Study Explores Emotional Intelligence and Stress in Social Work

Realistic workloads and ongoing emotional support are essential if social workers are to manage stress and perform their job effectively, according to new research by the University of East Anglia (UEA).

University of East Anglia (UEA)

The study by the Centre for Research on Children and Families (CRCF) examined the relationship between emotional intelligence – the ability to identify and manage emotions in oneself and others – stress, burnout and social work practice. It also assessed whether emotional intelligence training for social workers would reduce their burnout rates over time.

It is known that the rate of work related stress and burnout among social workers is high compared to similar professions. This contributes to high vacancy rates, particularly in the areas of child care, young people and families, which has consequences for colleagues and those the service is trying to help.

Emotional intelligence training is offered by some local authorities but there is little consistent evidence to show the benefits of such interventions on practice. This UEA study involved 209 child and family social workers across eight local authorities in England. The researchers found that the training received overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants, but it did not show any statistically significant effect on stress and burnout after the training. One possible reason for little effect of training on stress and burnout is that few participants used the training tools in practice. The researchers suggest that embedding training and follow-ups into supervision systems is likely to improve the transfer of training into practice.

Key organisational predictors of stress and burnout were: work demands, resource provision, training provision, leader and peer support. The key psychological predictor of stress and burnout was emotional intelligence.

The researchers recommend that if social workers are to be most effective, it is essential that they have realistic workloads and good administrative support, and that the demands for more recording and regulation should come with provision of sufficient resources.

The findings are presented in a report launched today at CRCF