Topic Social Work 2

Emotional resilience in times of crisis: how organisations can support practitioners

Published: 24/04/2020

Author: Claire Williams

Although resilience is most commonly viewed as an individual capacity: the ability to resist, ‘bounce back’ or recover from difficulties or setbacks (Grant & Kinman, 2013), more recently it has become clear that environmental conditions have a significant impact on a person’s ability to develop resilience (Grant & Kinman, 2014).

Social care practitioners are very experienced in dealing with difficult situations and their ability to be resilient is crucial for their wellbeing. They are incredibly valuable to society for the support they provide to those in need, now more than ever, as we come to terms with significant changes due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. So what is the role of organisations in creating the conditions for individuals to be resilient and in this time of national crisis what can organisations do to support practitioners?

As Grant and Kinman explain:

‘There is no consensus on the definition and meaning of resilience. It has been conceptualised as a personal trait that helps people adapt positively to adversity, as an aspect of the external environment that enables people to thrive, and as a dynamic interplay between personal characteristics and the effective utilisation of supportive environmental features.’ (Grant & Kinman, 2014).

The Social Work Organisational Resilience Diagnostic (SWORD) has been designed for the social care sector by Dr Louise Grant (University of Bedfordshire), Professor Gail Kinman (Birkbeck, University of London) and Dr Kelly Alexander (University of Bedfordshire) and was co-produced by the Research in Practice network. It is due to be launched later this spring and is in two parts:

  • A diagnostic survey, to assess organisational health and highlight priority areas for improvement.
  • An associated workbook that will provide tasks and strategies to support organisations in making improvement in those priority areas.

The aim is to shift the narrative away from merely individual responsibility and to help leaders and managers create the conditions for individuals to sustain and develop resilience. The original SWORD workbook was released last year for Children and Families Services.

During the course of the co-production of SWORD five key domains were identified and they provide the structure for the workbook: Secure Base, Sense of Appreciation, Learning Organisation, Mission and Vision, and Wellbeing.

Under each of these domains, below I will illustrate some of key evidence-informed tasks and strategies from the workbook including some quick wins than can be used to help organisations in creating the conditions for resilience even in these most unusual of circumstances.

Secure Base

‘Making sure social workers have a Secure Base within which to operate is critical to organisational resilience’ (Secure Base, SWORD).

This is difficult in these unprecedented times when practitioners have additional pressures around how to carry out statutory duties in the face of mass population isolation and when many people are working remotely.

Trying to maintain the sense of a Secure Base will be valuable to provide a sense of protection, safety and feeling cared for. This will support workers and offer resources for wellbeing and improved practice. For this to be possible practitioners need to know that support is available from managers, even in these difficult times. An ‘open-door policy’ is where managers encourage staff to come into their office at any time to discuss any issues or concerns, see page 13 of Secure Base. In these complex circumstances, managers can get creative, for example, set up a virtual open door where they could set aside a half-day session where members of the team can sign up for virtual chats. It’s vital that managers communicate clearly that they are available for staff.

‘Checking in’ is a challenge when you don’t have a physical base together, so using technology to create opportunities to interact online can be helpful. For example, ‘virtual coffee breaks’ using Skype or similar applications can work well. Fika, or sharing coffee and sweet treat with colleagues, is an important everyday activity in Sweden that encourages peer-to-peer support and develops the capacities that underpin emotional resilience read more on page. It’s useful to think about how groups can be brought together remotely for a Fika break. It is important to know we have colleagues around us, as at this time it could become easy to feel isolated and alone (see page 22, Secure Base). However it is very important to bear in mind the different ways that we process interaction on line as many people are finding video conferencing exhausting, so aim to make space between calls and move away from screens for short breaks (see below on wellbeing for more information).

Sense of Appreciation

‘Promoting a culture in which your staff feel appreciated is a Key Foundational Principle for organisational resilience’ (Sense of Appreciation, SWORD). 

As we are having many more virtual conversations and meetings, managers must ensure they are able to be somewhere where there are no distractions. It’s important to be able to listen carefully and fully understand and respond to workers and let them speak without being interrupted by phones, email or others dropping in. See page 8 of Sense of Appreciation on Mindful Listening.

Also showing gratitude is really valuable (pages 21-22 Sense of Appreciation), there is evidence that a simple ‘thank you’ from a line manager can boost feelings of self-worth and self-efficacy in employees. A hand-written note of thanks or a card from managers or colleagues, can further demonstrate genuine regard and make a big difference. Always make sure you are specific about what you are saying thank you for – so it’s clear you’ve noticed what they have done well.

