Is anyone asking why social workers are ‘failing’ to be resilient?

We need to rethink concepts of resilience beyond the notion of individuals withstanding or bouncing back from adversity, argue Diane Galpin, Annastasia Maksymluk and Andy Whiteford

Photo: Zorandim75/Fotolia

Correction from Community Care

This article originally made reference to Sir Martin Narey’s 2014 report of his review of children’s social work education, saying that it demanded that “social work education dispense with its analysis of poverty, social exclusion and the political nature of the ‘personal’ as a foundation on which to intervene in people’s lives”.

The Narey report did not make such a demand. It did criticise the teaching of anti-oppressive practice in social work education but said: “I am not suggesting that the role of disadvantage and inequality in exacerbating poor parenting and child neglect or abuse should not be discussed at university. But it is vital that social work education for those working with children is not dominated by theories of non-oppressive practice, empowerment and partnership.”

As well as carrying out this review, Sir Martin was chief executive of Barnardo’s from 2005-11 and was for three years the chair of the End Child Poverty Coalition. We apologise for this error.

by Diane Galpin, Annastasia Maksymluk and Andy Whiteford

Last year we undertook research on the place and meaning of resilience in social work practice. This stemmed from anecdotal information from practitioners, who suggested resilience is a term used to divert attention away from failures within the system caused by significant structural and organisational issues.

Our research is timely given recent reports in respect of retention rates, which might suggest to some that practitioners are not demonstrating ‘enough’ resilience once in practice.

These results may also reaffirm the importance of resilience as both a professional capability and a regulatory requirement under both the current HCPC framework and the incoming Social Work England.

But is anyone asking why social workers are ‘failing’ to be resilient?

Our initial findings provide some insight into the nebulous nature of resilience, which currently lacks a clear positive definition. They also highlight how practitioners are interpreting it to fill the void in meaning and application that exists within regulatory and organisational contexts. They suggest ‘resilience’ is being used in professional settings as a metaphor to blame individuals for not coping with ever-increasing workloads, ever-diminishing resources and significant political, structural and organisational failings.

Limited knowledge

We used a short online questionnaire to gather professional views and opinions. Participants were self-selecting in terms of age, gender, level of experience, ethnicity and geographical location.

A total of 506 participants responded to the survey, 97% of whom were HCPC-registered. They were aged between 21 and 75, with about one quarter each in the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups and one third in the 45-54 bracket. In keeping with the profession as a whole, 88% of participants identified as female and 12% as male.

Six in 10 respondents had between zero and 10 years’ post-qualifying experience. Almost two-thirds (64%) qualified via traditional bachelor’s and master’s degrees, with a further 8% having arrived via one of the new fast-track routes such as Step Up, Frontline or Think Ahead.

When asked about how their employer defines resilience, participants appeared to have limited knowledge. Fifty-two per cent of responses were based on individual experience in practice rather than organisational policies, with responses such as “not going off sick” or “never complaining about increased workloads”.

The remainder (48%) gave responses such as “unclear”, “unknown”, “it doesn’t” or “I don’t know”. This is representative of the general tone of responses to this question, though there were a few who provided a more positive view, which related to their manager providing support.

Individual responses to adversity

Participants were also asked what they understood by the term ‘resilience’. Our analysis overwhelmingly revealed an embedded belief that resilience relates to responding to adversity, a basic dictionary definition of which alludes to a difficult or unpleasant situation.

Comments from participants repeatedly refer to attributes that an individual innately has or must develop; for example the ability to recover from setbacks, bounce back or withstand, or to develop coping mechanisms. A significant theme in the responses indicates a belief that whatever the difficult or unpleasant situation is, it should be borne on an individualised basis.

Participants also referred to the ‘emotional’ nature of their work: managing their own emotions and/or managing the emotions of service users. Many felt they need to compartmentalise these emotions.

This was indicated with comments such as “being able to emotionally support yourself to have a shield against stresses”, “using emotional intelligence to regulate yourself and protect yourself from harm”, and “working hard to not become emotionally involved”.

When practitioners were asked to identify areas in which the concept of resilience was being applied within their organisation, their responses continued to endorse the idea that resilience is being applied to individual wellbeing and the capability to meet organisational expectations, with failure to do attributed to individual failings.

