Who are the researchers and what are their backgrounds?
We are Dr Fiona Earle and Dr Katie Cunnah and we are both Psychologists and Researchers at the Centre for Human Factors, University of Hull. We have a combined background that includes occupational psychology, qualitative and quantitative research methods, and in particular we are interested in the management of stress risks in the workplace and the reduction of work-related stress. A large part of our role involves undertaking applied research of the highest ethical standards on behalf of private and public sector clients to understand psychosocial stress risks within organisations and consider suitable interventions to protect the health and wellbeing of employees.
How has data been collected on this project?
We undertook 32 focus groups across the local authorities to understand the impact on staff of the changes to working practices in response to COVID-19. Focus groups are an excellent way to gather a large amount of data from a lot of people quickly, and to elicit multiple perspectives. The participants for the focus groups were people from as broad a range of local authority services, departments and roles as possible, with the aim of gaining as broad a picture as possible. Each focus group was between 1 and 1.5 hours long and took place digitally via Microsoft Teams. The focus groups were semi-structured so we had a ‘Topic guide’ with a series of possible questions based around their key areas of interest, but the discussion was able to be participant-led, and we were able to ask follow-up questions depending upon where the discussion took them. We took handwritten notes during the sessions, and also audio-recorded the sessions which we then used to write more detailed reports and to generate transcriptions for a detailed thematic analysis of the textual data. Excerpts from participants were then used to illustrate and evidence the themes in the final report.
How were participants selected and invited?
Each local authority selected participants for the focus groups, and they were then invited to take part – it was necessary to do this to get as broad a range of representatives across the organisation as possible. However, academic research is governed by strict ethical guidelines, and we had to ensure that participant anonymity was protected in the reporting process, especially because the organisations knew who had participated in each group. We also had to ensure participants understood their right to withdraw without consequence at any point up to data analysis, especially because they were participating during work time, which meant that they were essentially being paid to participate – this is ethically quite a complex issue because participation must be voluntary. Participants in studies like this need to feel confident about confidentiality and anonymity so that they are able to speak frankly about their employment experiences without fear of any negative impact on them in the future. This is always handled carefully when designing research and is fully considered during the ethics process. Ethical approval for this project was provided by the Faculty of Health Sciences Ethics Committee at the University of Hull.
How do you then use the qualitative data to reach conclusions?
The focus groups generated a vast amount of data. We used an approach to qualitative data analysis called template analysis to code the data so that we could identify key themes. We did this using a qualitative data analysis programme called NVivo. We each worked through sections of an initial set of textual data generated during the research and ‘coded’ (or labelled) it according to our interpretation of the meaning of the content. We then worked collaboratively to ‘grouped’ these codes together with other codes that were about similar issues until ‘themes’ and ‘sub-themes’ began to emerge. These themes and sub-themes then became the ‘template’. The template was then kept in mind as we worked through and coded the rest of the data in NVivo, and we modified it when our ideas about new or existing data suggested the themes and sub-themes required a re-think. The final template of themes and sub-themes then became the headings and subheadings of each section of the report, and participant excerpts were used in the report to evidence how and why we reached our conclusions about the data.
What is the reason qualitative research is helpful on a project like this?
Qualitative research is an excellent place to start when the phenomenon of interest is relatively new or when there is limited knowledge or experience of it. Because the situation facing local authorities, their staff, and indeed the world, has been unprecedented, there is very limited information to draw upon when making decisions about what might work best for the future of work – we have never before seen or experienced home-based and remote working on this scale. Therefore, before seeking to gather any quantitative data and staff experiences, it is important to know what questions to ask, and not to make assumptions about how people might be experiencing the situation when devising those questions. We consequently used qualitative research methods to explore staff experiences so that we could develop an understanding of what is important to them – the challenges, benefits and hopes for the future. This is known as a bottom-up – or inductive – approach to research. We are going to use that data to formulate questions that can then be put to the whole workforce, to generate generalisable findings.
What are the next steps?
The qualitative report will, we hope, be very interesting to local authority stakeholders, and we hope that the research participants will feel it is a fair and broad representation of their views. The next step is to gather quantitative data to understand how relevant – or rather how prevalent – these issues are across the workforce. The findings have been used to generate a series of questions that represent the data, and these will be used to develop a survey which will be distributed to a much larger number of local authority employees. This will enable local authorities to understand which issues are really the key issues, which views are shared by many, and where the ‘hotspots’ are – to determine where they need to intervene fastest to support and protect staff wellbeing. These two sources of qualitative and then quantitative data will provide a rich source of evidence to draw upon when designing effective and healthy working practices for the future.