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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 Sociology.

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 Intelligence

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 talk..."

Suppressed Emotions

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 Clients

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."

Simonova 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.

 

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, July 06, 2015