‘Emotions are an essential part of a practice, not a consequence of it’

Supervision that omits discussion of emotions gives an incomplete picture and is risky for both social workers and service users, says Richard Ingram

By Richard Ingram, senior lecturer in the School of Education, Social Work and Community Education, University of Dundee

If you ask a social worker to discuss their experiences in their practice, their responses will be peppered with words such as “satisfaction”, “stress”, “fear”, “empathy”, “warmth” and “complexity”. What unites these words is their connection with the emotional responses which social work gives rise to.

The relationships that are formed within practice and the judgements and decisions that emerge for them are directed and informed by emotional responses and attunement. This is not limited only to social workers of course, and our emotional responses help us make sense of our world and help guide, motivate and protect humans across all aspects of their lives.

Emotions have an image problem

Given the centrality of relationship building in social work and the need to be able to make sense of complex and behaviours and situations, it would seem that the topic of emotions would be at the top of the list for social work practitioners and students, and that the use of emotions would be a key part of the toolkit that social workers draw upon in their practice.

Oddly, this is not as straightforward as it might seem. Emotions historically have battled with an image problem; they are often seen as wayward and in danger of clouding incisive judgement. This popular misconception then seeps into professional discourse and the focus within social work can often highlight the importance of facts, evidence, theory and procedures.

Simply put, emotions can be squeezed out of centre stage by a belief that there are concrete certainties that can solely direct our practice. This is of course far too simplistic, and the emotional responses of social workers are a core factor in the judgements and decisions they make and an essential component of empathy, emotional intelligence and professionalism.

Suppressed and ignored

If emotions are to be acknowledged and utilised within their practice then social workers need to be given an opportunity to discuss, record and reflect upon them. When asked where this is most likely to take place, social workers highlight two key forums: supervision and informal discussions with colleagues.

Supervision is often seen to have a balance between a managerial function and a reflective one. When time is tight and caseloads are high, it is inevitable that something “has to give” – the aspects of practice which are less certain and less easy to articulate can often find themselves being marginalised.

However, the emotional labour of social work continues regardless and social workers can feel that emotions are not valid and need to be suppressed and ignored. We know that this can lead to poor decision-making, and stress and burnout among workers.

The value of informal contact

Social workers point to the relationship with their supervisors as being extremely important. This was underlined by my finding that different social workers with the same supervisor often reported very different dynamics, with some feeling safe to explore emotions and others feeling that it would not be welcome or valued. In many ways, the importance placed on informal contact with peers is about a sense that it is not recorded and complex issues can be explored with less judgement and accountability.

It is important that the social work profession is bold about its acknowledgement that emotions are a part of practice rather than a consequence of it. What I mean by this is that the emotional content of social work practice is an essential element of the profession and as such any discussion or recording about practice which omits emotions is an incomplete and edited picture which leaves workers vulnerable to stress and isolation, and also impairs the decisions and judgements which are so crucial to the lives of service users.

Community Care Inform subscribers can read tips by Richard Ingram on how to talk about emotions in supervision.

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