family resilience

Understanding resilience in social work students

Published: 11/03/2019

Author: Dr Louise Bunce

Social workers can experience a great deal of satisfaction by empowering people with whom they work to make positive changes to their lives, however, social work in the UK has been described as a profession that is ‘on the brink of burnout’ (UNISON, 2016). With the average career span of a social worker estimated as just eight years (Curtis et al., 2010) this is substantially shorter than other healthcare professionals.

Although the causes of burnout are multifaceted, including structural and institutional sources of stress such as excessive workloads and insufficient resources, individual psychological characteristics, such as resilience, can support social workers’ ability to cope with this demanding career.

What is resilience?

Resilience can be described as the ability to ‘bounce back’ from stressful or negative situations, and is associated with improved physical and psychological health, and less psychological distress (Marsten, 2001). Although resilient people will still experience negative emotions following stressful or traumatic events, they are able to maintain a sense of control so as not to be overwhelmed by them. With these issues in mind, a team of researchers, led by myself, conducted a project to understand more about the individual psychological factors that may support the development of resilience in trainee social workers.

What individual psychological characteristics predict resilience?

Previous research has begun to explore correlates of resilience in trainee social workers, including emotional intelligence, reflective ability, social competencies and empathy (Kinman and Grant, 2011), but more research is needed that is theoretically motivated.

New research uses self-determination theory to explore further

In the current research we attempted to replicate these findings and additionally employed a theory of wellbeing, self-determination theory (SDT) to explore whether this would increase our understanding of resilience. SDT proposes that humans have three universal psychological needs, autonomy, competence and relatedness, which must be satisfied to promote mental wellbeing (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Autonomy refers to the need for our behaviour to be self-directed as opposed to externally controlled; competence refers to the need to feel capable of achieving a particular outcome; and relatedness refers to the need to feel connected to supportive significant others and a sense of belonging.

Although previous research has yet to apply SDT to resilience, we expected that fulfilment of the three psychological needs would support the development of resilience, because of their role in promoting wellbeing. To test this hypothesis, 211 undergraduate and postgraduate social work students primarily studying in England, completed an online survey.

Self-determined behaviour may play an important role supporting resilience and promoting wellbeing

We found that the extent to which social work students felt that their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness were supported on their course, significantly positively correlated with resilience. In other words, students who experienced greater autonomy, competence and relatedness were also more resilient and subsequently experienced less psychological distress. We also replicated the relation between emotional intelligence and resilience, finding that students who were more emotionally intelligent were also more resilient, and experienced less psychological distress. However, we did not replicate the finding that reflective ability and social competences were related to more resilience, and we found mixed evidence regarding the role of empathy. These findings contradict previous research by Kinman and Grant (2011), suggesting that more research is needed to understand the impact of these psychological characteristics on resilience before drawing firm conclusions.

Despite the fact that our study was only correlational, meaning that it could not examine cause and effect, the findings nonetheless highlight important roles for emotional intelligence as well as self-determined behaviour as psychological characteristics that may support the development of resilience and reduce psychological distress.

What next?

Supporting social work students’ ability to evaluate and understand emotions appropriately in themselves and others, and supporting their needs to feel in control (autonomy), capable (competence) and connected (relatedness) are undoubtedly vital skills that may support their ability to bounce back from negative events and cope with the demands of social work. We are currently considering research to evaluate tools that may support social work students to achieve this.

You may like to reflect on your own resilience by completing this brief questionnaire and consider how you protect yourself from psychological distress. Do the findings from this latest research suggest new ways that you could consider to boost your resilience?

Louise Bunce

Dr Louise Bunce

Dr Louise Bunce is a Chartered Psychologist and Senior Lecturer in Human Development in Social Work at Oxford Brookes University. The research was carried out in collaboration with Dr Naomi King, Dr Adam Lonsdale, Jill Childs and Rob Bennie.


UNISON (2016) ‘A day in the life of social work’. Available online:

Curtis L, Moriarty J and Netten A (2010) ‘The expected working life of a social worker’ British Journal of Social Work 40 1628-1643.

Kinman G and Grant L (2011) ‘Exploring stress resilience in trainee social workers: The role of emotional and social competencies’ British Journal of Social Work 41 261-275.

Masten A (2001) ‘Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development’ American Psychologist 56 227-238.

Ryan R M and Deci E L (2000) ‘Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions’ Contemporary Educational Psychology 25 54-67.