A noticeable proportion of respondents could not specifically identify where and/or to what extent resilience is linked to their practice, while others signalled it was associated with all aspects of their practice experience.

Interestingly this question also reveals how and to what extent the concept is being applied to direct work with children and family safeguarding, to a lesser extent in fostering and adoption work and with some mention of adult work in relation to mental health and safeguarding. Practice in this regard appears to be organised around building and strengthening the ‘resilience’ of individuals, their networks and relationships.

Lack of clarity

Our aim with this project was to give a voice to social workers to challenge and inform current practice. We wanted to provide social workers with an opportunity to tell us how it really is, to go beyond the rhetoric of resilience to establish the reality in contemporary practice.

Respondents clearly understand ‘resilience’ is a regulatory requirement. But it is also apparent there is a lack of structural or organisational clarity in defining what this actually means, and suggesting how this might be met, or achieved, beyond individual social workers managing themselves. This has created a void that practitioners are filling based on their experience in practice.

The discourse in relation to resilience and social work practice consistently refers to the idea of an innate strength or capacity available to humans enabling recovery from trauma and stress, and the development of an approach to practice that seeks to identify and strengthen individual coping strategies in isolation from the political and organisational contexts of practice.

These interconnections have become acknowledged as a central organising feature of an individualised depoliticised ‘resilience framework’, which then guides social workers in applying resilience in their practice with those who require services.

But by not accounting for factors arising from wider political, structural and organisational frameworks, which shape practice, the apparent one-dimensional individualised experience of ‘resilience’ has the potential to construct oppressive practices, which veils wider issues.

The insights provided by practitioners in this research suggests there is a need within both social work practice and education to re-prioritise a critical and informed response to resilience as part of relocating professional practice within a much broader context than individualised frames of reference.

Diane Galpin, Annastasia Maksymluk and Andy Whiteford are social work academics based at the University of Plymouth.

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38 Responses to Is anyone asking why social workers are ‘failing’ to be resilient?

  1. Rosemary Trustam April 10, 2019 at 12:40 pm #

    My comment would be – is the increasing tendency for field social workers to be hot-desking adding to the stress in the work? When I worked as a generic social worker, we had a team room which meant we could share/discuss issues – even emotions. This support was I felt invaluable to reflecting, offloading, but most of all not feeling alone. We also at one point had a regular weekly meeting where someone would present and discuss a case – and good regular supervision also helps ofcourse. However resilient an individual might be, it seems to me to be dangerous if people are left very much on their own with all the emotions working with people in distress can create. If we get to the point of never feeling anything I don’t think we’d be any good any more. Yes we need to recognise what’s us and what’s the person and be able to separate these and reflect, but not stop any feeling…

    • Diane galpin April 11, 2019 at 6:54 am #

      Thank-you for commenting. Yes I agree that is such an issue

  2. Disillusioned April 10, 2019 at 12:41 pm #

    Resilience would flourish and become more effective when the working condition is healthy.

    Within the current working environment the negative approach of the management towards the workers is completely counterproductive and debilitating to the workers.

    How long can resilience enable the workers to continue to work effectively when it is constantly being eroded by the management who selectively scrutinise whoever they have issues with.

    Resilience cannot be separated from the work context, it would be erroneous to consider this to be effective and as a separate factor when the working management is so hostile.

    • Lee Alban D. Min. April 11, 2019 at 2:50 am #

      An American study on supervision found that most supervisors add nothing of value to their supervises and some even gave harmful supervision. Of those who did help, most only helped one supervise. Maybe this is where we need start making some changes. Good supervision matters.

      • Shanna April 11, 2019 at 6:09 pm #

        Hi there. Could you point me toward this study?

        • Lee Alban D. Min. April 12, 2019 at 2:09 am #

          This was from a training from Case Western Reserve University, Center for Evidence Based Practice. You can contact them for more information.
          Hope this helps.

    • Diane galpin April 11, 2019 at 6:57 am #

      Thankyou for your comment. Your comments certainly resonate with what others shared with us. Organisational culture makes such a difference.

    • Diane Galpin April 11, 2019 at 6:37 pm #

      Indeed. Thank you for your comments.

