Building Wellbeing and Resilience in Social Work Students – Some thoughts

15 09 2013

This week, this article received the most votes and it’s timely as we come to a new term ahead for social work students.

The article is called “Enhancing Wellbeing in Social Work Students : Building Resilience in the Next Generation” written by Louise Grant and Gail Kinman and published in 2012 in Social Work Education.

I’m going to summarise some of my own thoughts from reading this article but encourage people to read it for themselves and join  me and hopefully, others to discuss it and some of the issues arising from it this coming Thursday.


What is ‘resilience’?

The paper starts by looking at what ‘resilience’ is. Clarify a couple of meanings which include being able to work through stress and negative life events and not only recover from them but use them to build personal ‘meaning’ or overcoming ‘challenges’ in ones life. I can’t say I’m completely satisfied with these meanings as there’s an implication that one can only gain resilience by experiencing stressors or negative life experiences.

They go on to discuss the nature of resilience in social work practitioners and whether ‘resilience’ is a quality which makes them less likely to ‘burn-out’.

Resilience is useful, they say, in social work because it is a stressful profession. Resilience is what protects the mental health of social workers themselves when they work in this field. Again, I’m not sure the definitions we have entirely convince me in this argument as I think there are many factors that can protect against burnout and they aren’t all dependent on qualities or internal struggles of individual professionals.

The article leans on Lord Laming’s report which argued that social work training

“is to help develop the emotional resilience to manage the challenges they [social workers] will face in dealing with potentially difficult families”

I’d be interested in other people’s views about this. Personally it moves me uncomfortably into a them/us range almost blaming ‘difficult’ families for stressing out poor social workers. I am not unsympathetic but wonder if we have to be a bit more brutal in demanding support from employers rather than relying on the individual or blaming people who need to use social work services.

The article says

“the Task Force [Social Work Task Force] expressed serious concerns that many social workers are not sufficiently resilient to survive their future career. In order to address these concerns, social work educators in the UK have been tasked with reviewing the criteria governing entry requirements to courses and with developing the curriculum, in order to enhance the resilience of trainees”.

The first thing that springs to my mind is the progress of the Frontline programme which seems to promise ‘leadership’ and hothouse 5 week training programmes and I do wonder how this meshes with the evidence in this paper.

The paper goes on to look at what ‘training for resilience’ might look like in practice. What qualities build in to ‘resilience’ and is this happening in social work courses at the moment?


What makes someone ‘resilient’

The authors of the paper explain how they tried to identify the competencies that would make students ‘resilient’.

They say

The competencies examined were emotional intelligence, reflective ability, empathy and social competence

The research involved 240 students on undergraduate social work courses and they were sampled by online questionnaire. We can explore whether this is the best research method or simply the easiest one later if we want to appraise the paper critically. It isn’t clear how many universities were surveyed so I am assuming there was only one – and it’s interesting that only undergraduate and not postgraduate students were asked. There are some holes in the method as a result.  69% of students who completed the questionnaires were in their first year with 39% in  second year. Presumably the rest were further into the course. The average age of respondents was 33.7.  They used specific scales to measure the competencies identified. The unsurprising results were that students who scored as having more emotional intelligence, social confidence, better reflective ability “tended to be more resilient to stress”.  Resilience as defined here indicated “more psychologically healthy”.  The research therefore indicated that these competencies should be built into social work training courses.


As an aside, I wonder how much they can be developed in post-qualification training too and whether we should consider this in the ‘compressed’ curriculum methods of ‘Step Up’ and ‘Frontline’.  The article looks at each of the competencies explored and I’ll run through them.


Emotional Intelligence

This is about being aware of one’s emotions and being able to regulate them. There is research that evidences a link between high emotional intelligence and physical and psychological health.  The authors state that high emotional intelligence is one of the strongest connections to resilience in social work students.

Can it be ‘taught’? I’m not sure. Something to discuss maybe.


Reflective Ability

As the authors state “our study … found reflective ability to be an important predictor of wellbeing, in that trainee social workers who are better able to reflect on their thoughts, feelings and beliefs, who are more able to consider the position of other people and who can use their reflective abilities to communicate effective with others tended to be more resilient to stress and to be more psychologically healthy”

I’m a great fan of refining reflective ability through social work training as it is a skill which can be practised and needs time to develop. Being questioned and having strong supervision is vital but so is the need and ability to question ones self and to be open, constantly to learning and improving practice.  This is something that it is vital is built into social work training courses and built in well.



The authors say

“Empathy is a core element of helping relationships: it has strong positive effects on service users’ physical, mental and social wellbeing and it also engenders feelings of personal accomplishment in helping professionals”.

