The role of qualitative research in adding value to a randomised controlled trial: Lessons from a pilot study of a guided e-learning intervention for managers to improve employee wellbeing and reduce sickness absence
Russell J., Berney L., Stansfeld S., Lanz D., Kerry S., Chandola T., Bhui K.
Background: Despite the growing popularity of mixed-methods studies and considerable emphasis on the potential value of qualitative research to the trial endeavour, there remains a dearth of published studies reporting on actual contribution. This paper presents a critically reflective account of our experience of the actual value of undertaking qualitative research alongside a pilot cluster randomised controlled trial of a guided e-learning intervention for managers in an NHS Mental Health Trust to improve employee wellbeing and reduce sickness absence. For the qualitative study we undertook 36 in-depth interviews with key informants, managers and employees. We observed and took in-depth field notes of 10 meetings involving managers and employees at the Trust, and the two qualitative researchers acted as participant observers at steering committee and monthly research team meetings. We adopted a narrative methodological orientation alongside a thematic approach to data analysis, eliciting a rich account of the complexities of managing stress at work. Results: We identified two key overarching roles played by the qualitative research: 'problematising' and 'contextualising'. Specifically, the qualitative data revealed and challenged assumptions embedded in the trial about the nature of the learning process, and exposed the slippery and contested nature of abstracted variables, on which a trial depends. The qualitative data challenged the trial's logic model, and provided a rich understanding of the context within which the trial and intervention took place. Conclusions: While acknowledging the ever-present tension in mixed-methods research between the requirements of quantitative research to represent the social world as abstracted variables, and the goal of qualitative research to explore and document the complexity of social phenomena, we adopted a pragmatic position that enabled us to engage with this tension in a productive and partially integrative way. Our critically reflective account of the praxis of integration illuminated opportunities and challenges for maximising the value of qualitative research to a trial. This paper sets out tangible illustrative lessons for other mixed-methods researchers endeavouring to get the most from qualitative research.