    • Diane Galpin April 11, 2019 at 6:45 pm #

      Yes, so true, the research really highlighted how important organisational culture is , thanks for responding

  3. Jill Palmer April 10, 2019 at 3:39 pm #

    One issue which I have not seen addressed in any depth is that workers, especially older ones, may also have pressures from home, which may also impact on their ability to be resilient in the workplace. Pressures from caring for disabled children, elderly family members (sometimes multiple family members) are often not considered in discussions about workplace resilience, as if we leave them behind when we come to work (and vice versa). There is media attention to so-called “sandwich carers” but this does not seem to form a part of the discourse on resilience.

    • Diane galpin April 11, 2019 at 7:03 am #

      Thank you for your comment . Yes this is increasingly an issue, one that will worsen I fear with the increase in state pension age for women still supporting their children, grand children and elderly parents whilst working full time in a stressful environment.

    • Anne Duffin April 11, 2019 at 12:59 pm #

      This is very often a feminist issue too, there remains an expectation in families that women carry much of that burden of caring. To be switched on to the ‘caring ‘role at home and at work is leading to serious risk of burnout. Having long experience in mental health social work, the expectation seems to be that the SW will stay late, come in early, miss lunch, sacrifice leave, more than any other profession. Plus provide unreciprocated emotional support for colleagues. I was told directly by a consultant that part of my role was to support my team members in managing their anxiety about cases. I’d suggest that we have created that rod for our own backs to some extent. Engaging in self care can be shamed – it is probably the first thing students should learn

  4. A Man Called Horse April 10, 2019 at 3:42 pm #

    The reality is that the Government who employ Social Workers don’t want us to socially transform anything. The Government demand only a one dimensional requirement that they make no polltical or social comment about what they are seeing on the ground. Many Social Workers are expected to endure quietly the rage they feel about their own treatment and the poverty and degradation inflicted on the poor and disabled people they work with. The training now is see nothing, say nothing, smile and make no comment.

    The Government (Tory) have taken the view that Social Workers have been infected with left of centre values and that this tendency requires tight control. They have taken action to change the training and teach values that are effectively neo-liberal and that no change is best. When you are confronted with Poverty and all of the things that you thought where caused by inequality, absence of opportunity, social class, structural unfairness are really the fault of the individual not society. If you want to change anything for the better I would suggest don’t work as a Social Worker because you can’t change anything in the age of endless Austerity and cuts. Resilience means ignoring what you see everyday.

    • Annie April 11, 2019 at 5:59 am #

      I totally agree…

    • Diane galpin April 11, 2019 at 7:00 am #

      Thanks for your comment . Indeed, I have always wondered if govts seeming dislike of social work might have something to with the fact we hold a mirror up to them and reflect their failures when we work with those failed
      By their systems!

      • Patrick April 11, 2019 at 9:01 pm #

        It’s always someone else’s fault…

    • dk April 11, 2019 at 3:14 pm #

      “The Government (Tory) have taken the view that Social Workers have been infected with left of centre values and that this tendency requires tight control. They have taken action to change the training and teach values that are effectively neo-liberal and that no change is best.”

      I’m no fan of our government or the Conservative party and would very enthusiastically agree that their right-wing dogma has incidentally harmed the social work profession and training routes into it, but I would also challenge the quoted text. Where has the training “change[d]” so it teaches “neo-liberal values” and the idea that “no change is best”? I cannot see where this has happened.

      I expect the answer would be Frontline but that simply isn’t true; either that its training content espouses identifiably neo-liberal values (I think you could more successfully argue it models them, but you’d leave yourself in a bind by implication having to argue traditional universities don’t do the same), or that it is identifiably a Conservative venture … Josh Macalister and Lord Adonis aren’t blues, and the blues don’t have a monopoly on neo-liberalism!

      • Diane galpin April 12, 2019 at 2:15 pm #

        Thanks. I think it varies across curriculums and as you rightly suggest neo -liberalism does not follow any specific colour. The same can be said of academics , their are neolib academics , non neoliberals academics and every shade of red, orange, green and blue inbetween.

        The technorational rational nature of assessment and delivery of education is nudgei g some programmes into a neoliberal mode, as can ildefined regulatory requirments.

        As ever, it’s complex and we need to talk more!

