Researchers from the University of Bedfordshire have found that social workers with high levels of empathy for their clients are more at risk of burning out, particularly if they are unable to manage their emotions and reflective on their practice effectively.
I caught up with Louise Grant, senior social work lecturer and one of the lead researchers on the study, to find out more.
Q: Why is research into empathy in social work important?
LG: Social workers, if they’re not careful, can become distressed by the encounters they have with service users.
It’s so important for social workers to have emotional support in their practice so that their judgement and decision-making isn’t affected by being over-empathetic or by lacking empathy.
In our research we found that social work students often had high levels of empathy, and high levels of empathetic distress.
They were becoming distressed by their placements and felt that it was unprofessional to talk about that. Keeping those emotions inside and not saying that they felt stressed can have a very negative impact on their practise and their health.
We need to alert local authorities to the need to support their workforce. So many social workers are stressed and burnt out. Some recent research found that the average career lifespan of a practising social worker is eight years.
Unless we really support social workers, both as trainees and in practice, this is going to carry on and we’re going to lose highly empathic social workers and social workers that can do a really good job.
Q: So there’s an issue about social workers coming forward for support?
LG: Yes, but it’s a bit deeper than that. It’s about understanding that it is OK, as a social worker, to be emotionally affected by your work.
You have to be able to understand that being emotionally affected is something that can happen to you and take steps, both personally and through organisational support, to work through those issues.
A lot of the social work students we worked with said they didn’t feel it was professional for people to say that they were upset by, for example, a child protection case. So they were taking that home and repressing that and it was bubbling out in other ways.
Q: How do you address that?
LG: One thing we’ve done at Bedfordshire has been getting very experienced social workers to talk to social work students about how they manage complicated emotions.
We’ve also introduced other things such as mindfulness and reflective writing to help social work students process some of those emotional feelings.
In my teaching I’ve tried to create a setting where students know it’s OK for them to talk about the emotional impact of the work, to process that and to deal with it appropriately.
They need to understand that they will at times be affected and also, if they do have an emotional impact from the work, then they have to understand where that is coming from.
Q: Do you have an example of how that works in practice?
LG: The example I often give is if you’re anxious about a child protection visit, think “why am I anxious?” Am I anxious because I’ve had a bad day with my own family? Or am I anxious about what I see in front of me?
And if it is because you’re worried about the situation in front of you, then you need to really analyse why you’re anxious and use your knowledge and theory to think - is it because I’m over anxious? Or is it because this child is in danger?
Q: What about people who say social workers who don’t have a thick enough skin just aren’t ‘cut out’ for the job?
LG: I’ve seen that kind of view stated and I think it’s really worrying. I don’t think we’d say that to a nurse who is distressed after a patient has died, or a doctor.
Even after 15 or 16 years in practice and as a social work manager, sometimes I’d go to work and find that I was affected by what I had seen.
If I’d seen some child sexual abuse then I’d have been inhuman to not be affected by that. We need to be careful not to create a culture where that is seen as weak.
Certainly if people are not able to manage, they may need separate counselling, and perhaps social work might not be the right job for them. But you do need to process these feelings.
I think it’s very important to think about this in a professional context. We’re talking about social workers who are very affected by their work.
It’s about positive emotions too, not just negative ones – if someone tells you you’re the only social worker that’s understood them that can impact your practice too. You can miss things because you want someone to succeed.
It’s about seeking to understand those emotions in the context of you seeking to make a professional judgement and ensure that your judgement is not adversely affected.
Read our expert guide on developing emotional resilience in social work here