’ and you get nothing… and then now you’re back to your furlough payment and the Universal Credit”
  • “Yeah that’s pretty much it”

Understanding the sequence of events has been a challenge but we get there in the end.

Over the last few weeks, our team has been conducting interviews for the Welfare at a Social Distance project. We’re exploring changes to the social security system since March 2020, the implications for new and existing claimants, and the organisations that support them. Following the changes to someone’s payments hasn’t always been as complicated as it was with “Hanna” but the interviews come with other complications and challenges. Under normal circumstances, having people explain their journey through the system can trigger some difficult emotions. Frustration, bewilderment, desperation, and humiliation feature regularly, but against the background of Covid-19 it seems more intense.

At this point, it’s too early to comment on the data that is emerging from the interviews but I can reflect on my experience of the interviews so far. They‘re markedly different to the ones I conducted before lockdown. It’s not just that I see a person differently when their child interrupts them for a snack (or that I’m aware of my own playing downstairs). People are friendlier and strangely less inhibited. Maybe it’s just the people that I’ve encountered. Do they feel more comfortable at home? I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that something else is going on. Household life is slower and less connected than before so perhaps people are embracing otherwise limited opportunities for social interaction. These appear to be good conditions for gathering data but it’s not as simple as that. The practicalities and responsibilities of interviewing change too.

After briefly introducing themselves, we ask the participants to tell us about the first time they heard about the Coronavirus and how they felt. It’s one of my favourite parts of the interview - the sequence of events since March has been pretty much universally experienced as weird. Nobody I’ve spoken to thought that the coronavirus would impact them. But a couple of people are convinced that they’ve had it, another thinks it’s a myth, and one afternoon we stop our interview as a courier arrives to pick up an antibody test. The sessions are mostly light-hearted at this point but as they continue, people talk about their working lives and experiences of claiming. They often seem more fragile - even the most optimistic hopes for the future are being held back by the uncertainties of the present.

I’ve noticed that maintaining my role as a researcher requires more emotional effort than it used to. I think perhaps it’s also a by-product of social distancing. Many of the people I interview evoke profound feelings of empathy. After a question about his work history, a man mentions his divorce and starts to cry. As he removes his glasses and wipes his eyes, I ask him if he wants to take a minute. But, noticing the lump in my throat, I think perhaps I do. “No…I’ll be alright” he says, and he continues. For him, unemployment is deeply humiliating, and it’s largely associated with his identification as a self-made man. He talks of developing a strong work ethic in school, as a poor kid surrounded by children better off than him. Some of his experiences chime with my own and there’s a strange urge to tell him this, as though it would somehow make him feel better. I don’t, of course. Even under these unusual conditions, it’s not my role to share like that, or be a shoulder to cry on, or giver of advice. But maintaining that professional distance feels harder than it has been with other, similar research I’ve done.

I do my best to make the interviews as friendly as possible. Some are strangely upbeat from start to finish but even those require more sensitivity than normal and a lot of thinking on my feet. Others leave me feeling quite protective of the participants – I’m conscious that it’s probably been a while since anybody asked them how they felt about anything and I know they’re going back to an empty room. Context becomes everything as I listen to a person’s experiences - an innocent question about the future could be received as quite brutal and has to be introduced with care. I feel that participants’ greater willingness to share implies a greater degree of trust in me as a researcher and a corresponding responsibility on my part. Sometimes this means the interview adopts a gentler pace and, as the interview ends, we have the contact details for a counselling service to hand in case they’re needed.

We anticipated that many interviews would be difficult and consciously limited the number that we would do each day but we’re reviewing the space between them now too. I find that as a researcher it takes longer to decompress afterwards. In these interviews, (perhaps because of social distancing) participants are sharing more, and I feel this places greater responsibilities on the interviewer. There are implications for how interviews are timed, paced and managed, and how my professional distance is achieved, maintained, and restored - it’s an ongoing process of working things out. The socially-distanced research interview is more emotionally labour intensive.

David Robertshaw is a member of the Welfare at a (Social) Distance Team and Research Fellow at the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change, Leeds University Business School.

Welfare at a (Social) Distance is a major national research project investigating the benefits system during the COVID-19 pandemic, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19. For more information on the project or to contact the team, please visit

Contributors featured in
More media logos