        Thanks for taking time to comment

  5. Anna Hubbard April 11, 2019 at 3:20 am #

    If you have no control over your work load, if you are not allowed to manage your own caseload and you are ignored when you attempt to take steps to rectify this then resilience becomes irrelevant.

  6. Jacqui Prior April 11, 2019 at 8:53 am #

    Resilience is difficult to quantify at best and my belief is, that we accrue a personal ‘ pot’ that needs to be topped up by successes or support, no matter how small. The erosion of this ‘pot’ has increased exponentially by public and professional perception of the role, massive expectations of performance via caseload, lack of space and time with others to reflect, discuss and share.
    It is an incredibly complex job working with so little many of the the most complex beings on the planet – humans in distress. Overlaying this the expectation we are expected to minutely oversee resources and be our own administrators, often on extra unpaid time has me peering into my personal pot to find very little but a crumpled tissue and a sweet wrapper!

    • Diane Galpin April 11, 2019 at 6:40 pm #

      Indeed, the complexity and pressure of work needs Tonbenrecognised much more . Thank you for your comments.

    • Robin I April 24, 2019 at 6:27 am #

      Very well-written and perfectly reflects some of my experiences in corporate America.

  7. Anonymous April 11, 2019 at 11:13 am #

    A third sector agency I used to work for all had long service leave every 2 years. A month off work to do what they liked. Social work is an emotional rollercoaster and could do with caring for social workers more. You end up at breaking point before you’re given time to breathe. You can’t pour from an empty pot as they say.

    • Diane Galpin April 11, 2019 at 6:42 pm #

      Time and space to refresh is so important, necessary for SW’s to thrive rather than survive in practice . Thank you for your comments

  8. Former CPS social worker April 11, 2019 at 11:22 am #

    Overloaded with cases, working overtime and lack of opportunity for work life balance, little to no support from superiors, AND secondary stress syndrome or actual ptsd from the encounters social workers have in the field.

    • Diane Galpin April 11, 2019 at 6:43 pm #

      Yep, that’s about the size of it! Thanks for your response

  9. Stephen Taylor April 11, 2019 at 2:25 pm #

    The most overlooked faction of any therapist’s training is SPIRITUAL WELL-BEING! Having recently completed a thesis on just this topic, I was a able to expose facts often overlooked or discounted when educating people to become part of the helping community. For example: of the 785 institutions offering clinical care or social work training in the U.S., only 105 even partially address spiritual well-being as an important component in developing critical issues encountered with clients let alone those of the students being educated. Pugh Research in 2018 found that 97% of the people in the U.S. believe in a higher power. Therefore, when engaging a client without self-awareness or client awareness of a higher power, one cannot offer 100% competent help. This lack wears on the clinician and will eventually lead to early burnout. Statistically quantitative research has proven this to be a much overlooked reason for “burnout” amongst helping professionals.

    • Catherine Aganoglu April 18, 2019 at 10:16 pm #

      Please can you provide references for this research, inclduing your thesis. Thank you

  10. Fred Parsons April 11, 2019 at 3:24 pm #

    Resilience is expected of all within the care industry, up to and including unpaid carers. However the system does nothing at all to support resilience.

    Supervision is given lip service (along with Carers Assessments, if you can get either), training is push-button and not realistic, and finally expectations are unrealistic.

    • Diane galpin April 12, 2019 at 2:16 pm #

      Thankyou. You are spot on!

  11. Ben's dog April 13, 2019 at 9:12 am #

    Some excellent comments here. Colin turbett’s book ‘Doing Radical Social Work’ provides some valuable ideas on how social workers can use their discretion to challenge structural issues, but does this actually increase resilience?

    Surely resiliance is both an individual and a team issue? We all have strategies we use to maintain our personal wellbeing but these alone, along with regular supervision, are not enough to maintain resiliance. The support of colleagues and making the time and space for team activities and reflection are also crucial. Some local authorities / managers have realised this and are leading the way. Others still have a long way to go . . .

