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Emotions in professional social work practice


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Emotions in professional social work practice

Stefanie Dorotka

Erasmus Mundus Master’s Programme in Social Work with Families and Children

Supervisor Professor Therése Wissö

University of Gothenburg, 1st June 2018



Title: Emotions in professional social work practice Author: Stefanie Dorotka

Key words: professionalism, emotions, reflection, boundaries, social work, relationships Social workers manage demands in their everyday professional practice, handling personal emotions and requests from the organisation and the situation. This thesis explores such emotions and demands and the discrepancies arising. Emotion work in social work practice is the focus, particularly, how social workers experience and deal with discrepancies between what is expected from them and what they naturally experience in terms of emotions.

This thesis draws its findings from a qualitative approach in which semi-structured interviews with eight professional social workers in Gothenburg was employed.

Emotion theory was utilised to analyse their responses offering a different perspective on where their emotions originate from and how they deal with the conflict of their emotions.

This research sheds light on how social workers utilise reflection and boundary setting to deal with their emotions, whilst being personal and emotionally involved with their clients. The study found that the social workers’ experiences shared in this research project create a point of departure for reflection on emotions and their importance in relationship building and maintenance. If dealt with appropriately they complement social work practice, however, they have also been described as hindering professional judgement. Support from colleagues, supervisors, and self-reflection, to be aware of personal and strong emotions practitioners might carry with them, is important for emotions being complementary to professional social work practice.



Table of Contents

1 Introduction and problem description...5

1.1. Objectives...5

1.2. Purpose of the study...6

1.3. Scope of the study...6

2 Literature review...7

2.1. Research about social work as a profession...7

2.2. Social worker as friend or professional...7

2.3. Defining relationships in social work...9

2.4. Emotional wellbeing of social workers...10

2.5. Ethics in social work...11

2.5.1. Ethical guidelines and their impact on professional social work...11

2.6. The work environment and relationship building...13

3 Theoretical framework...15

3.1. Emotion theory...15

3.1.1. Definition of emotions...15

3.2. Emotions and behaviour...16

3.3. Feeling rules...17

3.4. Emotion work...17

3.5. Deep acting and surface acting...18

3.6. Transmutation...19

3.7. Emotional labour at work...19

3.7.1. The impact of emotional labour...20

3.8. Discretion in social work...20

4 Methodology...22

4.1. Qualitative research method...22

4.2. Study Sample...23

4.3. Sample size...24

4.4. Data collection...24

4.5. Data analysis...25

4.6. Reliability and validity or trustworthiness...26

4.6.1. Reflexivity...27

4.6.2. Interaction with the participants...27

4.7. Ethical considerations...28

4.7.1. Potential harm to participants...29


4.7.2. Informed consent...29

4.7.3. Confidentiality...29

4.8. Limitations and generalisability...29

5 Analysis...31

5.1. Reflection...31

5.1.1. Reflection before interacting with a client...32

5.1.2. Reflection whilst interacting with a client...33

5.1.3. Reflection after interacting with a client...34

5.2. Emotional involvement...36

5.2.1. Acting...36

5.2.2. The fine line between deep acting and natural emotions...37

5.2.3. Authenticity...38

5.3. Closeness and distance...39

5.3.1. Distance to clients...40

5.3.2. Organisations encouraging closeness...40

5.3.3. Being personal...42

5.4. Boundaries...43

5.4.1. Depersonalisation as a boundary...43

5.4.2. Boundaries between work and free time...44

5.4.3. Transparent boundaries...45

5.4.4. Boundaries and friendship...45

5.5. Time and interactions with clients...46

5.5.1. Time and its impact on change...47

6 Conclusion...49

6.1. Reflection...49

6.2. Emotional involvement...49

6.3. Closeness and distance...49

6.4. Boundaries...50

6.5. Time...50

6.6. Recommendations for research and social work practice...50

6.7. Concluding words...51

7 Bibliography...52

Appendix 1: Consent form...55

Apendix 2: Interview guide...56



There are several people in my life that made this paper possible. Firstly, I would like to thank the participants of my study for their contribution and the insightful discussions we had which are the core of this piece of work.

I want to thank my supervisor Therése Wissö for her consistent encouragement despite my negativity and self-critique being omnipresent.

I feel hugely grateful for having had the opportunity to participate in this Master program and I would like to say, “Thank you” to all my study mates as they made this experience into what it was. They were the ones that taught me about social work in their parts of the world and it was through discussions with them that I learnt the most!

I would not have been able to do all these travels and work experiences abroad without a safe haven to come back to. This is where I would like to say thank you to my family, new and old friends who encouraged and supported me on this journey. Danke für eure Unterstützung, ohne euch hätte ich was ich gemacht habe nie geschafft, denn ihr seid für mich da. Ihr habt mich zu der Person gemacht, die ich bin und ich bin dafür immens dankbar!

