Social Workers Seek to Standardise Their Emotions
Social workers tend to believe that society underestimates the
complexity of their mission and fails to fully appreciate the gift of caring
and compassion that they offer their clients. Experts warn that social work may
lead to burnout, unless practitioners are taught the skills of managing their
emotions in dealing with clients and equipped with standard algorithms
facilitating their 'emotional work' and thus helping to alleviate stress,
according to Olga Simonova, Deputy Head of the HSE Department of General
Persons with disabilities, orphans, the elderly,
families with many children, people in crisis – social workers serve a wide range
of clients; their work is often hard and stressful, and not very well paid.
According to social workers themselves, helping their client requires a
case-by-case approach and advanced psychological skills, such as empathy and the
ability to maintain a calm and positive attitude, mitigate conflict and inspire
people to improve their lives.
These are the findings from Simonova's
survey of social workers as part of the research project 'Professional culture
in social work: a methodology of socio-anthropological research (the case of
social work)'. She presented her report 'The emotional aspects of professional
culture in social work' at the international conference 'Professionalism
reconsidered: changes and challenges in welfare states' hosted by the HSE.
Social work practitioners' natural qualities such as
kindness and caring for other people, compassion and tolerance, patience and
optimism support their workplace performance, but, according to the survey
respondents, these personal qualities need to be 'professionalised' for the
sake of the worker's mental health and self-preservation, as well as good
performance. In other words, social workers believe that they need to be trained
in standard algorithms to assist them in managing their emotional responses in
various situations they face in dealing with clients.
At the moment, social workers in Russia lack such
algorithms and have to rely on their personal skills of emotional control
instead of learning how to manage emotional responses as part of professional training,
according to Simonova. As a result, even though social workers consider the
skill of managing one's emotions to be an integral part of their profession,
they often have to deal with emotional issues, such as the discrepancy between
what they privately feel as individuals and what they are supposed to feel as
professionals, as well as emotional fatigue and difficulty in establishing
contact with clients. Simonova notes, however, that the respondents' awareness
of these challenges suggests a trend towards greater professionalisation of
social work and the emergence of a specific professional culture.
Her paper is based on a review of transcripts from 50 semi-structured
interviews with social workers from public agencies providing social support
services in six Russian regions, including Urals and Volga regions, Northern
Russia, Siberia, Moscow, and Central Russia.
Control Your Facial Expression and Develop Emotional
Simonova explains the distinction between emotion work
and emotional labour – a term introduced by American sociologist Arlie Russell
Hochschild – in social workers' everyday life. While members of this profession
practice emotion work all the time, their emotional labour – defined as emotional
regulation in the workplace based on clear and explicit rules – has yet to be
developed and appreciated (including in terms of pay) as a standard part of the
social worker occupation, argues Simonova.
Dealing with difficult clients who are trying to
provoke conflict is just one example of emotion work illustrated by the
following response, "Clients can officially say anything to us using any
words and tone of voice they choose, yet we are not supposed to respond in kind
even to an insult. Instead, we smile and try to help the person to calm down..."
Another example of emotion work refers to clients who
are too overwhelmed by apathy to deal with their own problems; according to
respondents, it is the social worker's job to "light a sparkle of
interest" in such people – and conversely, a client's overexcitement needs
to be managed by channelling their energy in a productive way. According to
some respondents, their job requires advanced skills to enable them to
instantly assess a client's mental state using a variety of subtle verbal and
nonverbal signals, ranging from posture to the use of words, and offer an
appropriate response. "You have to use a personalised approach with
everyone, 100% of the time.... [You notice] the way they sit down, the way they
The respondents were asked about the challenges they
face in their practice. Some of them mentioned a gap between the desired – or
perhaps professionally required – emotion and what they really feel, e.g. when
they identify with clients problems too closely. As one respondent put it,
"You feel so sorry for them – although we are not supposed to feel sorry."
The same respondent recalls her fear of reacting unprofessionally to a young
orphan girl, "Once I sat down, she jumped in my lap and threw her arms
round my neck... I did not know what to do..."
Another common situation where practitioners may
experience a conflict between felt and displayed emotions is when a client is rude
to them but they cannot respond in kind.
Building trust is also a challenge. All respondents
emphasise the importance of empathy, tolerance, understanding and compassion in
their practice, yet admit that success in communication is never guaranteed. For
example, one respondent described his failure in trying to help a young client,
"Overall, I failed to establish a rapport with that girl."
Social workers also mention the risk of burnout,
"At first I felt terrible; I would come home from work and break down
crying, because I was taking [the clients problems] too much to heart."
According to many respondents, the inability to set emotional boundaries is 'a
sign of unprofessionalism', while a more balanced attitude towards clients'
problems is interpreted as professionalism.
Referring to the risk of burnout, in addition to ongoing
stress relief instruction ("We want to know how to relieve negative
emotion"), the respondents stressed the need for consistent monitoring of
practitioners' psychological state by mental health specialists.
Thus, social workers see themselves as being on
a 'challenging moral mission' of caring for disadvantaged people, but emphasize
the need for standardization of their practice, particularly in terms of
displaying emotions, Simonova notes.
Practitioners' Moral Rules Determine Attitudes towards
If social work comes at a psychological cost, then
what are the emotional benefits which motivate practitioners and retain them in
their jobs? According to respondents, one of the motivating factors is the joy in
helping people. "It makes me so happy to see that my work is making a real
difference for families"; "The better you do your job, the greater
the moral satisfaction you experience at the end of the day." In fact,
this principle is part of the practitioners' informal code of ethics, which,
according to respondents, "no one talks about, yet everyone knows."
Lacking a formal code of conduct, social workers rely
on general moral principles, with a particular focus on empathy: "One must
be patient, offer advice, engage and help people ... A client must feel that
they are welcome here and will always be offered assistance."
concludes that members of this profession in Russia tend to regulate their
emotional responses based on their personal attitudes, which are often
associated with the female gender – such as empathy, compassion and care – rather
than a formal code of conduct. Aware of the gap between the emotions they feel
and those they are expected to show as professionals, the survey respondents
"express a need for standardised skills for managing their emotions,"
which, according to Simonova, is a sign of the increasing professionalisation
of social work today.
July 06, 2015