Thriving in practice – building individual emotional resilience

23 June 2014

Jessica Broome, Learning & Development Officer for Research in Practice, writes about the concept of emotional resilience, as well as some ways to develop it in ourselves. With special acknowledgement to Jo Fox, who also helped contribute both to this blog and to our Practice Tool on the subject.

The concept of emotional resilience in social care has been placed centre-ground recently. We hear about building emotional resilience on numerous levels: organisations, teams, supervisees, and children and families. However, we often hear less about how to build our own.

All of us can be confronted by threats to our emotional resilience in the modern world. The world is full of contradictions: we have never been so connected, but also never so separate; there is huge wealth and privilege, but also massive poverty and deprivation. Individuals, no matter where they live, work or play, will face challenges that they need to have the courage and persistence to overcome.

Social workers have a need to thrive in practice. Although social work is highly rewarding, it can also be highly stressful - and it is important that when faced with difficult situations we feel emotionally capable and protected so that we can do our best for the children and families we work with.

It is therefore all the more worrying to me when we see reports about social worker burnout, stress and worry. Whilst not a social worker, my work brings me into contact with them very regularly. As a rule, social workers are a group of inspirational colleagues who are able to make positive impacts on the lives of those around them. And people like that - who are fulfilling a vital role in society – are the ones we need to keep in the sector.

What is emotional resilience?

In our recent practice tool on the subject, emotional resilience was defined as “an individual’s ability to manage environmental difficulties, demands and high pressure.” (Fox et al, 2014).

Being ‘emotionally resilient’ doesn’t mean we don’t experience knockbacks or that we are Teflon-coated and impervious to harm. Instead it means that when faced with adversity, we are better able to handle and rebound from it.

As such, emotional resilience is important in all aspects of life. Having the ability to ‘bounce back’ from difficult life challenges, adapting to and learning from them, is a crucial skill in both our work and personal lives.

What I find interesting about emotional resilience is that it involves “behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone” (Fox et al, 2014). The qualities found in resilient people are not innate traits that you either have or don’t have. We can build and promote our own emotional resilience – which makes it ever more important that we are supporting people at all levels to further develop these qualities.

Reivich (2005) highlights what she considers to be seven learnable skills of emotional resilience:

  1. Emotional regulation – identifying and, if necessary, controlling your feelings.
  2. Impulse control – tolerating ambiguity so you don’t rush to make decisions; thinking before acting.
  3. Optimism – being realistically optimistic in a way that facilitates problem solving.
  4. Causal analysis – thinking about the problems you face, looking at them from other perspectives and considering other associated factors.
  5. Empathy – reading and understanding others’ emotions, which helps to build relationships and garner social support.
  6. Self-efficacy – having confidence in your ability to solve problems, knowing your strengths and weaknesses and relying on your strengths to cope.
  7. Reaching out - being prepared to take appropriate risk, being willing to try new things and thinking of failure as part of life.

Obviously we can’t be all these things all the time, and we will all have these qualities in varying degrees of strength. Look at the list above and think - which is your strongest skill, and which could use some improvement?

If I was looking at this list, I would probably say that my strongest skill is optimism – I’m a glass-half-full person. On the other hand, my impulse control could probably be improved! But remembering the point that these behaviours, thoughts and actions can be learned and developed in anyone, this exercise in self-awareness can be a first step in developing greater emotional resilience.

What can I do to build my own emotional resilience?

Reivich and Shatte (2002) identify a number of strategies for building your own emotional resilience. Some examples include:

Using the A+B=C model

Ellis (1991, 1993) and Ellis & Dryden (1997) identify this model which can help you understand the meaning of your reactions to adversity by looking at how your beliefs affect the outcomes of a situation:

  • Adversity - the situation
  • Belief - your explanation about why the situation happened
  • Consequence - the feelings and behaviours that your belief causes

This can help with: emotional regulation, impulse control, causal analysis, empathy.

Challenging beliefs

Checking out the breadth and accuracy of our understanding of events – do I know everything I need to know?

This can help with: optimism, causal analysis, empathy, self-efficacy.

Putting yourself in their shoes

Asking yourself how someone else would see the same situation and seeking to understand before being understood.

This can help with: emotional regulation, empathy, impulse control, self-efficacy.

Seeking support from others

This one many of us can find difficult - being able to ask for help reasonably and accept it graciously when offered.

This can help with: emotional regulation, impulse control, causal analysis, reaching out.

In order to challenge and change habitual behaviours, we may feel that we sound and feel a bit disingenuous at first. But as soon as these changes begin to make a noticeable difference, they will become a more natural response to situations.

So why does it matter?

Of course being emotionally resilient is important for our general well-being – it reduces our stress levels (Robertson, 2012) and supports us to maintain social and working relationships with others.

But in terms of our work as social care professionals, being emotionally resilient is important as it better enables us to tolerate difference, be more curious and to be able to appreciate other’s stand point – all crucial elements in social work. 

Interestingly, many of the behaviours that are required for emotional resilience in individuals are similar to those identified by Walsh (2006) as being key for families’ resilience. Understanding your own emotional resilience puts you in a stronger position to identify and understand these skills and qualities in the children and families that you work with.

In turn, this will help you in many of the elements of your work with them: engaging with them; assessing, observing and making meaning of their actions. It will also help you to make decisions - on the basis of these activities - about the safety and well-being of people and the best way to intervene to meet their needs both now and in the future.

These tasks, which form the core of social work, cannot be performed without emotional resilience. If they are performed by workers who are shut down, closed off and not able to tolerate emotions, then the core tasks are compromised (Howe, 2008). More resilient workers have improved relationships with service users, thus enhancing their professional practice and ultimately, improving outcomes.

So take the time to think about your own emotional resilience, not just everybody else’s. Think about the factors that can be learnt and see if you can identify them in yourself, and in the children and families you work with. These are small steps, but they can have a powerful impact, not only on your practice with children and families, but your wider life.

How do you look after your emotional resilience? Do you think it is possible to be resilient in social work? What techniques do you adopt? It would be great to hear from you below.

Research in Practice has recently published a Practice Tool, Supporting emotional resilience within social workers.

References/ further reading

Ellis, A. (1991) Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. New York: Carol.

Ellis, A. (1993) Reflections on rational-emotive therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 199-201.

Ellis, A & Dryden, W. (1997) The Practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. New York: Springer Publishing Company, Inc.

Fox, J., Leech, J. & Roberts, E. (2014) Practice Tool - Supporting emotional resilience within social workers. Dartington: Research in Practice.

Howe, D. (2008) The emotionally intelligent social worker. London: Palgrave Macmillian.

Reivich, K. and Shatte, A. (2003) The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life's Hurdles. Broadway Books

Reivich, K. (2005) The main ingredients for resilience. Available online at: http://www.centreforconfidence.co.uk/flourishing-lives.php?p=cGlkPTQ4MSZpZD0xNTc3 (accessed 8 May 2014).

Robertson, D. (2012) Build Your Resilience: Teach Yourself How to Survive and Thrive in Any Situation. Teach Yourself.

Seligman, M. (2006) Learnt Optimism. How to change your mind and your life. First Vintage Books edition.

Walsh, F. (2006) Strengthening Family Resilience (2nd ed). New York: The Guilford Press.


Share this page