Service users are often angry and with reason. But should professionals ignore it, absorb it or get it off their chest afterwards? Sally Gillen reports on anger management strategies
Angry people are an inherent part of some jobs. Two words: traffic warden. Always featured in “unpopular job” polls – often at number one – they frequently find themselves on the receiving end of eyeball-bulging rage. Few of us care, reasoning it’s an occupational hazard.
Social workers fare little better when it comes to generating public sympathy for the rage and abuse they attract as part of the job. But unpleasant and upsetting as it may be to deal with, abuse is in most cases relatively simple to deal with: you put the phone down or you walk away.
Underlying anger from people who may not be abusive but are frustrated, sad, hopeless and disappointed is more complicated. Its effects have so far been unexplored by the government groups set up down the years to deal with the most extreme manifestation of anger: physical violence.
The cumulative impact on social workers of dealing with so much human misery has been effectively ignored, too readily dismissed as just part of the job.
Psychologist Helen Nightingale, who has worked for more than 30 years in areas such as the NHS and has helped social workers caught up in inquiries, says anger as an issue is a neglected area.
“I doubt any social worker has had specific coaching in understanding how to manage anger on a day-to-day basis,” she says, adding that dealing with angry people can make you feel angry, perhaps stressed. When people feel under stress they can lose confidence.
Frontline social workers, as bearers of unwelcome news, and often with no control over what are finance-driven decisions, are especially vulnerable to absorbing clients’ wrath, often to the cost of their own health.
Headaches, stomach trouble and psychological problems such as depression and anxiety are all symptoms of the stress of dealing with other people’s anger, says Sandi Mann. A senior lecturer in occupational psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, she says: “The problems associated with dealing with clients’ anger could be frustration, feeling out of control because you can’t actually take away their source of anger and feeling unjustly treated ‘It’s not my fault, why do they take it out on me?’ Dealing with others’ anger makes for tense interactions and a build-up of tension that can lead to exhaustion and burnout.”
Most social workers of course expect to encounter a whole host of negative emotions from those they are dealing with, given they are there to help with problems. Ray Novaco, a professor in the department of psychology and social behaviour at the University of California, Irvine and an expert in anger issues, explains: “The basic tenet of social work practice is to start where the client is. Thus, people should be allowed their anger. Some of them have a lot to be angry about. The social work professional has the client’s needs in mind, not his or her own needs. One of the central principles of anger control is to stay task-oriented – focus on what one wants to achieve in a situation, rather than attend to personal ego.”
Taking home feelings
One way of dealing with angry clients is to try to understand where they are coming from, says Mann. “Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine it is your mother or brother in their position – this humanises the situation more clearly for you. Don’t take things personally and accept that you cannot solve all their problems.”
Nevertheless, social workers – novices and stalwarts alike – are likely to be affected by the daily grind of dealing with human misery. Avoiding these kinds of feelings entirely is impossible. As Anna Gupta, a lecturer and independent social worker, points out: “It is inevitable that social workers will absorb and take home feelings associated with their work, unless they are too emotionally detached.”
But its impact will vary from person to person according to the coping mechanisms an individual has to draw on.
Gupta says: “Awareness of the emotional dynamics and impact on themselves will help social workers separate professional and personal relationships. A strong professional value base and confidence in role and decision-making helps.”
Supervision sessions are a crucial forum for social workers to vent their feelings about cases, she says. Ruth Cartwright, a professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, agrees. “I always thought the most important part of my job as a team manager was supervision, particularly around these sorts of issues. But supervision can be squeezed out and that’s dangerous.”
And that’s not the only problem. Increasingly their emphasis is less about the individual and they are instead frequently dominated by management or bureaucratic tasks and requirements, says Gupta.
“Meeting quantitative performance indicators, as opposed to the quality of relationships and the emotional context of work are often cited by social workers as characterising supervision sessions.”
Social workers must develop internal coping mechanisms for dealing with these issues, rather than be reliant on forums such as supervision. Nightingale argues: “Social workers are giving and giving and when people become stressed they become less confident. You cannot keep giving.”
To protect your own mental well-being it is best to abandon perfectionism and adopt a “you win a few, you lose a few” approach to your work, says Nightingale. “That’s not to say you should become negative and helpless but rather acknowledging that you cannot always be happy and smiling.”
Employers and managers, too, must do more to recognise the impact of dealing with these issues on staff: “You should not be dealing with more than three angry people in a week and the level of demand of cases should be graded,” says Nightingale.
“Every social services department should have people whose job it is to identify issues such as burnout. Police officers and those in the fire brigade get help. But nobody ever talks about social workers. Why not?”
She suggests counselling for social workers but predicts problems. “Social workers might not be that happy being on the other side. You would need to call it something more sophisticated than counselling if you’re going to sell it to them,” she concludes.
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This article appeared in the 8 May issue under the headline “Social workers at boiling point”