But what is ‘empathy’? Is it being able to imagine someone else’s life and experiences from their point of view? The authors say it is more than this and indicates a more holistic understanding of empathy where ‘over-empathising’ with service users can possibly lead to greater distress for the professional. It’s an interesting point and I’ll be interested to hear what others think about this and how we define empathy.

They say

“Our findings highlight the need to raise awareness at an early stage of social work training that, although a certain degree of empathy is needed in order to acknowledge and accept what their clients think and feel, clear emotional boundaries are required. This is to ensure that empathetic concern does not lead to empathetic distress”.


This is something I’ll admit I’ve found difficult over the years and have needed to train my own mind in.  Can we ‘teach’ empathy? It’s an interesting one that is occupying health and social care greatly at the moment. Personally, I’d link it to reflective practice but will be interested to know what others think.

Social Competencies

The authors use this term to discuss communication skills, self-confidence and the ability to be assertive when required. I can’t help thinking, perhaps, mischeviously of the Frontline ‘leadership leadership leadership’ blurb.

The authors say that there isn’t necessarily much focus on these communication skills as there may be an assumption people entering the helping professions may have them already but

“our study found considerable variation in the level of social confidence amongst social work trainees, some formal input is required to enhance social competence and foster feelings of confidence in social settings”

They also go on to say that social support is one of the greatest protective factors against stress in the job.


So how can these be taught?

The authors explain some of the things they have done to try and promote these skills among their own undergraduates. They have developed ‘Wellbeing days’ for social work trainees and included the following topics.


Mindfulness or awareness of the moment without judgement, has long had a role in managing psychological problems and building resilience. It has been used extensively in stress management settings and there are various online tools, from the Mental Health Foundation and other organisations which have some packages to help promote it (I’ve personally tried both of these and would recommend them).  The paper reflects on the use of workshops to develop mindfulness practices and skills in students.


Peer coaching

This was introduced during the Wellbeing Days at the university and they were taught some ways of implementing it.  It’s not something I’ve had a great deal of experience of but the paper explains that it helps students manage stress and gives some of the students more space for reflection.


Reflective supervision

This is something I do have a lot more experience of. The university ran a workshop on this but to be honest, I’d expect all students on placement to have experience of this with their practice educators. I know, as a practice educator, I spent a lot of time developing reflective supervision skills and ensured my student was well supported to use supervision reflectively.  I’m not convinced ‘workshops’ are needed but they can’t do any harm.


Thinking Skills (CBT techniques)

The Wellbeing days built in workshops on CBT to introduce students to it’s principles. When I was at unversity, we did a four week (full time during the summer between the first and second year) counselling skills course which included CBT skills. I imagine this is some kind of reflection on that. I am all for communication and ‘thinking’ skills being taught but not sure a workshop or two is sufficient.


Self-awareness and action planning

This was another workshop at the Wellbeing days at the university which students were invited to consider how they respond to stress individually. They were also asked to develop plans in how to work on those issues as individuals. Personally, I would group this with reflective practice.



The authors explained that 200 students participated in their ‘wellbeing days’ and those students found them useful and felt they have increased their skills.


I think there are some really useful parts of this paper which can guide some social work training but I can’t help but have a few wobbly doubts about it. The input came from one university, mostly first year social work students and all undergraduates. I think in order to have a better understanding of resilience in social work students, I’d like to see a broader initial base. It seems like it was a research project carried out without much complexity.

As for the wellbeing days, they sound both interesting and useful – and students enjoyed them but to really understand about whether they have increased the resilience levels of students, we’d need to understand how those students progress into practice.



These are some questions I’m suggesting for the social work journal club chat on Thursday but if you have others or different ones, these aren’t exclusive – just a way of thinking for a start

1. What do you understand as resilience?

2. Is resilience inherent or can it be taught? Do you have to experience adversity/stress to understand it?

3. Is this (training resilience) happening in social work courses at the moment?

4. Does it need to be taught/nurtured post qualification?

5. What do we think about the issues that the authors say make up ‘resilience’ – would we add anything?

6. What will be impact of ‘fast track’ social work training have on the development of resilience?

7. What do we think of ‘Wellbeing days’ and workshops? Is it an effective way to ‘teach’ resilience?

8. What do we think of the paper in general and the research methods which lead to it?


I’m sure I’ll add others during the week but please feel free to join in!




2 responses

15 09 2013

I think I prefer talking about “managing difficult conversations” more than “… difficult families”

15 09 2013

Yes. I really struggled with that phrase.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: