Emotional resilience expert guide

Practice guide | interactive tool | top tips | live advice clinic

Do you struggle to manage your emotional reactions to stressful situations at work? Do you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by service users’ feelings and experiences? Do you have trouble finding solutions to difficult problems?

Social work can be a demanding, stressful job at the best of times so emotional resilience, or the ability to bounce back when life becomes challenging, is an essential skill for social workers.

Here you will find all you need to know about emotional resilience – from ways to test your own emotional resilience, to top tips for building your coping mechanisms, our complete expert guide and details of an exclusive advice clinic to help you overcome issues at work.

Take part in our emotional resilience live advice clinic – Monday at 8pm

The authors of our emotional resilience guide, Louise Grant and Dr Gail Kinman, will be taking part in a live web chat on Monday August 20 from 8-9pm. They will be on hand to help you with any difficulties you might be experiencing at work. Submit your email in the box below to get a handy reminder about the event.

Emotional resilience image

Credit: Ginatare Minelgaite

Ten top tips for building emotional resilience

Build a community of support

Resilient people tend to have strong social networks – family, friends and colleagues are great sources of support.

Managing your time effectively really works

Use your diary effectively and plan variation in your day wherever possible. Try to schedule meetings to ensure that you aren’t left feeling rushed or emotionally exhausted and build in adequate breaks. Make sure you have time to process your emotional reactions to one case before moving onto the next.

Develop achievable goals and take appropriate action to achieve them

Setting goals encourages a focus on the future rather than dwelling on past problems and present difficulties. It is important to make sure these are achievable, as social workers may set unrealistic goals for themselves and others. Remember setbacks are inevitable, but resilient people keep the longer term goal in mind.

Become more aware of your emotional reactions

Keep an emotion diary and write about your experiences, thoughts and feelings. This can provide valuable insight into why you feel as you do and help you identify patterns in your behaviour and reactions, ensuring you remain appropriately empathic.

Prepare for supervision effectively

Take responsibility for your role in the supervisory relationship. Use it as an opportunity to discuss emotional issues relating to your practice and analyse difficult situations reflectively rather than engaging in self-criticism.

Prioritise your work-life balance and maintain firm boundaries

Set firm boundaries between your working life and non-working life. Identify corridors (or buffer zones) that allow you to move between “work” and “home” more effectively. For example, dog walking, going to the gym, reading the newspaper, or a long soak in the bath – whatever works for you. If work worries get in the way, dedicate a specific time each day to “worry” – write worries down with action points to address them and then put them to the back of your mind until the next day.

Build in time to relax

Prioritise your own needs and feelings as well as those of other people, otherwise you will find it difficult to be effective and may become emotionally exhausted. Pay attention to both your physical and emotional reactions and be aware of situations that cause tension or anxiety. Use stress management techniques that work for you (such as breathing exercises) to help you cope.

Learn from experience and be prepared to adapt your approach

Resilient people learn useful lessons from setbacks and problems. Think about how you have previously coped with adversity successfully and utilise similar techniques to solve present problems. If this is not successful, try to put the issue in perspective; consider other ways of managing the issue and seek alternative opinions from those with a different world view.

Remain hopeful and optimistic

Resilient people tend to see stressful events as temporary and manageable, rather than stable and intractable, or even as opportunities to learn and grow. Remember your motivations for becoming a social worker, relish challenges and continue to seek opportunities for learning and development. You will then feel more in control of your own destiny.

Be kind to yourself

Social workers can be very self-critical and are frequently harder on themselves than they are on others. It is all too easy to fall into negative ways of thinking, such as “If only”, or “I should have”. Be aware when this happens and use cognitive reframing techniques to help you re-interpret the situation. For example, use positive self-talk such as, “what is the worst thing that can happen?” and “what advice would you give to a friend or colleague who was in the same situation?” Using these distancing techniques can help us become more solution-focused and avoid excessive and unproductive self-blame.


Louise Grant is a senior lecturer in social work at the University of Bedfordshire and a registered social worker.

Dr Gail Kinman is professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire.

Develop your emotional resilience

Read our in-depth Inform practice guide to emotional resilience and how you can develop your ability to bounce back when life becomes challenging and stressful. If you are not already a member please email kim.poupart@rbi.co.uk

How emotionally resilient are you?

Emotional resilience

To find out, use our interactive, free tool to help you think through how you cope with difficult situations at work.

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Date Published: 15 August 2012

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