Developing emotional intelligence could help student social workers be more resilient

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A study from academics at Oxford Brookes University has identified new strategies to support stressed social workers.

With previous surveys finding stress and burnout a major problem in social work, it suggests employers could make a difference by fostering emotional intelligence and doing more to help social workers feel in control. The research has been published in the British Journal of Social Work, with support from the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).

Dr Louise Bunce, a Chartered Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sport, Health Sciences, and Social Work at Oxford Brookes, led the study. She explains that resilience is a key psychological strength that enables individuals to ‘bounce back’ from experiences of stress and negative events. Most importantly, this is a strength that can be developed and improved. The findings identified key psychological factors that trainees can develop that may support their resilience.

Dr Louise Bunce explained: “Our results are good news for social workers who do vital work supporting vulnerable people in our society.

“Although structural sources of stress such as high caseloads should not be ignored, these findings demonstrate that social work courses and employers should also invest in ways to support individual social workers. They highlight concrete actions that can be taken to cope with the stressful demands of the challenging, but rewarding, career of social work”.

In the research study, over 200 social work students – recruited with the help of BASW – studying in the UK completed an online questionnaire. This survey assessed their levels of resilience, as well as several psychological characteristics (such as emotional intelligence) that have previously been found to promote resilience and wellbeing.

Analysis revealed that there were important relations between several of these psychological characteristics and resilience and wellbeing. One of the key factors was emotional intelligence, which is the ability to recognise and understand emotions in oneself and others, and to control one’s own emotions.

Another key finding concerned the characteristic of autonomy, which refers to feelings of being in control of one’s own life. Social work students who experienced a greater sense of personal control over their lives and students who were more emotionally intelligent were both found to be more resilient, and experience less psychological distress.

This study comes at a crucial time for social work, with the 2018 UK Social Workers: Working Conditions and Wellbeing Survey finding that stress and ill-health are worse than 90%-95% of other UK employees. Co-commissioned by Social Workers Union (SWU) and the BASW also found that levels of overtime were very high and many social workers were considering leaving the profession.

Jill Childs, Social Work Programme Lead at Oxford Brookes, added: “’Studying to be a Social Worker is a transformational life experience and the career is a challenging one. Being resilient to manage this vital and complex task for society is pivotal.

“We hope this research helps educators and the sector to understand more about what might help to enable social work to retain its wisdom through continuing to develop a diverse resilient workforce to have long successful careers.”

The study was co-authored by Dr Adam Lonsdale, Dr Naomi King, Jill Childs, and Rob Bennie. You can hear Louise and Jill discussing this research on a podcast produced by The BASW with their head of Policy and Research, Luke Geoghegan.

To find out more about research in the Department of Sport, Health Sciences and Social Work at Oxford Brookes, please visit their research site.