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Emotional intelligence in social work

Social workers, like nurses and healthcare workers, have high-stress jobs which can take a mental and physical toll. The rate of work related stress and burnout among social workers is high compared to similar professions, leading to high vacancy rates for jobs and days taken off sick.

In the case of social workers, Emotional Intelligence is an important skill for the role and it is thought to have a beneficial effect on stress. Emotional Intelligence is defined as being able to recognise emotions in yourself and others, understanding how emotions work and being able to manage emotions. Social workers are often subjected to ‘emotional labour’, when they have to mask their true feelings in a situation where they may feel angry, embarrassed or even fearful with a hostile client or upset about the circumstances of a vulnerable child. Such experiences cause chemical changes in the body as part of a stress response, which cannot be acted upon there and then, as there are limited opportunities for these feelings to be vented at work. As stress is high in Social Work, Emotional Intelligence training is offered by some local authorities to try and help reduce levels of burnout. It is also offered to teachers in the US by the Yale Centre for Training in Emotional Intelligence (The RULER Programme).

Although there have been studies which have shown the benefits of EI training in small selected groups, there is no definitive evidence that it reduces stress in the workplace. At the Centre for Research on Children and Families (CRCF) at the University of East Anglia, we wanted to see if Emotional Intelligence training did have a measurable effect on social workers’ stress in England, using a randomised controlled trial which would provide more robust evidence. Our study involved 209 child and family social workers across eight local authorities in England.

Using recognised and validated measures of stressful life events, work demands, stress and Emotional Intelligence we measured the Emotional Intelligence scores and stress of all our participants before they took part in the training, and then again for 6 months after they had completed it. Although training received overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants, but it did not show any statistically significant effect on stress and burnout in the 6 months after the training. One possible reason for lack of effect of training on stress and burnout is that few participants used the training tools in practice. For this reason, one of our recommendations is for local authorities to consider embedding training and follow-ups into supervision systems. We also found that realistic workloads are essential if social workers are to manage stress and perform their job effectively. Most of our participants reported that they frequently worked longer than their contracted hours and felt under time pressure, meaning that there was little time to fit in reflective supervision to discuss feelings and down time.

Another part of the project found six effective coping strategies to help individuals cope with stress.

Finding ways to reduce stress at work would have benefits for employees, employers and service users. A holistic approach to addressing stress at work is provided by the Health and Safety Executive which involves identifying work demands and taking action to prevent stress occurring, providing ongoing support and helping those suffering from severe stress.

Social workers have a positive role to play in the lives of children from troubled and abusive backgrounds. Many young people themselves speak positively about the help they have received from their social workers. In order to sustain social workers in post and make the most of the economic investment made in them through training and post-qualifying experience, policy makers need to take account of the emotional demands of this profession.

You can find out more about the research programme and training at www.uea.ac.uk/emotionsatwork

Dr Laura Biggart
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