Emotional resilience: What is it and why is it so important in social work?

Posted: Dec 19 2018

As rewarding as a career in social work is, it’s also not without its challenges. Long hours, a high number of caseloads and, above all, the emotional strength required to work with, and support, a whole range of clients can often take its toll. Indeed, this year alone has seen a sharp rise in the number of social workers taking sick leave due to stress.

However, there are ways in which professionals can support each other and care for their own mental health, whilst also being able to deliver a high-quality service to their patients. Emotional resilience isn’t a new concept, but it’s a vital tool for social workers who want to reduce their stress levels and learn how to adapt to and thrive in challenging situations.

But what is it, and how can councils use it to support their staff?

What is emotional resilience?

Emotional resilience is a coping mechanism that helps individuals to manage high-pressure, stressful situations. Sometimes described as ‘inner strength’, being emotionally resilient means that you can adapt to distressing or stressful situations, rebounding from these challenges afterwards feeling stronger for doing so. Whilst being empathetic is, of course, a vital part of the job for social workers, it can also prove exhausting and draining. Being emotionally resilient lets them support patients without taking any more stress or sadness upon themselves.

However, this isn’t a catch-all situation. Being emotionally resilient doesn’t involve simply dismissing distress or sadness: instead, it’s about learning to adapt and rebound, emerging better equipped to deal with similar situations in the future. Essentially, emotional resilience teaches you to combine empathy with a thicker skin that will let you weather the worst emotional storms that you will face in your career.

Emotional resilience in social work         

Though social workers may be professionals when it comes to identifying and promoting resilience in their clients, they can neglect their own emotional needs, which will eventually culminate in heightened stress and even burnout. The average time a social worker practices in the UK before resigning is only eight years. This high staff turnover is not only bad for team morale, but frequent resignations and handovers create a service which may not look after its patients as well as anybody would like.

Creating an emotionally resilient team has therefore become a matter of utmost importance to social work teams, and has played a prominent role in many workforce reforms. The Professional Capabilities Framework, for example, was published in 2012 and sets out a framework by which social workers can advance their careers, whilst also developing a professional skillset that will help them do so: that skillset includes emotional resilience.

The advantages of teaching social workers how to develop emotional resilience are clear. Professionals who are better equipped to handle difficult situations are better problem solvers than those who without, especially under pressure. They have a more positive view of themselves, which isn’t impacted by their work, and can deal with complicated situations and emotions in a way that doesn’t interfere with the responsibilities of their day-to-day job, or their home life. For a working professional, these skills are invaluable.

Developing emotional resilience

Though it is possible for social workers to develop emotional resilience by themselves, many councils and social workers are finding that the best way to encourage this resilience in their staff requires better management.

59% of British workers feel stressed in the workplace, with overwork and poor management being cited as some of the main contributing factors. How organisations look after their staff is critical, and people in management positions need to develop an increased awareness of the importance of social workers’ emotional needs: for instance, by giving them adequate training, and letting social express their feelings openly and without judgement, before giving them the support to effectively manage those feelings. Some organisations are also working to take the pressure off their employees by floating the idea of flexible working hours, and of creating team-held caseloads rather than giving one social worker sole responsibility for a patient.

There are also techniques that social workers can engage in themselves to build up their emotional strength. Practicing techniques like mindfulness have been proven to have a strong positive effect, especially as people who use it for more than eight weeks experience a 15% reduction in their stress hormone levels. In addition to this, social work charity Frontline also recommends that workers develop their emotional awareness by keeping a diary where they can write down and quantify different thoughts and feelings and thus start the process of better understanding how to cope with those emotions.

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