Managing conflict, stress and the emotional side of social work practice

The second in a three-part series of advice for newly-qualified social workers. This week the focus is emotional stresses

Newly qualified childcare social workers often highlight emotional stresses as central to their transition into the world of work.

They speak of experiencing a big difference between the rhetoric and the reality of practice. Phrases such as “I felt out of my depth” and “I felt I was thrown into work which really affected me as a person” describe how anxious and de-skilled these newly qualified social workers felt, and how they lost their confidence.

While these might be considered normal early reactions to a transformational process, evidence suggests social workers need to build resilience and learn to manage the emotional aspects of practice to be professionally and personally effective.

Emotional self-management

Good emotional self-management means developing choice about how, when and where feelings are expressed. It is more effective to acknowledge your feelings rather than try to hide them. The first step is to become emotionally aware: it may be easy to recognise your emotions when faced with an angry service user, but do you have the same level of awareness on a routine review visit?

Finding a way to notice the link between emotional triggers, feelings and your behaviour and performance will be important to your emotional well-being. Personal review time and breaks between tasks (even 10 minutes) are crucial. Feedback from trusted colleagues can be another way to gain new perspectives on your emotional well-being.

Research highlights that support from colleagues, regular extensive and reflective supervision, and being realistic about achieving goals are all important in managing stressful situations during your first years as a social worker. Developing criteria to make decisions about what you must do now and what you can leave until later should help. Be aware of where your attention is. Spending time thinking about tasks and issues that are outside your control will deplete your energy. By focusing your effort on what you are able to influence, you are more likely to be effective in your interventions.

Responding to conflict

Conflict is an inevitable part of social work and arises from differences in needs, values and interests. What is vital is how you respond to and manage it.

Reacting positively can help to highlight underlying issues and enhance a mutual understanding. Think of a time when you responded positively in a situation of conflict and note what you did. What were you thinking or feeling at the time? What did you say? Was the conflict resolved so that all parties were committed to the solution? The thoughts and skills you showed then may help you next time.

● This article is based on chapter 5, written by Kate Howe, Mike Henry and Kay Renshaw, of Newly Qualified Social Workers: A Handbook for Practice, ISBN 9781844452514, £20.

● Quote voucher code LM19 and save £3 when you order a copy of the NQSW handbook online

More advice for NQSWs

This article is published in the 24 September 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Managing conflict and the emotional side of practice”

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