I want to thank another, most important person who pushed me to start this Master in the first place and has continuously encouraged me to keep going, read most of my papers, and supported me to finish this paper too. Thank you, Will for your amazing support and encouragement!

For the young people I met in Hackney and in the Change Factory in Norway – you inspire me!


1 Introduction and problem description

Social workers often face the challenge of insufficient resources for the people they work with or for the work itself. Consequently, the personal relationship between a client and a social worker moves to the forefront and provides a key resource to work with (Ruch, 2010). If such relationships are under scrutiny in terms of how they are achieved and strictly controlled and monitored emotionally, also this resource could become insufficient.

Emotions are a consistent part of social work as they are present or come up when interacting with another person. Discrepancy between expectations expressed by the organisation and personal emotions arising in social work, potentially influence social

workers’ professional judgements. Rules and regulations regarding organisational aspects, but also in terms of what should be experienced emotionally, create another angle to observe professional social work practice. Emotion rules, organisational rules, as well as feeling rules, influence each other and impact on social work.

One aspect determining how emotions are seen and dealt with is related to guidelines such as ethic codes. There are ethical guidelines and codes of conduct emphasising the importance of boundaries between personal and professional life in social work relationships.

These guidelines are put in place to protect clients from harm like exploitation or

discrimination (Reamer, 1998). Despite there being a range of ethical guidelines to monitor and define boundaries in social work relationships, they do not describe their establishment nor their administration (O’Leary, Tsui, & Ruch, 2013). O’Leary et al. (2013) conducted a literature review with focus on boundaries in social work relationships. Through their findings they established a new viewpoint on such relationships, where focus should be put on the concept of connection rather than distance (O’Leary et al., 2013). However, with expectations around professionality as well as distance in mind (Green, Gregory, & Mason, 2006),

organisations might not encourage such closeness or the discussion about arising emotions and the emotion rules present. This can lead to discrepancies experienced by the practitioner.

Since emotions contribute to how humans interpret the world around them

(Hochschild, 2012) it seems appropriate to discuss them in a social work context where strong emotions are frequent. Furthermore, emotions are different depending on cultural contexts and cultures which are ever increasing in modern cosmopolitan society. Different cultures understand emotions, relationships, and mandates in social work variously, which is an argument for further discussion about not only how they work together but also how they create discrepancies in practice. Social workers work with people from all walks of life and with all people in society, and hence focus on how emotions can impact on this work is important as it provides another angle to look at arising challenges, especially regarding face- to-face practice.

The issue at hand is that there is little attention paid to the impact emotions and feeling rules have on social work practice. Previous research dealing with emotions is mostly

interpreted from an organisational point of view, or it looks at how structural issues contribute to struggles in practice, or emphasises solely on ethical decision making (see: Alexander &

Charles, 2009; Green et al., 2006; Keinemans, 2014; Munro, 2011; Tham, 2017). This is where this study departs from as it seeks to provide a different perspective interpreting the collected data from an emotion theory point of view.

1.1. Objectives


The aim of this research project is to explore emotions in a professional social work context.

The study emphasises on aspects of relationship building and maintenance between social workers and clients. Furthermore, aspects of closeness and distance in such relationships are dealt with. An exploration of the potential discrepancy between distance and closeness in social worker-client relationships and such conflict related emotions is conducted.

Furthermore, the exploration of individual solutions as well as collective ideas about solving discrepancy and role conflict is an objective.

Three research questions were established with the goal to cover the objectives and the aim of this study. The literature review as well as the theoretical framework around emotion theory and organisational theory informed the construction of the research questions.

With this basis and the objectives in mind the first research question proposed should be answered: “How do social workers handle strong emotions in relationships with clients, individually and collectively?”

Furthermore, the research aims to explore how social workers integrate the personal self and individual characteristics into professional social work practice. This integration is looked at, both within the framework of an ethical codex and codes of conduct, as well as within perceived professionalism in the social work community, and thereby tries to answer the second research question: “How do social workers manage the balance between distance and closeness in social worker-client relationships?”

Furthermore, theory and literature concerning rules about feelings and emotional regimes in social situations and in social work practice, inform the third research question:

“How do social workers relate to feeling rules regarding emotional involvement of their clients?”

1.2. Purpose of the study

The purpose of this research is to study emotion work within social work

organisations dealing with children and families. The focus of interest lies on how social workers, employed in such posts interact with families and children.

Furthermore, the study aims to depict social workers’ coping strategies and their requirements from organisations and society to recognise these needs and to provide adequate support.

1.3. Scope of the study

Emotions in social work need further discussion due to their impact on the practice, especially in relation to face-to-face work. A focus on emotions in social work constitutes another angle to explore challenges arising in practice with clients or the organisation.

