‘Too involved’ or ‘unable to cope': how can we bring emotions into social work?

There is still room for practitioners' emotions in a system obsessed with accountability and procedure, says Beth Gilbey

Photo: Fotolia/Photographee.eu
Photo: Fotolia/Photographee.eu

by Beth Gilbey

Working as a child protection practitioner, the need for professional boundaries is clear.

Over recent years, as the work has become increasingly proceduralised and professionals feel the full effect of accountability, it has arguably become more necessary.

Emotions are a vital and unavoidable element of child protection work, and yet the concept of emotions does not sit comfortably in modern, western ideas of professionalism, and this can create tensions for child protection professionals.

In practice, a show of emotions may leave workers accused of being ‘too involved’ and at risk of bias. Or a human reaction to the suffering of a child may be misinterpreted as a worker ‘unable to cope’ with the job.

So why might there be a tension between emotions and professionalism?

Throughout its history child protection practice has taken a political battering. Well-publicised serious case reviews have made accountability equivocal to blame, and it has become a problem for many professionals who feel the threat of it daily.

In response, how child protection work is done became further proceduralised and quantified, with little room for subjectivity or time to invest in the more intimate, relationship-building elements of the work.

Distance

If anything, social work distanced itself from clients by becoming part of a bureaucratic and proceduralised process. Having a ‘gut feeling’ is important, but ultimately the job needs to be done, and evidence-based decisions need to be made and acted on quickly.

As a result, supervision and management oversight focuses more on what has been achieved, evidenced and written and less on how we and the families are coping, what we feel about a case and how well we are working with clients.

In essence the rule is ‘What do we know?’ rather than ‘What do we feel?’

This allows for traceable, clear decision-making, tight standards of practice and a well-regulated service. It has also placed a higher value on gaining evidence for court.

However, evidence can come in different forms, which do not just relate to the physical but also a case’s emotional conditions.

For example, we may ‘feel’ strongly that there is neglect through our reactions to the case and reading the subtleties in relationships, but if we cannot ‘prove’ there is neglect, then how can we argue the child needs protecting?

Binaries

The binaries that seems to be in play between emotions and procedure can limit these two components of child protection working together.

I remember one particular case of mine about a mother and teenage daughter. The mother had undiagnosed poor mental health, which meant the child had experienced ongoing neglect for a number of years.

However, the family had coped and were able to present well in professional meetings. The mother was also unable to see the neglect. From what I observed, the level of neglect this teenager was experiencing was profound, but well hidden.

When I met with her, she looked sad and spoke without hope of change. This often caused her to be branded as ‘hard to engage’.

I would receive several phone calls each day from the family feeling unable to cope, for them to calm by the end of the evening. The evidence of this neglect was ‘soft’, partly because it was well hidden and partly because the right questions weren’t being asked by the right people.

Frustrating

I was often challenged as being ‘too involved’ or not understanding the wider pressures on different services. This became increasingly frustrating as without the evidence to progress to child protection, any support offered felt limited. The child’s trust in me began to diminish, which is an uncomfortable place to be in.

This case was all I dreamt about for months, and it affected my after-work thoughts and in-work decision-making with other cases. As the case inevitably escalated, enough evidence was given to meet child protection thresholds and additional support was put in place. If the emotional impact of the case was considered earlier, many of the risks that eventually tipped it into conference could have been avoided.

Child protection work is, in many ways, all about relationships with professionals, parents and children. Practitioners use these relationships to inform their learning about a person’s experience. Harry Ferguson advocates for professionals entering into the world of the child in order to help us understand them, and to help them feel listened to.

If we hope to capture the voice of the child, we have to capture their emotions and be ‘switched on’ to our reactions. Channelled correctly, these emotions can begin a process of curiosity and reflection.

Placing ourselves emotionally within a case can allow us to see the full impact and scope of someone’s experience.

Curiosity

There will be parents who scare us, who we want to avoid. There will be children we engage with, and those we struggle to understand.

This can make us feel accepted or lost and this too will affect our view of the case. By opening up our curiosity and allowing it into the workplace we could then speak to colleagues and see what their narrative is, or seek a challenge to our own emotional response, thereby providing greater insight into the work.

How can we begin to bring emotions safely back into child protection practice, without letting it overrule our boundaries, but also without shutting people down?

There is a role within supervision to enhance the opportunity for workers to meet with experienced senior staff. These relationships are worth investing in to ensure effective interventions are planned for and best outcomes achieved. There is an undeniable management need to check case progress and procedure. This is important, as it can help keep us all safe.

However, being in tune with our emotions informs us of our environment and our reactions within it. This is where reflective supervision, or ‘spaces to reflect’, can provide important time to think and reflect on these emotions to understand how they are informing our practice.

Asking any worker in the current climate of child protection work to spend time away from the computer to ‘think’ about their cases would most likely be met with frustration, be branded a luxury of time they cannot afford. But I fear that without doing so, children’s experiences get reduced to what is within the worker’s remit to act on, and workers exposed to vicarious trauma can soon end up burnt out and may leave.

Reflection

Manager-initiated time offered through reflective supervision is a key part in allowing an opening for emotions to be used in child protection organisations, thus allowing practitioners to think, and not just do.

Workers also need safe spaces to process emotions. Burnout occurs when we don’t look after ourselves, and, more often than we may be willing to admit, we often need our colleagues to help us do this. Colleagues with whom we can celebrate our successes, share our frustrations and help us when it feels like the wheels have come off. Moreover, they will tell us to take a break, a breather or a step back.

Allowing emotions into the workplace can, in its own way, help regulate the emotions in our work. We will be confronted by them and use this to inform our practice.

It can help develop self-regulation, better coping strategies and a healthier dialogue with other professionals about the impact of our work. But for this to be done effectively, organisational cultures may need to change.

Reflection needs to be granted the time and importance it deserves, and environments need to become a secure base where it is safe to explore our emotions.

Beth Gilbey is a senior families outreach worker

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4 Responses to ‘Too involved’ or ‘unable to cope': how can we bring emotions into social work?

  1. Eddie O'Hara August 17, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

    I couldn’t agree more. Good article thanks Eddie O’Hara

  2. Deborah Barlow August 18, 2017 at 7:35 am #

    Great article.

    Absolutely a culture which must continue to grow: slow down, sit down, step into the shoes of children and families, keep a genuine core, care, empathy, have we made a difference, and the really important question “so what”?

  3. Mandy Hope August 18, 2017 at 10:40 pm #

    I feel a kindred spirit- recently draw upon the same subject for a presentation linking the use of emotion to critical thinking, communication and interpretation of evidence all of this and being minded to the skilful thoughtful use of authority. Thanks for timelines of your article

  4. Hels August 21, 2017 at 7:31 pm #

    Well said