  12. Yonatan Rce April 14, 2019 at 2:01 pm #

    I think caring front line professionals naturally balk at the inherent conceit in the suggestion of measuring someone.
    Resilience threatening experiences (stressful situations) can occur to anyone, they are external forces. I know resilience is used to mean how much stress can be applied before breakdown occurs… But that is unknowable.
    Or used with hindsight, when ppl say this person has been through so much adversity and come out functioning very well. But this is not a measure of resilience it is a measure of how well they move away from adversity. This sounds like splitting hairs but you don’t bounce back or remain unchanged by experience but some ppl move away from continuing adversity others don’t. Ppl who can really tell the difference between the pretence of measuring resilience Vs measuring the ability to move away from adversity are ppl who are on the front line to help. Ppl there to help only get out their measuring sticks to measure what is needed to help, how big the blockages are in the way of the other person. And we do need to understand the difference because for some adversity is so ingrained in their understanding and expectation of their environment that helping needs to include aspiration raising and experience enrichment. For others adept at moving away from adversity but in circumstances making them vulnerable to being overwhelmed external help might suffice, money, more time or something but they will essentially steer themselves toward a good outcome when blocks are removed.
    I would hope universities teach their students to identify the strengths and vulnerabilities of clients but also the propensity to move away from adversity, because it can make a practical difference. The resilience theorists might be missing this but front line workers can feel it.

    • Diane galpin April 23, 2019 at 10:27 am #

      Thankyou for your thoughtful comment , you make some interesting points. We are happy to revive these as we really want to develop a much more robust understanding of resilience . At the moment it’s a word that is ill defined and out reaesxh would suggest that for some social workers it is bei g applied in quite an oppressive manner.

      Thanks again.

  13. Anne April 22, 2019 at 7:09 pm #

    The concern I have in respect of this research is that ‘to me’ there seems an underlying little dig at social workers in that achieving resilience may make them risk averse, I am sorry but totally disagree with this, at least where I work, what makes social workers risk averse is government scrutiny and media criticism of all that we do, particularly working in child safeguarding. I have a career of over 30 years and have never met a social worker who hasn’t cried at some stage, dug in their own pocket for bread and milk for a family, shook so bad on the way home from a court hearing that they could not drive, not because of the family but because of the way the Judge, barristers and other representatives show us so little respect for their profession. Other commentators are right, hot desking and no parking, is a big pain, but even bigger is damp, uninhabitable social housing, families scraping by from hand to mouth, teachers handing out uniforms from lost property, children being hungry at school, mental health, substance abuse, I could go on and on but what builds up resilience is a good solid personal home life, good reflective supervision and higher management support, which means admitting that mistakes will happen and no matter how much training is provided people, by their very nature, are unpredictable.

    • Diane galpin April 23, 2019 at 10:23 am #

      Hello Anne, I can assure there is no underlying dig re risk. We totally agree with your comments. This piece was a snap shot of our findings from social workers, there is a lot more to come! The reason we undertook this was to highlight the context of some social workers professional lives and to stimulate debate and action that moves away from blaming the social worker for everything , she often it is isseis social workers have no control over is the issue.

      We have the utmost respect of social workers .

  14. Wolfnut April 24, 2019 at 6:46 am #

    I became a social worke in 1976 and have worked almost exclusively in child protection or safeguarding, call it what you wish . Never has it felt so unsafe , for the families we work with and for ourselves as individuals. The tick box , performance management culture has largely ignored the need for staff to feel valued. It is never a case of what you have done but ‘why haven’t you done this, when can I expect it? I recall one Head of Safeguarding say ‘If it isn’t on the system it didn’t happen’ . I replied ‘Do you actually want me to do the work so that I can put it on the system because it takes so much time I don’t have the opportunity to go out and if I do I can’t park my bloody car when I get back!’. You can debate resilience as much as you want but in organisational cultures that are driven by satisfying the needs of OFSTED, the inherent pressures that involves will continue to grind us down.

    • Diane galpin April 27, 2019 at 8:33 am #

      Thank you for taking time to comment. I wish I could say I am shocked, but sadly your experience is all to familiar.

      The meaning of resilience in the current climate appears to be applied oppressively to meet managerial targets that prioritise the supporting the ‘system’ rather than individuals.

      Thank you for your many years of dedication to social work.

      You are not failing the system, the system is failing you!

  15. Rutendo Rondozai April 29, 2019 at 9:52 am #

    Hi, Is your research published as I would like to use it for my dissertation. Thank you.