When planning a study that required interviewing assault victims in their homes, I searched for what other researchers had thought were threats to the health and safety of interviewers. I was surprised how little I found. Others did note the risks of violence and psychological harm that may arise from in-home interviewing, and the need for investigators to help manage stressful encounters. But interestingly, this pertained to situations where children helped interview child participants. The General Social Survey indicates that 38% of adult interviewers describe their work as “always” or “frequently” stressful. But other than from personal experience, I knew little about specifics.
To gain insight, I conducted a training exercise by asking interviewer staff to wear heart rate monitors and global positioning system devices. This provided a minute-to-minute record of their heart rate throughout the journey to, during, and from an in-home interview. Afterward, the record was reviewed on mapping software to help the interviewer recall where they were and what they were doing during instances when heart rate spikes occurred, our proxy for experiencing stress. The record was then analyzed with interrupted time series methods to add a degree of rigor and adjust for other factors that could affect heart rate (e.g., physical exertion) while trying to quantify the effects of events anticipated to be stressful.
An exemplary trip involved nine such events (Figure). Of these, knocking on the participant’s door, exiting the participant’s home, encountering a police officer (even if indirectly), and driving into the campus parking garage produced heart rate spikes and were interpreted as being considerably stressful.
The exercise was a conversation starter, prompting discussions amongst the team about the varied aspects that interviewers found stressful: entering an unfamiliar home, walking through a neighborhood with frequent violence, sitting on overturned buckets in a home with no furniture, or a barking dog chained in the kitchen. This insight guided new training strategies to help interviewers anticipate stressors, maintain poise in the field, perform to their potential, and stay safe, which are important considerations for investigators conducting public health field research.