Weathering the Storm: How can social workers maintain their emotional resilience during the coronavirus pandemic?
Sarah Rose is a social worker and PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, researching the emotional resilience of social workers.
The outbreak of the coronavirus and the impact it is having on our lives certainly feels like a stormy situation that we need to navigate as best we can. Emotional resilience helps us to cope with adversity and find ways to adapt so that we maintain our wellbeing throughout, remain functional and avoid longer term emotional repercussions. But resilience is not infinite for any of us therefore it is important to find ways to maintain it.
Based on my current research into the emotional resilience of social workers, what follows is some guidance on maintaining resilience while we ride out the storm.
Coping with uncertainty
A sense of control is associated with higher levels of resilience. So how do we remain resilient when so much is uncertain and we feel that we have little control? While things are changing so rapidly, it is helpful to take each day, hour or moment as it comes. The present moment can be a peaceful place to be. If we are fully in the present, there are no ruminations on the past or concerns about the future. Instead we concentrate on what is happening right here, right now. This can be difficult to achieve but try asking yourself: ‘What is my focus in this moment in time?’
Buddhist philosophy helpfully reminds us of the concept of impermanence. Amid all the uncertainty there is one thing of which we can be sure: this difficult situation will pass. Resilience can be seen as fuel for a journey, and the journey we are currently on will come to an end. We will then have an opportunity to rest and refuel.
In the midst of adversity it can be difficult to see any positives, particularly if your life has been significantly touched by the virus in a personal way. However, it can be useful to remember that challenging situations often bring about some kind of change, and change is neither wholly positive nor wholly negative.
Stoic philosophy and techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy remind us that, although we cannot control the situation, we can choose how we respond to it. While recognising what is difficult about life at the moment, we can reflect on positive changes; more time to read novels, finally getting around to decluttering the house or reconnecting with old friends at online dinner parties. We can take solace in hearing of the beautiful moments of care and solidarity among people that may not have emerged otherwise. Unfortunately, the return of dolphins to the waters of Venice is fake news, but maybe for once fake news is OK!
The restricted circumstances of lockdown could even be a source of inspiration as we reflect on what is particularly important to us and what positive changes we may make when life returns to normal.
Although optimism is associated with resilience, we need to acknowledge that this is a serious situation and being overly optimistic about how it unfolds may lead to disappointment and anxiety when things do not work out the way we had anticipated. On the other hand, if we catastrophise and imagine the worst possible scenario, we are also likely to become increasingly anxious and afraid. Striking a balance between the two and developing a sense of ‘hopeful realism’ can be useful to maintain resilience. Getting information from reliable sources will help to develop a more realistic understanding of what is happening, but try to have some boundaries on how much information you seek and give yourself a break from it too.
Distinguishing needs from wants
Our lives are heavily restricted during lockdown and our usual liberties greatly curtailed. Focusing on what we are lacking can increase frustration and make us feel angry and resentful. It can help to distinguish between what we need and what we want. In normal life, if we are lucky enough to live in relative abundance, it is easy to confuse the two. Now that our lives are pared back to the basics, we have the opportunity to reflect on this. For example, we may not be able to buy the exact brand of pasta we like but overall, our basic need for food is met. When we change our perspective in this way, we may develop a sense of gratitude for what we have. It can be liberating to reduce our attachment to and reliance on the things that we thought were essential but now realise are luxuries. We may even discover that a simpler way of living is good for our wellbeing.
Asking for what you need
Once you have established what you need, it is important to consider how you will get it. As none of us have experienced this situation before, we should not expect other people to know intuitively what we need to get through it so it is important that we communicate this clearly. Equally, we can try to understand other people’s needs and coping mechanisms even if they are different to our own. In this way we show empathy to each other and avoid unnecessary conflict.
Metaphorically, resilience is sometimes referred to as a currency or a resource. You are probably ‘spending’ a lot more of your resilience at the moment. Think about what you need in return for this and be assertive in asking for it. What can your teams and organisations be doing to make you feel safe, supported and valued? If you are home schooling children or caring for other relatives, your home life may be impacting on your work life more than usual. Negotiate with your manager about how you can address this.
At the best of times there are a lot of expectations on social workers and even more so during the current pandemic. Seek clarity from your organisation about what is expected of you and be as clear with service users and other professionals as you can about the boundaries of your role and what you can realistically offer in the circumstances. A sense of shared accountability is a protective factor and can help you to be resilient, so consult with your managers and wider team on practice issues. This may help you to develop a sense that expectations are of the organisation as a whole rather than you as an individual.
As resources and staffing levels are increasingly overstretched, you may find that your ability to support service users is more limited than usual. While it is wonderful to celebrate positive outcomes for service users, avoid attributing your sense of self-efficacy entirely to this. Concentrate on fulfilling your role to the best of your ability and finding satisfaction in this.
Self-expectation can often be higher than the expectations of others and detrimental to resilience. Develop a sense of self-compassion by treating yourself as you would a close friend. There are likely to be times when you feel helpless, frustrated and anxious. It isn’t easy to feel these emotions but it may help to accept that they are natural and will pass. Yoga and mindfulness practices can be useful to develop the ability to recognise your emotional responses but not judge or analyse them. Instead we learn to allow our feelings to simply be there and, in this way, we become more comfortable with them. This website has some useful resources.
Outside of work, many people are coming up with wonderful projects that they can do at home such as redecorating the house, taking up jogging or learning a new skill. That’s great if it helps but don’t give yourself a hard time if what sustains you is a night in front of the TV. Coping with the pressures of an unprecedented situation already takes us way out of our comfort zone and it might not be the time to lean even further out.
Remember that it is not unprofessional to express emotion. Indeed, it is an important part of taking care of yourself and remaining functional in your role. Try to find the opportunity to talk to people about the impact this experience is having on you emotionally. Vicarious trauma, in which you personally take on the emotions of others, is likely to decrease resilience. Reflection and emotional processing are important to reduce the likelihood of this happening.
Sometimes our emotional response to adversity is felt more strongly in the aftermath when we finally have the opportunity to reflect in more depth. When life returns to normal, teams may want to consider a forum such as peer debriefing sessions to provide space to talk about the overall impact.
Escaping from the emotional intensity of an experience without a level of emotional processing may not be effective, as the emotion you are attempting to escape from is likely to arise at some point, probably at 4am in a cold sweat. But as long as you have had the opportunity to process your emotions sufficiently, a bit of escapism can boost your resilience. Even within the confines of our lockdown lives we can find an escape by reading a novel, watching a film, taking exercise, gardening or planning a post-lockdown holiday. Whatever works for you. Humour can also be a great tonic so allow yourself to laugh and to experience, even for a moment, the lighthearted side of life.