Could emotional intelligence training help reduce stress among social workers?

As well as improving practice with service users, knowing how to recognise and manage your own and others’ emotions could help prevent burnout. Laura Biggart explains her team’s research

By Dr Laura Biggart, Lecturer in Social Science Research, School of Psychology, University of East Anglia

Social work is considered to be an especially stressful job and emotionally demanding job to do. Emotion can come into many core social work tasks from engaging with service users, decision-making, collaborating with others and managing cases in your workload.

Social workers (and others such as teachers, nurses and other caring professionals) work in roles where good interpersonal skills are vital for the quality of service they deliver. Interpersonal skills such as listening and thinking about how the other person may be feeling are fundamental.

Emotional labour

When a profession involves working with people at their most vulnerable, strong emotions can occur in staff while at work but their role requires them to be emotionally neutral or display a different emotion to what they are actually feeling (for example being pleasant and calm when someone is hostile towards you).

This mismatch between what you might feel and what you are expected to display is called emotional labour and can be a major source of strain.

Just as important, and perhaps a less obviously essential skill than interpersonal skills, is social workers’ individual ability to manage their own anxiety and stress. If practitioners struggle to effectively manage their anxiety, anger and stress, they may not perform or provide the quality of service that they could.

Our research into the emotional demands of work is focusing on social work because of the centrality of emotions to the job. We are interested to see whether “emotional intelligence” helps social workers do a better job and whether emotional intelligence also helps them manage their anxiety and stress better.

The physical and physiological impact of stress

Seyle’s (1980) biomedical model of stress describes the phenomenon of stress as the body’s generalised responses to stressors (negative and positive) which involve changes in the adrenal, lymphatic, and intestinal systems.

We often ignore physiological signs of anxiety such as a faster heart rate. These responses are intended to deal with short term demands, for example the idea of the fight or flight response when the body responds to perceived danger and produces adrenaline. In stressful situations, the hormone cortisol triggers the release of metabolic energy to fuel physical action.

But if physical action doesn’t happen – which is often the case in modern working life – the energy released during an episode of anxiety is not dissipated efficiently. Over time, experiencing significant anxiety, frustration and anger without strategies to deal with these emotions can become problematic, leading to a wide range of psychosomatic symptoms (Nolan & Smojkis 2003).

There is some evidence that cortisol is particularly released in response to uncontrollable social threat, therefore having strategies and plans for different scenarios can reduce the number of occasions when cortisol is released. Being able to identify and manage one’s own and other people’s emotions more effectively can help in developing strategies and a sense of control.

Evidence suggest that emotional intelligence does help in managing anxiety and stress and we want to see if teaching emotional intelligence skills to social workers makes a difference to their anxiety levels over one year whilst they are in work.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a term that has developed to try and bring together lots of the known elements of emotion research under one conceptual umbrella. Broadly speaking, emotional intelligence means how good someone is at:

recognising emotions in themselves;

  • recognising emotions in others;
  • understanding how emotions work;
  • managing their own emotions and
  • managing emotions in others.

Those high in EI tend to be able to tell what other people are feeling, can talk about feelings and can use emotions to inform their decisions. They can inspire people and influence how they feel (calming them down or “psyching them up”). They can make good predictions about how they themselves might feel in different contexts – and how other people might feel as well – and come up with effective strategies to adapt to these situations, which can reduce the number of times they may feel stress over the longer term.

Emotional intelligence training?

Existing evidence suggests that emotional intelligence does predict less stress (e.g. Martins, Ramalho & Morin, 2010, Mikolajczak, Avalosse, Vancorenland et al. in press). It is thought that emotional self-understanding is particularly important for reducing stress, but little is known about the potential for developing emotional intelligence using training.

We are evaluating an emotional intelligence training programme delivered to one group of social workers over a one year period. We will compare elements of their practice and stress to another group of social workers who do not receive the training. There is clear evidence of the impact of the work environment on occupational stress and the study also takes the work context into account.


Martins, A., Ramalho, N., & Morin, E. (2010). A comprehensive meta-analysis of the relationship between Emotional Intelligence and health. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(6), 554-564.

Mikolajczak, M., Avalosse, H., Vancorenland, S., Verniest, R., Callens, M., van Broeck, N., Mierop, A. (2015). A Nationally Representative Study of Emotional Competence and Health. Emotion, Online first.

Selye, H. (1980). Selye’s Guide to Stress Research (Vol. 1). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

The research is important for two interlinked reasons. Firstly, social workers’ stress is known to affect performance and also make individuals unhappy to the point where they might give up their job. Secondly, when this happens, it costs employers and taxpayers more to train and recruit new social workers over and above the normal rate of turnover.

If emotional intelligence training makes a difference, it is expected to have a positive impact on individuals and implications for organisational support and social worker training programmes.

The Exploring Emotional Demands at Work team expect findings to be available from January 2016 and you can find out more from or on the research website: The team includes: Prof Gillian Schofield, School of Social Work, UEA; Prof Philip Corr, City University; Dr Chris Stride, Institute of Work Psychology, University of Sheffield; Prof Clive Fletcher, Goldsmiths University; Dino Petrides, UCL and Dr Emma Ward, working closely with colleagues from the School of Social Work at UEA and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

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One Response to Could emotional intelligence training help reduce stress among social workers?

  1. The Agent of change April 2, 2015 at 10:02 am #

    My view is its probably the emotional intelligence that forces the hand of many social workers to move on let alone use it to remain!

    Despite the intellectual rigouer to best practice and awareness of structural difficulties social workers will eventually find themselves in a position where they “take the leap of faith” to transcend the part of the brain that tries too cognitively adjust to stress and just simply let ago and allow the subconscious to exert itself- sometimes messily…Problem is in todays world too many people refuse to allow the subconscious to influence their decision making, and block that relationship with themselves. In my view its the blocks we place on ourselves-because its not “evidence based practice” by not acknowledging our unconscious selves that create the stresses to start with… I think emotional intelligence is language that is outdated and should be binned as with any old textbook.