This study is relevant for social work practice due to discrepancies between what should be felt in accordance with; existing professional guidelines, ethical codes, and organisational expectations, and what actually occurs within a person’s natural inner emotional state. Such discrepancies should be reflected upon to be fully understood.

Furthermore, emotions are a topic which might not leave a staff room or a discussion between a social worker and a supervisor for fear of being scrutinised. Such fear constitutes the second reason arguing for further research regarding emotions in social work. Research can create justification for such discussions and encourage a more open way to approach emotions in professional practice. Hence, through its findings, my study aims to contribute to


a deeper discussion about emotions in social work practice utilising them as a starting point for reflection.

2 Literature review

These are areas relevant for my study: (1) Research about social work as a profession, (2) social worker as friend or professional, (3) defining relationships in social work, (4) emotional wellbeing of social workers, and (5) ethical guidelines and their impact on

professional social work. As a result, the literature review is organised utilising these aspects.

2.1. Research about social work as a profession

The following paragraphs depict the current understanding of what is considered professional in social work practice. Social work is a profession in which individuals engage with people facing challenges in their lives. This study is not going to debate if social work is a profession or not, rather the individual social workers’ skills and knowledgebase is the centre of the research project.

Munro (2008) conducted case studies in combination with analysing the history of social work training and practice and reflecting on contemporary arguments about knowledge and increasing procedural practice. The results of her study indicate a discrepancy between intuitive and analytical practice. The former being based on work experience and practice wisdom, whereas the latter is based on acquired theoretical knowledge that informs practice (Munro, 2008). Both have positive and negative aspects in practice; where the intuitive approach can be more flexible and is informed by background knowledge it can at the same time lead to errors and fallibility because of overly spontaneous decisions (Munro, 2008).

However, where analytical practice is confident because of rules and regulations, it can be slow and effortful (Munro, 2008). Munro (2008) as well as Welbourne (2012) view

professional social work as a combination of empirical research, where conclusions are based on rules, theory and logical explanations and intuition, which allow for rapid and flexible judgement upon large amounts of information. Consequently, actions in social work practice are based on combining knowledge and experience (Munro, 2008; Welbourne, 2012).

Trevithick (2008) also emphasises on this aspect when mentioning that theoretical and, factual, as well as practical, personal, and practice knowledge contribute to effective social work. The method utilised for her paper was based on analysing and connecting literature focusing on theoretical knowledge, factual knowledge and practice, and practical and personal knowledge. Similar to Munro, Trevithick’s study emphasises that social workers should utilise practical as well as theoretical knowledge. There should be a differentiation between subjective knowledge, what social workers know as individuals, and objective knowledge, which has passed critical assessments (Trevithick, 2008). Trevithick (2008) found that everyone involved in the past and present as well as everything read or experienced by the practitioner brings an input to the work.

2.2. Social worker as friend or professional

Historically there has been a change in how social work is seen by society and authorities. It has changed from social workers being friendly visitors (Reimer, 2014) to becoming experts over their clients’ lives. Currently the discussion focuses on how equality can be achieved between social workers and clients (Green et al., 2006).


Reimer (2014) conducted a small scale qualitative study with social workers in Australia, who are supporting families where neglect is an issue.

Her results indicate that social workers can be effective when utilising friendship-like approaches in their practice, however, are likely to experience guilt due to professional expectations not matching a friendship-like approach.

Green, Gregory and Mason (2006) look at literature and research based on radical, postmodern, feminist and rural social work approaches. Through their results they emphasise that finding a middle ground between professional distance and friendship-like closeness is needed to meet the demands of social work practice (Green et al., 2006). If flexibility is given for the practitioners to move between closeness and distance then greater adaptation to

varying practice situations is possible (Green et al., 2006).

The idea behind being an expert over a client’s life is that through distancing oneself, professional objectivity can be achieved (Green et al., 2006; Reimer, 2014). Such approach originates in clinical as well as therapeutic disciplines and is considered more professional than the “friendly visitor” approach.

Another reason for strict boundary setting is to maintain objectivity as well as the purpose of being efficient and to avoid emotional harm (Alexander & Charles, 2009; Prom- Boland & Anderson, 2005). Alexander and Charles (2009) explored such strict boundaries and objectivity in their research about mutuality in social work practice. They interviewed social workers who had experienced reciprocity in their relationships with clients. The result of their narrative analysis is that the interviewed social workers are aware of mutuality, and equal caring for each other, but experience it as undermining social work norms, particularly when it comes to guidelines around ethical conduct (Alexander & Charles, 2009). Prom- Boland and Anderson (2005) expand on the aspect of social work norms with their focus on how ethics is taught to social work students. Their study is based on the review of material that social work educators utilise to teach about ethics (Prom-Boland & Anderson, 2005).

