Embrace emotions in social work, says academic

28th August, 2015

Rather than burying their own emotions, social workers should embrace and reflect upon them in order to provide better support for the vulnerable people they work with, according to a new book by a University of Dundee researcher.

Dr Richard Ingram is Senior Lecturer and Associate Dean within the University’s School of Education & Social Work. His book, ‘Understanding Emotions in Social Work: Theory, Practice and Reflection’ is aimed at addressing a gap in current social work research. Most current social work literature focuses on theory, legislation and quantitative evidence but Dr Ingram has sought to reconcile these vital aspects of practice with emotions that unavoidably impact on social workers’ judgement.

He believes that, consciously or unconsciously, emotions play an integral role in day-to-day decision making, assessments and relationship building, and a lack of emotional awareness and understanding can result in poor practice and a failure to think critically. He also proposes a departure from a dispassionate ‘tick-box’ culture that fails clients and prevents social workers from doing their job to the best of their ability.

“There is a school of thought which proposes that social workers need to be technical in their approach and ignore their own emotional responses to a situation in order to respond professionally,” said Dr Ingram. “That approach, whilst understandable to some extent, ignores the fact we cannot help but be influenced by our emotions, especially when engaging with people in complex and difficult circumstances.

“Being a social worker means working with service users who might present entrenched and recurrent issues that can lead workers to becoming routinised in their approach. Social workers need to have time to step back and reflect on how the situation makes them feel to ensure their emotions are not impacting on their judgement in a way that may be detrimental to the service user.

“Similarly they shouldn’t be encouraged to ignore their gut instinct. Ticking boxes off a list isn’t enough because even though there might not be an obvious issue that doesn’t mean there aren’t underlying problems. These are emotional situations so people will obviously respond emotionally. What social workers need to do is tune into the emotional worlds of service users (and their own) in order to prompt and motivate decisions and judgements.

“Research in this area tends to focus on theory, legislation and research evidence but the personal experiences of social workers are often overlooked. With heavy caseloads, social workers very often don’t have time to explore emotional impact of role and at risk of making poor professional judgements about human relationships that don’t make any sense without emotional context. The role of emotionally intelligent support, supervision and organisational culture is crucial to manage this complexity. ”

The book has drawn praise from social workers and social work researchers from around the world. It concludes by producing a model for 21st century social work practice that draws theory, legislation and knowledge together with emotions.

Dr Ingram continued, “Emotions affect every aspect of social work practice and it is wrong and damaging to believe you can remove them from practice. Indeed, emotions help all humans make sense of the world in which they live and help us frame decisions, actions and opinions. What this book is trying to do is show that this is not a bad thing and that acknowledging and reflecting upon their emotions can make people better social workers.”

More information, including how to buy ‘Understanding Emotions in Social Work: Theory, Practice and Reflection’ is available at http://www.mheducation.co.uk/9780335263868-emea-understanding-emotions-in-social-work-theory-practice-and-reflection.

University of Dundee News

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