Learning Organisation

‘To be resilient, an organisation needs to ensure that learning and development is at the heart of all that they do.’ (Learning Organisation, SWORD)

Organisations can learn from their experience of dealing with critical incidents – Mellor’s (undated) research on managing a major event offers a three stage approach (see page 11 of Learning Organisation):

  • Response – organisations should have mechanisms in place to help them recognise what has happened and how to respond. For the current situation this could simply be recognition that people might be struggling and dealing with pressures in different ways and some might find it harder to cope than others.
  • Resolution – organisations need to plan how to resolve the issue – this could be coming up with the support mechanisms that people need (for example those mentioned in Secure Base).
  • Recovery – organisations need to offer space for recovery – making sure there is time to adjust to the new circumstances and time for readjusting when ‘normality’ resumes.

Dr Karen Treisman (2018) provides some useful guidance and practical tips on helping organisations become more ‘culturally, adversity and trauma-informed’.

In times of crisis managers may be under additional pressures and might not always be available as support for employees. Setting up a peer coaching system could be used as an effective way to help organisations be solution focused and help to achieve goals. It could also support maintaining a sense of a Secure Base for colleagues.

Peer coaching is a relationship between two people of equal status that facilitates the achievement of specific goals and aims to:

  • Provide a structured approach to helping.
  • Enable someone to generate specific, measurable goals that are realistic but stretching.
  • Help them identify how they are going to achieve those goals.
  • Provide objective, non-evaluative feedback about how they are progressing.
  • Offer support and encouragement when they need it.

See page 13 of Learning Organisation for more information.

Mission and Vision

‘A resilient organisation knows the direction that it is travelling in. Its mission and vision are clearly defined and communicated to staff, engendering a sense of collective ownership and belonging.’ (Mission and Vision, SWORD).

As we are in a period of rapid change it’s important for organisations to manage that change as effectively as possible in the circumstances. Leaders and managers may find the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance to help organisations manage and communicate change useful:

  • The organisation provides employees with timely information to enable them to understand the reasons for proposed changes.
  • The organisation ensures adequate employee consultation on changes, and provides opportunities for employees to influence proposals.
  • Employees are aware of the probable impact of any changes to their jobs. If necessary, they are given training to support this.
  • Employees are aware of timetables for change.
  • Employees have access to relevant support during changes.


‘A resilient organisation prioritises the wellbeing of its staff and takes a systemic approach to reducing stress and enhancing job satisfaction.’ (Wellbeing, SWORD).

A key message from the Wellbeing section of the workbook is around work-life balance. For many social workers finding a healthy work-life balance can be difficult (Kalliath et al, 2012) and arguably this is even more difficult when working from home. The tips to improve work-life balance can be used when working from home and can be shared with colleagues and teams (page 22). Examples include:

  • Have regular breaks away from your desk. This will help reduce the intensity of work and get you in the habit of switching off.
  • Write a daily exit list. Jotting down what you need to do the next day will help clear you mind, and provide a sense of control and resolution. Mentally prepare yourself as you review your activities for the following day.
  • Establish an unwinding ritual. For the last 30 minutes of your working day, only start jobs that you can complete easily. Alternatively, spend time clearing your desk.
  • Find a restorative place. Spend 15-20 minutes somewhere you feel happy and relaxed. This could be a favourite chair or a place in the garden.

The role of social care practitioners is invaluable to society in ordinary circumstances, but arguably even more so in these unprecedented and challenging times. It is crucial that organisations provide support to help foster the conditions for resilience for practitioners to continue to do this essential role for children, families and people with care and support needs.

The SWORD workbook offers many more tasks and strategies to support organisational resilience, but we would also love to hear examples from organisations of initiatives to support resilience and improve wellbeing in these current circumstances so please tweet @researchIP.

Claire Williams

Claire Williams

Claire works with partners across Children’s and Adults Services and leads on specific topics for the annual delivery programme. Claire joined Research in Practice in 2018 having previously worked in Policy and Partnerships for the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield, where she worked closely with government departments and non-governmental organisations. Claire has previous experience of working in learning support for young offenders and students with disabilities and specific learning difficulties. She has a keen interest in co-production and how the perspectives of people with lived experience can be included in service design and delivery.


Grant, L. & Kinman, G. (2013). ‘Bouncing back?’: Personal representations of resilience in trainee and experienced social workers. Practice, 25(5), 349-366.

Grant, L. & Kinman, G. (2014). Developing Resilience for Social Work Practice. London: Macmillan.

Health and Safety Executive (2019). Workrelated stress, depression or anxiety statistics in Great Britain, 2019. Annual statistics, data up to March 2019.

Kalliath, P., Hughes, M., & Newcombe, P. (2012). When work and family are in conflict: Impact on psychological strain experienced by social workers in Australia. Australian Social Work, 65(3), 355-371.

Mellor S (undated). Start making a difference: Crystal thinking in turbulent times. Published online.

Research in Practice, Grant, L. & Kinman, G (2019) The Social Work Organisational Resilience Diagnostic (SWORD) Dartington: Research in Practice.

Treisman, K. (2018). Becoming a more culturally, adversity, and trauma-informed, infused, and responsive organisation. Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.