Empathic social workers at higher risk of burnout and stress

Social workers who display high levels of empathy for clients report higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than colleagues, researchers find.

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 reflect on their practice effectively, research reveals.

Findings from a study of over 300 social work trainees found that the more empathic social workers reported higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than their colleagues. Distress was also higher among students who had a lower ability to reflect on their practice effectively.

The study, part of a three year research programme carried out by researchers at the University of Bedfordshire, raise question marks over the support offered to social workers to manage the emotional impact of their work.

Many trainee social workers viewed any expression of emotion in practice as “unprofessional and undesirable”.

In an interview with Community Care, Louise Grant, senior lecturer in social work at Bedforshire and a former children and families social worker, said that empathy was an important part of social work.

But Grant said that the research highlighted how social workers need to be able to effectively reflect on how they are being affected by their work to help keep feelings in check.

“What we need is to develop social workers who not only have high levels of empathy, that alone isn’t enough, but are also able to process those feelings and be able to reflect on them.”

Gail Kinman, professor of occupational psychology at Bedfordshire University, said:

“Social workers do not have unlimited emotional resources. In order to survive in a profession that is so emotionally demanding they need to learn how to reduce the empathic distress that they commonly experience.”

Kinman pointed to research showing that the average practising social worker lasts just eight years on the frontline. Emotional exhaustion harms social workers and is likely to have a negative impact on clients, she added.

Grant told Community Care that her university has been getting experienced social workers to talk to students and pass on how they manage complicated emotions. Students have also been offered mindfulness and reflective writing classes to help them build emotional resilience.

Read our expert guide on developing emotional resilience in social work here

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