They propose that social work needs to accelerate recognition that dual relationships are not falling outside the practice norm (Prom-Boland & Anderson, 2005). Rather than forbidding such relationships, focus should lie on the education of students to make ethically correct decisions and to protect their clients (Prom-Boland & Anderson, 2005).

On the one hand, a distant approach combined with ethical guidelines ensures that social workers’ clients are not subject to harm. On the other hand, social work is a political as well as value based profession (International Federation of Social Workers, 2014), which evidently hinders practitioners to be objective (Green et al., 2006). Consequently, through standing up for their clients’ values and issues practitioners contribute to significant social chance. With this contribution to the value base of social work the practice developed further, distancing itself from an expert perspective advancing to a more equal approach (Green et al., 2006).

Contemporary social work has taken a step back to where it initially started; as a

“friendly visitor” focusing on equality particularly concerning building relationships with clients (Reimer, 2014). Green et al. (2006) refer to such relationships as a “piece of elastic”, where negotiation and equality are leading aspects. Furthermore, several social work

propositions like rural, feminist, and post-modern approaches, believe that distance in the form of expert roles and professionalism can hinder social work in certain situations (Green et al., 2006; Pugh, 2007).

Pugh (2007) specifically looked at the existing literature about dual relationships in rural areas with the aim to assess the approaches used and, thereby, determine the ethical correctness of such relationships. He concludes that social workers should challenge the focus on objectivity in form of detachment, the expert role, and professional practice (Pugh, 2007).


For instance, in rural social work flexible relationships can facilitate a more effective and empowering practice (Green et al., 2006; Pugh, 2007).

In such rural communities social work practice is not effective if social workers fail to accept the presence of so called dual-relationships; meaning, the social worker is engaged

professionally but also has a personal connection with a client (Pugh, 2007). These

approaches suggest that social workers and their clients should be in a partnership rather than in a hierarchical relationship influenced by constructed power differences (Green et al., 2006).

There are positive as well as negative aspects connected with professionalism in social work. Social work has tried to achieve being seen as a profession by introducing ethical guidelines, codes of conduct, and accredited courses at university (Green et al., 2006).

Consequently, this allows for social workers to influence on policy level, achieving social change, as well as contributing to higher practice norms based on ethical standards (Green et al., 2006). Conversely, professionalism in social work can be understood as creating business- like structures. Meaning, the more a social worker is professionally distant the higher the value of their work seems to be (Green et al., 2006). This is another viewpoint on how social work practice can be interpreted, where emotionally distant social work can be sold at high prices as it is considered more professional (Green et al., 2006). This leads to question how social work relationships generally look. Hence, the next section focuses on different forms of relationships and how this relates to the above described construction of professionalism within social work.

2.3. Defining relationships in social work

Social work has different mandates in different situations. Hence, social workers carry out varying tasks either for public or private organisations in addition to promoting social change. Social work responds to the needs of a population. This response is either employed by governmental or non-governmental organisations. Each organisation defines through their objectives how social workers and clients meet and how their relationship should be

constructed (O’Leary et al., 2013). Throughout the development of social work different frameworks for social work were discussed. Such theories as well as approaches are useful when wanting to relate incidents in practice to theory when seeking explanations of behaviour or to plan interventions.

To provide an example, Carl Rogers, a representative figure of humanistic psychology and structuralism, saw relationships with clients as bonds that need to be established on the grounds of genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard (Rogers, 1957). Another example could be how approaches in rural social work focus on equality and power

imbalances in social worker-client relationships (Pugh, 2007).

Some theories and ideologies lack explanation in regard to how social work relationships are built, how boundaries are constructed, and how these relations are maintained (O’Leary et al., 2013). Furthermore, research shows that the method used in practice has less impact on the effectiveness of social work; it is rather the quality of the relationship that influences the effectiveness of interventions (O’Leary et al., 2013; Reimer, 2014; Trevithick, 2003). Through a review of literature on social worker-client relationship Trevithick (2003) explores why such connections are essential to discuss. What she finds is similar to Reimer’s and Pugh’s conclusions; the importance of emphasis on sustainable partnerships with clients (Trevithick, 2003).

Reimer (2014) writes about how friendship-like relationships in social work interventions can be helpful. The author emphasises that due to the nature of social work,


being personal work with human needs to be met, the professional can hardly be separated from the personal traits of the social worker (Reimer, 2014). She comes to this conclusion through conducting research with social workers; interviewing them about the meaning of relationship in social work practice when dealing with neglect in Australia (Reimer, 2014).

