Telling stories for empathy in animal research

An innovative new training approach developed by Oxford academic Professor Beth Greenhough is using roleplay to improve staff wellbeing in animal research settings.

“Animal technologists often go into their career because they have always wanted to work with animals,” Beth explains, “yet their work puts them in a position where they may need to harm or euthanise the animals they care for. It’s a challenging situation. How do you square that circle?”

“People were able to talk about how it was emotionally challenging”

This knotty issue has formed the basis of research carried out by the Animal Research Nexus – a multi-university project led by Beth that uses the approaches of social sciences and humanities to ask questions about the practice of animal research.

The team spoke to a range of people working in animal research – vets, regulators, managers, and NGOs. Through a series of interviews, they asked questions about emotional labour, responsibility and cultures of care.

“As I began to tell the stories I had collected back to the people who worked in this world, I could see that they really resonated,” says Beth. ‘Existing guidelines and regulations focus on many important aspects, such as refining a procedure to cause an animal less pain, or how we can replace the use of animals – all of which are important – but it is increasingly recognised that we need to think about how we care for the people as well as the animals in animal research settings. The work they do is emotionally challenging and difficult, and they could do with more support. And that’s how we got to Care-full Stories.”

Promoting a culture of care

Care-full Stories is a training resource for those working in animal research settings. The resource examines how different scenarios feel from different viewpoints, to improve communication and understanding between those who hold different roles and responsibilities in animal research.

In the Carefull Stories workshops, participants therefore choose from four different scripts, taking on roles different from those they might usually carry out. They then talk through a series of discussion points the scripts are designed to raise. The aim is to promote sharing, empathy, and improved workplace wellbeing.

Beth has worked closely with several partners to develop the resource, including a large pharmaceutical company (AstraZeneca), a research facility (the Mary Lyon Centre), Angela Kerton, an animal science training provider, vets ( Lucy from OWL Vets Ltd, UK and Dr Jordi L.Tremoleda from Queen Mary University of London) and the RSPCA. The work has been supported at Oxford by co-applicant Dr Manuel Berdoy (Biomedical Sciences) and James Bussell (Director of Biomedical Services).

Each contributor has played a vital role in shaping Care-full Stories, says Beth: “There was a real diversity of skills and perspectives within the group, but everyone there had an interest in building a better culture of care.”

“The material really struck a chord with people”

Penny Hawkins (Head of Animals in Science, RSPCA) was a key part of the steering group for Care-full Stories. She has been working with Beth since the Animal Research Nexus was set up in 2017.

“I’d seen and attended workshops organised by Beth before,” Penny explains. “The techs really appreciated having a space where they could talk about animals and animal/human interactions in a different way.”

In addition to providing technical and practical advice, Penny invited Beth to use the RSPCA’s AWERB (Animal Welfare and Ethical Review Body) lay members’ forum to trial Care-full Stories.

“They absolutely loved it,” says Penny. “Some of them felt quite emotional, they were really involved with the scenarios that were being acted out in front of them. The material really struck a chord with people. You have such a limited time with training, so for people to open up and embrace it instantly was great.”

The roleplay approach was so successful that the RSPCA are now adapting it for other internal training purposes.

Raising awareness and pushing for change

Following overwhelmingly positive feedback from the Care-full Stories pilots, there is now a second phase in motion which aims to build on the success of the first.

The team are developing new scripts which focus on the experiences of junior and international researchers, as well as those working with private sector bodies. They are also working with a web team to improve the existing materials and make them more accessible.

The ultimate goal is for Care-full Stories to be adopted and used in training programmes at animal research facilities across the UK and Europe.

“When you work in this area it takes a lot of time to build up relationships and trust,” Beth says. “I was grateful for the access I’ve been given and I wanted to give something back.

“Being out there engaging people in these conversations and pushing for change is really valuable. We’re now part of a wider movement in the sector that’s raising awareness of the emotional impact of this kind of work and the need for support.”