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How poetry can help nurture compassion and empathy in social work

Ahead of Book Week Scotland, social work academics Autumn Roesch-Marsh and Ariane Critchley look at what poetry has to teach social workers

Professional Social Work magazine - 2 November, 2020

Social work is a profession that works with some of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised members of society. According to the international definition, it seeks to promote human rights and human flourishing, challenging inequality and discrimination, empowering individuals, families and communities to bring about social change and promote social justice. 

At the heart of the profession is a recognition of the importance of relationships and that social workers should, according to the British Association of Social Workers’ code of ethics, “act with integrity and treat people with compassion, empathy and care”. 

Research into the use of poetry as an aid to developing compassion and empathy among professionals is growing. Poetry helps us to enter into the experiences of others; as the eminent moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests, "the pain of another will be an object of my concern only if I acknowledge some sort of community between myself and the other".

In his writings on the moral dimensions of nursing, professor Philip J Larkin describes compassion as a willingness “to go where it hurts, to enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion and anguish... compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human”.

Empathy is closely linked to compassion and is a key element in relationship-based practice. It involves, as the humanist psychologist Carl Rogers puts it, “sensing the feelings and personal meanings which the client is experiencing in each moment” and perceiving these “from the inside, as they seem to the client” and successfully communicating “something of that understanding to the client”.

As we know, social workers face high levels of occupational stress. Anxiety, stress, depression and burnout are a recognised problem for social workers across the globe, resulting in high turnover in posts and problems with recruitment.

Occupational stress is also increasingly recognised as a major risk factor for a range of negative health outcomes including anxiety, depression, elevated blood pressure and increased stress hormone production.

In a social work context, these stressors relate to high workload, time pressures and insufficient support. Kinman and Grant, in their work focused on the resilience of newly qualified social workers, highlight how the particular risks of high emotional demands, secondary trauma, and potential for burnout are an issue not just for social workers, but for those receiving social work services.

They assert “these factors have clear potential to impair the quality of professional practice as well as the wellbeing of social workers”.

A tool to open up discussion

So how can poetry help with such issues? Poetry has the potential to promote the wellbeing of social workers in at least three ways. First, it’s a powerful aid in the development of empathy and compassion, both for service users and for themselves as social workers.

Research by psychologist Yasuhiro Kotera and others suggests developing self-compassion can be a key strategy for improving social workers’ mental wellbeing. Self-compassion has also been found to improve physical health and productivity at work, while reducing health care uptake and improving relationships in another study.

Second, poetry can be a source of emotional support and a tool for reflection and discussion with others including supervisors, colleagues, family and friends.

For these reasons poetry is increasingly being used to aid discussion and reflection in social work education. For examples, see the new course at the University of Edinburgh – Creative Social Work and the Arts and London South Bank University’s use of poetry on the PQ in Social Work Leadership

This work is supported by a growing evidence base on the value of poetry for teaching and reflection across a range of social groups. 

For all of these reasons, but also because we love poetry, we have begun experimenting with the use of poetry in our work as social work academics. These early experiments are exciting and we have recently written about them in a book about social work practice under Covid-19 which will be coming out in 2021.

In our experience, poetry can open up conversations about what we need as social workers and about the experiences and feelings faced by those who we work with and for.

We have found that giving and sharing poems is also a way of building community among social work students and of introducing important themes in teaching and learning.

We are enthusiastic about encouraging others to make more use of poetry to support their practice and we would love to hear from social workers and students who are experimenting in this way.

If you have poems that you would like to share with us, if you would like to share your experiences of using poetry, or are interested in future poetry workshops please get in touch with Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh at: a.roeschmarsh@ed.ac.uk, or follow Autumn on Twitter @DrARoeschMarsh or Ariane on Twitter @ArianeCritchley.  

Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh is senior lecturer in social work at the University of Edinburgh and Dr Ariane Critchley is a lecturer in social work at Edinburgh Napier University

Book Week Scotland

The 16 to 22 of November is Book Week Scotland, an annual celebration of books, poetry and reading that takes place across the country. As part of this week, the Scottish Association of Social Workers have put together a week filled with virtual events, including webinars, workshops and competitions, to encourage social workers to express themselves through poetry and the written word. For more information and details on how to take part click here.