Social workers need right kind of empathy

Social workers who wear their hearts on their sleeves risk burnout, but those who fail to engage emotionally with their clients risk alienating them. That is the conclusion of research to be presented today describing the development of a pioneering tool kit for trainee social workers designed to help them manage their emotions more effectively.

Professor Gail Kinman and Louise Grant from the University of Bedfordshire are presenting the findings from a series of studies today at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology in Chester.

Kinman and Grant’s initial research found that social workers who worry about distressing experiences at work and get too involved in the problems of their clients tend to report higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression. This is particularly problematic if they also lack the ability to manage their emotions effectively.

Kinman and Grant say: “The ‘life expectancy’ of a qualified social worker is a meagre eight years. As a group they are more prone to burnout and experience above average levels of sickness absence. Emotional exhaustion is highly distressing and potentially life changing for the sufferer but it is also likely to have a negative impact on service users. We need emotionally resilient social workers who are able to relate empathically and appropriately with their service users in order to maintain service standards and continuity of care.

“Social workers do not have unlimited emotional energy. In order to survive in a profession that is so emotionally demanding they need to learn how to reduce the empathic distress that they commonly experience.”

The researchers have used their findings to design an ‘emotional curriculum’ to be taught alongside the academic curriculum to enhance the emotional resilience of social workers.

This includes training sessions run by experienced practitioners who tell trainees that it is normal to be emotionally affected by their work. Trainees are taught to use techniques such as emotional writing and mindfulness to enhance their reflective abilities and to generate the right type of empathic response. The training is currently being evaluated by Kinman and Grant with a view to making recommendations about the national curriculum for trainee social workers.

Concerns have been widely expressed that many helping professionals, such as social workers, are not sufficiently emotionally resilient to survive and thrive in increasingly stressful professions. In his review of child protection services, in the aftermath of the death of Peter Connnelly, Lord Laming identified that social workers were not a sufficiently resilient group.