When Pugh (2007) describes the difference between friendship and a professional relationship, he points out the latter as being inclusive of hierarchical elements that are shown by for instance having to book appointments. Reimer (2014) found through her research project that these hierarchies do not have to always exist as they may hinder effective social work. She further elaborates that balancing personal and professional aspects has an impact on social workers (Reimer, 2014). Such impacts are described as mostly negative for the social worker (Reimer, 2014). Where empathy and closeness helps to create a relationship and grounds to work on it (Alexander & Charles, 2009), conversely, enhances emotional stress connected to a close knit relationship (Reimer, 2014). Such emotional stress is also discussed in a Swedish longitudinal study examining the changes in the child protection field. The study shows that 76 percent of the respondents see their work as mentally stressful and 65 percent admit to thinking about work in their free time (Tham, 2017).

Relationships are central in social work. Focusing on relationships encourages in- depth dealing with individuals and motivates strong and informed connections of social workers with their clients. Such connection is a resource that should be utilised in practice.

When working with clients, social workers need to utilise themselves and be aware of their emotional involvement and boundary setting as well as reflect on their practice both

individually and collectively (Doel, 2010; Smith, 2010; Turney, 2010). Such reflection is discussed in the book about relationship based approaches by Ruch, Turney, and Ward (2010). The authors base their book on case studies and theoretical discussions based on their interests in psychosocial, psychodynamic and systemic approaches. Their main discussion points are that relationship building and maintenance are important for social work practice and that it is supported with supervision allowing the opportunity to learn about oneself and, subsequently, influence practice through personal experience (Ruch et al., 2010).

Personal history, experiences, and previous relationships form the personality in the present (Fineman, 2003). Painful experiences in the past influence how humans deal with an emotional challenge posed in the present as one can be confronted with stories from clients that may resemble personal experiences.

2.4. Emotional wellbeing of social workers

Social workers face challenges when interacting with families or individuals who are difficult to engage. Such situations are common in social work practice and require both motivation and creativity. Several social workers in Tham’s study in Sweden recognise changes in their mental wellbeing when practicing (Tham, 2017). When working with clients who present complex issues and are hard to engage the risk for social workers to feel hopeless or helpless is high (Reimer, 2014). Reimer conducted a study with family support workers in Australia, dealing with families where negligence is an issue. The social workers find

themselves between a professional discourse about boundaries and distance, and their interpretation of relationship building. Professional boundaries are, certainly, important to protect social workers as well as clients from harm, to focus on specific tasks, and to decrease power imbalances (Reimer, 2014). However, a distant relationship between social workers and clients appears to be less valued by clients compared to a close one (Trevithick, 2003).

Hence, social workers stand in between two opposing aspects of their work. Such discrepancy is discussed in Reimer’s study where practitioners utilise friendship-like approaches when building relationships with their clients. She found that social workers who are closer to the


families they work with, due to the approach they take, often feel guilt and regret their approach even if it proves to be effective (Reimer, 2014). Such guilt stems from discrepancy between professional expectations and their individual way of working in close knit

friendship-like ways with clients (Reimer, 2014).

The reasons social workers voiced for utilising closeness as an approach are; to create a relaxed environment, to meet a human need, and to make themselves more human through self-disclosure (Reimer, 2014). Felt closeness to clients impacts negatively on practitioners since they are out of line with professional expectations which is subsequently fed back to them as unprofessionalism by colleagues (Reimer, 2014).

This study shows how professionalism and being close to clients does not go hand in hand due to expectations and guidelines present. Despite the social workers achieving good results their approach drew negative attention (Reimer, 2014).

Closeness to clients in professional social work relationships is recognised as complex leading to rules and regulations, ethical codes, and policies being introduced to prevent dependant relationships and closeness associated crimes (Turney, 2010). The next paragraphs will talk about how ethical guidelines influence this aspect of social work practice.

2.5. Ethics in social work

In addition to theories and approaches social workers are also faced with international and national codes of ethics and codes of conduct proposing guidelines within an

organisation. These guidelines can be found in publications from the International Federation of Social Work as well as in institutions’ internal policy and practice protocols with the purpose of regulating the relationships between social workers and clients (International Federation of Social Workers, 2018). In regard to Sweden the ethical guidelines are published by Akademikerförbundet SSR (2015). Such guidelines add to the complexity of building a relationship in a social work context as they propose specific ideas and may shape the social workers’ thoughts and expectations around what professional practice is. The next paragraphs bring the above-mentioned literature and ideas into context with existing ethical guidelines regarding relationships in social work.

2.5.1. Ethical guidelines and their impact on professional social work

Discrepancy can be found in regard to closeness and distance in relationship building and facilitation of relations in social work practice. This ranges from social workers creating strict and rigid boundaries of closeness and having equal responsibilities in a client-social worker relationship.

