By Rhian Taylor, social work lecturer, University of Kent
In April, the HCPC put forward plans to include emotional resilience as one of the new standards of proficiency for social workers to be introduced at the end of the year. This is an interesting move, and reflects the increased discussion around emotional resilience within the profession.
Commentators have pointed out that making this one of the standards rings some alarm bells. Is too much responsibility for resilience being shifted to the individual social worker, rather than the employer? What level of workload and working conditions should we be resilient to?
I’ve been thinking about this because I know from experience how easy it is to ingest a sense of personal responsibility for your resilience failings in the face of demanding organisations. In my previous role as a manager in a statutory team, I started to seriously question my resilience – particularly after completing an online resilience assessment tool that my organisation had signed up to.
We had four restructures in the last five years of my last role, and I never found the change easy. The restructures meant changes in location, team members and supervisee/supervisor relationships, as well as seeing colleagues being made redundant. Looking back, I think there were times I could have been more flexible in approaching the changes but in essence the reason I found it hard was that I really cared about my colleagues, I valued having stable working relationships, and was protective of my work life balance and childcare arrangements.
Were these weaknesses? I certainly started to see them as indicators of my own lack of resilience, admiring people who could move seamlessly from team to team with little emotional turmoil. However, looking back, I question that interpretation.
I know that recognising my own needs goes hand-in-hand with emotional sensitivity to the needs of others, including service users.
It also showed me how it’s not easy to distinguish between the individual’s resilience and corporate responsibility for the workplace. It concerns me that with the way these systems work, I suspect it will be easier for the HCPC to find the individual wanting, rather than holding the organisation to account.
Having said this, increasing emotional resilience for individual social workers is certainly a very good thing. Grant and Kinman’s excellent Community Care Inform guide on this topic gives an indication of how emotional resilience can help us cope with our work and enjoy it more. Research a few years ago indicated that the average working life of a social worker is seven years (in comparison to 25 years for a doctor) and with the ongoing pressures we face, we can see how important this is for the profession.
Reflecting with others
As social work lecturer, I have been thinking hard about how students can become more emotionally resilient and what a university could do to help with this. I recently did some work collating input and views from our third year undergraduates on how emotionally resilient they felt, and what, if anything, the university might do to assist them.
In this small-scale study, the students generally perceived themselves as resilient. Prior experience, the competing demands of the course, the workload, the need to adjust to new placement opportunities, and good supervision were mentioned as ways their resilience had developed.
Teaching input was generally viewed as less relevant, whilst reflecting with others – practice educators, placement colleagues or fellow students – was considered most beneficial for developing the kind of self-awareness that correlates with emotional resilience. There was also a significant caveat in the student’s responses. Although they wanted to reflect openly, there was a strong awareness of the fact they were being assessed.
‘I want to explore how I’m feeling but not with the person who’s assessing me’, one student commented.
‘Are we reluctant to show vulnerability?’
Another pointed out that they wanted to discuss feelings without being perceived as weak. It seems that there is still a perception that being professional does not involve showing vulnerability.
This is a key dilemma for practitioners as well as students. To explore our emotional resilience we need to be honest and self-aware, yet students feels restricted in this because of the power dynamic of being assessed. If emotional resilience becomes another thing we have to demonstrate as practising social workers it might become counterproductive in making us reluctant to openly discuss our feelings of vulnerability, and the very real impact of our jobs on our emotional lives. Yet, of course, our denial of these feelings actually makes us more vulnerable to burnout.
A further point of interest which emerged from my students was the issue of pessimism. Although generally reporting good levels of the qualities associated with resilience, when asked about optimism (a key indicator), over half said they sometimes struggled to feel positive about their working life.
How do you view positive events?
The issue of optimism versus pessimism is a complex one. On one hand the benefits of optimism, or more specifically what Grant and Kinman call an optimistic explanatory style seem clear. People with this bias in their thinking, they say, not only see themselves as responsible for the positive events that are occurring (rather than things just happening), they are also more likely to think positive events will happen in the future.
Research consistently indicates that optimists perform better in the workplace, setting more challenging goals, putting increased effort into these goals and bouncing back more effectively from setbacks. In other sectors, this research is having a significant effect on recruitment. For example some companies look for this optimistic explanatory framework when they recruit sales staff, as they know these people will be able to be cope with knockbacks and be persistent. Could we use a similar principle when interviewing social workers?
Optimism enables people to always see the best in situations. However, we know that in social work too much of this kind of positive can be dangerous when it comes to managing risk if we always seek out the positives and reframe situations. We have to consider all possibilities, including the most problematic.
It’s hard to question your own version of reality
Grant and Kinman use the term ‘realistic optimism’, and suggest an optimism/pessimism check within reflective practice. This makes a lot of sense but I worry that we are very good at assessing our own levels in this area. Studies suggest that most people think they are realists. Our versions of reality, whether they are biased towards the positive or the negative feel like reality to us. It is only very thorough in-depth self-awareness or very astute supervision that we might question our underlying assumptions.
Emotional resilience targets?
So whilst I personally aspire strongly to have the qualities of emotional resilience, I’m concerned that making it a standard of proficiency might be counterproductive. We develop these skills through experience, vulnerability, and honest reflection – preferably within a workplaces which promotes mental wellbeing. I hope new standards of proficiency won’t mean emotional resilience becomes another target to reach, or a stick to beat a struggling workforce.