Social work practice and education encourages practitioners to reflect on ethical challenges and follow certain codes of conduct proposed by workplaces and various national and international associations of social work (Prom-Boland & Anderson, 2005). The reason for this encouragement is potential harm posed to clients in social work relationships

(Reamer, 2003). This is why such eventuality of negative impacts on clients is discussed and recognised through codes of ethics and conduct (Reamer, 2003). Reamer (2003) discusses literature about boundary issues in social work practice and aims to provide guidelines to support social workers managing such issues. He argues that social workers, whichever position they hold, will be confronted with dual-relationships at some stage in their career (Reamer, 2003).

This is when different emotions in the complexity of a relationship between a social worker and a client arise; standing between being close and distant. Keinemans (2014)


advises that emotions in social work education and ethics are relevant for moral decision making. She reviewed recent research about ethical decision-making processes in social work and came to the conclusion of proposing greater in-depth learning about emotions in social work education (Keinemans, 2014). There are two different ways to look at emotions and ethics and their utility in social work practice; they either function well together, or they do not.

On the one hand, emotions can be interpreted as dysfunctional in ethical decision making as they are seen to discourage objectivity in moral decision making (Keinemans, 2014). On the other hand, Keinemans’ (2014) findings indicate that emotions support moral decision making as they indicate values that should be considered and help to understand the client’s emotions.

If emotions are not taken into consideration we are at risk of losing a significant input when dealing with moral dimensions in practice (Keinemans, 2014).

To regulate moral practicing, ethical codes were introduced and are present in social work practice and education. Different countries own various codes of ethics, including Sweden with the “Ethics in Social Work - A code of conduct and ethical behaviour for social worker” by Akademikerförbundet SSR (2015). The next paragraphs will concern the

Statement of ethical principles proposed by the International Federation of Social workers as well as the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers as they show discrepancies in how relationships should be built and maintained in social work practice.

In this example from the “Global Social Work Statement of Ethical principles” by the International Federation of Social Workers (2018) a reference to emotions can be found in connection to the social worker-client relationship:

“Recognizing the inherent dignity of all human beings, social workers work towards empathetic relationships and making being for the Other (people who social workers work with or on behalf of) one of the foundations of ethical practice, where the social worker accords the unique Other that priority assigned to the Self. The idea is to treat all people as they want to be treated and as we would like to be treated”

(International Federation of Social Workers, 2018, para. 1.1).

This statement refers to how relationships with clients should be understood, focussing on dignity, empathy, and the aspect of treating clients the way they want to be treated.

Another statement from the same document describing ethical standards, talks about how professional boundaries should be set between social workers and clients:

“Social workers must act with integrity. This includes not abusing their positions of power and relationships of trust with people that they engage with; they recognize the boundaries between personal and professional life, and do not abuse their positions for personal material benefit or gain” (International Federation of Social Workers, 2018, para. 9.4).

This paragraph rightly emphasises on potential abuse in social worker-client

relationships and recognises the necessity for boundaries between personal and professional life as a guideline. While the International Federation of Social Workers is trying to set ethical standards for social work practice two maybe conflicting aspects are mentioned. On the one hand, social workers are expected to show empathetic behaviour and treat clients with dignity (International Federation of Social Workers, 2018). On the other hand, they should not mix personal and professional aspects when practicing (International Federation of Social Workers, 2018).


Such proposed guidelines may restrict practitioners from building necessary relationships with clients possibly limiting effectiveness of interventions (Alexander &

Charles, 2009) and might restrict social workers from relying on their emotions for ethical decision making (Keinemans, 2014).

Examples of this discrepancy can be found in any field of social work, where individuals receiving support find that their social workers are distant.

Lindahl and Bruhn (2017) provide an example illustrating how young people in care do not feel understood by professionals and that it is an exception if they develop a good relationship with a social worker. This can be perceived as a lack of understanding, despite the young people being vocal regarding their ideas about building meaningful relationships. Such undermined ideas could include that social workers should; be kind, happy, funny, honest and authentic, and they should be someone to share difficult topics with (Lindahl & Bruhn, 2017).

While this feedback makes it seem as if social work is not effective enough without a personal relationship, ethical guidelines and codes of conduct emphasise that social work is not considered sufficient without professional boundaries (International Federation of Social Workers, 2018; NASW, 2008). There appears to be a conflict when thinking about

professional social work behaviour and relationship building. Alexander and Charles (2009) mention this disconnection in their study about mutuality in social worker-client relationships.

They state what the example above illustrates, that relationships with clients are expected, but at the same time social workers ought to be professional (Alexander & Charles, 2009). In this context being professional means being distant, objective, and focus on facts instead of concentrating on relational skills (Alexander & Charles, 2009).

There is a need for rules and regulations regarding ethical behaviour but it should be considered that conflicting guidelines as well as promoting professional distance in a caring profession can create a conflict for the practitioner. The reason for existing ethical rules is the prevention from harm to the client through the social worker (Alexander & Charles, 2009;

Prom-Boland & Anderson, 2005). This being a valid and important aspect, and it needs to be reflected on if stating that professional and personal life should be separate (International Federation of Social Workers, 2018). Another example is the National Association of Social workers who emphasise in their document “Code of Ethics” that any relationship outside the professional one is prohibited (NASW, 2008). There should be a move from forbidding relationships outside professional boundaries to putting emphasis on the responsibility social workers have when they engage in one (Prom-Boland & Anderson, 2005).

Furthermore, this prohibition for social workers assumes that clients are passive receivers of either positive or negative relationships (Alexander & Charles, 2009). However, clients can lead relationships by identifying boundaries and expressing the wish of distance or closeness to their social worker (Alexander & Charles, 2009). It would almost be unethical to believe that only the social worker has the power to decide which relationship they want to engage clients into.

2.6. The work environment and relationship building

The organisation, education, national laws, organisational policies and codes of conduct, personal preferences, and available resources all influence how close or distant a relationship can be and what impact this has on the work.

A study that has been of importance for this research project depicts the current working environment for social workers in Sweden, Stockholm area. It is relevant as it contextualises the Swedish social care system describing the change of resource provision and the general working environment for social workers (Tham, 2017). This study is a


longitudinal research project where social workers in child welfare organisations were asked about their work conditions (Tham, 2017). The data was collected at two different points in time; once in 2003 and then again in 2014. The results display a deterioration of work conditions between the two points of data collection. High work demands, problems in recruitment, staff turnover, and resource cuts make such positions less attractive for social workers and result in social workers having less time to spend in direct contact with clients (Tham, 2017).

One significant change is that in 2003, 84 percent of social workers described their job as giving advice and support, while in 2014 this figure has decreased to 45 percent (Tham, 2017). This demonstrates how there has been a change in the working environment which evidently changes the subjective opinion about the work task. This study depicts how organisational aspects influence the practitioners’ possibility to work face-to-face with their client.

Alexander and Charles (2009) write about similar results in their article about closeness and distance in social work relationships. This study took place in Canada where social workers from varying fields were interviewed regarding mutual caring in social worker-client relationships. Similarly, to Tham (2017) in Sweden, Alexander and Charles (2009) found a disconnection between how social workers are trained and how they work in the field. Both emphasise on the discrepancy between what ought to be professional and the reality and emotions involved in building sustainable relationships. Alexander and Charles (2009) describe professionality as something that helps to create objectivity and is connected to efficiency through the utilisation of tools rather than relational skills. Demand for

professionality, aiming to yield greater control over practice through effectiveness and

efficiency, has increased (Evans, 2013). This resonates with the changes found in the Swedish social care system; high work demands, less control, little role clarity, and role conflict lead to less satisfaction and high staff turnover (Tham, 2017). Furthermore, these changes impact on a social worker’s ability to build sustainable relationships as less time is given to do so (Alexander & Charles, 2009; Tham, 2017).

Despite the obvious differences of the two studies, in terms of which social workers were asked and where it took place, similarities can be found. Both studies describe social workers’ emphasis on connecting with their clients and that organisational structures may influence this way of working. To further go in depth about emotional involvement with clients the next chapter focusses on the theoretical framework around this research project.


3 Theoretical framework

Social workers should solve dilemmas, support through crisis, and engage with people who might not want to engage with them. These practitioners are primarily utilising

themselves as their main tool. Consequently, emotions are part of such practice and, in this research project, provide the direction to analyse the collected data from. Emotion theory with its aspects of emotion work, acting, and feeling rules construct the basis for this analysis (Hochschild, 2012).

Social workers conduct emotion work when they utilise their experience and

education to respond appropriately to stress, crisis, affection, sadness, or anger displayed by their clients. A social work relationship is not an incidental encounter between two random people, but a purposeful meeting between a person who is paid to work as a supporter and a person in distress (Ward, 2010). Alongside the expectations that come with financial payment certain rules, policies, and ethical guidelines directing how social workers ought to act in specific situations are present. Social workers must work under the organisations’ rules and societies’ expectations despite potentially being drawn towards alternative approaches such as the by Reimer described “friendship-like approach” (Reimer, 2014). Emotions are influencing how we interpret our environment (Hochschild, 2012), therefore are crucial in social work as the understanding of a client’s lifeworld is an important social work task. Social work

relationships are complex and this analysis puts emphasis on the role emotions play in such complexity.

3.1. Emotion theory

3.1.1. Definition of emotions

There are several definitions of emotion. And various expressions like feelings or moods are interchangeably utilised to describe what is happening within oneself. Emotions are difficult to define and not having a clear description can lead to misunderstandings. There is a discussion amongst professionals and practitioners about what an appropriate and clear definition of emotions should look like (Keinemans, 2014).

This paper uses the term emotion in-line with the definitions mentioned in articles by Mulligan and Scherer (2012), Barbalet (2004) and Hochschild (2012).

Mulligan and Scherer (2012) refer to emotion as an affective process which happens within an episode and is directed at, and influenced by, something or someone. It contains bodily changes that are felt and is perceived by the person experiencing it.

Another definition is presented by Barbalet (2004) who suggests to see emotion in relationship with reason to understand its function and purpose. He writes about three models describing the relationship between emotion and reason; the conventional, the critical, and the radical model (Barbalet, 2004).


Firstly, the conventional model sees emotion being the opposite of reason; where the one is defined by what the other is not. In this model emotions are seen to distract people from their purpose (Barbalet, 2004). This model leads directly to the second, the critical model, which describes the relationship between emotion and rationality as supportive of each other. If emotions can distract from a purpose they can then also establish what the new purpose might be. The critical model claims that emotions support reason providing solutions where rationality is at its end (Barbalet, 2004). Thirdly, the radical model sees emotion and rationality as being continuous, meaning that “intellect, will, taste, and passion support each other” (Barbalet, 2004, p.45).

When emotion theory was first discussed no other sociological theory of emotions was present. Like Barbalet, Hochschild writes about the relationship between emotions and rationality, the latter being superior over the former (Barbalet, 2004; Hochschild, 1975).

Emotions were seen to hinder productivity hence were not priority when establishing theories at the time (Hochschild, 1975). Hochschild further elaborates that the debate about emotions is part of sociologists’ ongoing challenge to be considered scientific where only objective aspects of social life seem to be representative.

In current literature about social work a connection with the opinion on the link between rationality and emotion can be found. For instance, Green, Gregory and Mason (2006) as well as Tham (2017) talk about how social work is becoming more business oriented with focus on efficiency and box ticking rather than emphasising on emotions and building sustainable relationships with clients. However, it is evident that if science wants to understand society and research in the field of sociology a discussion about emotions and feelings cannot be ignored (Hochschild, 1975).

Theories about emotions have been utilised to analyse the collected data. Feeling rules and their impact on the social worker’s behaviour and subsequent reaction to emotions are the focus. This analysis is centred around understanding emotions as affective processes,

occurring in an episode (Mulligan & Scherer, 2012). Thereby implying that emotions are considered to hold information and that they can be evaluated (Mulligan & Scherer, 2012).

3.2. Emotions and behaviour

Emotions lead to behaviour in a social context and, therefore, can be interpreted in relation to each other. Hochschild distinguishes between primary emotions and secondary behaviour as possible approaches on the social ordering of emotive experiences (Hochschild, 1979). Behaviour like for instance an angry, spontaneous outburst can be a result of a primary emotion experienced in a potentially stressful situation (Hochschild, 1979). Primary emotions leading to an angry outburst can be the result of non-reflective thought (Hochschild, 1979).

Secondary behaviour can be understood as the act of reflecting on the primary emotions which led a person to contemplate what they felt and subsequently behaved (Hochschild, 1979).

Barbalet (2004) also points out a distinction between primary and secondary emotions:

primary emotions are “preorganised” and secondary emotions are modified by learning.

However, he brings up the example of fear which can be interpreted as both; a primary emotion as a result of stimulus, without preconditioning, and as a secondary emotion that can also be the result of having learnt that certain things can be dangerous for oneself, for

instance, cars on a busy road on the way to school (Barbalet, 2004). Thus, both secondary and primary emotions influence behaviour but mostly “secondary emotions learn from experience and guide motion” (Barbalet, 2004, p.43).


On the one hand, it is of interest how social factors impact on what people feel

(primary emotions in focus), and on the other hand, how social factors impact on what people think and do about what they feel (secondary behaviour in focus) (Hochschild, 1975).

Consequently, the environment and social situations a person is in plays an important role when speaking about personal experiences. For instance, when conducting research the statement about an experience made by an interviewee should always be seen in connection to the context the person was in (Hochschild, 1975). Consequently, expressing emotions about an experience can be connected to the capability of being able to adapt to feel and vice versa (secondary behaviour). Emotions get attributed meaning once they are seen in context. An example is how a person expresses oneself and what the other person understands needs to be understood in relation to what the underlying emotion, or “feeling rules”, of the

communication are (Hochschild, 1975).

3.3. Feeling rules

Before discussing emotions, feelings, and behaviour in depth the difference between emotions and feelings needs to be addressed. According to Mulligan and Scherer (2012) feelings and emotions are not interchangeable synonyms of each other. Mulligan and Scherer (2012) propose an idea how to differentiate a feeling from emotions:

“…[I] propose to use feeling as the denominator for the integrative component of emotion, bringing together feedback or proprioception from all other components and making it available for mental representation and communication” (Mulligan &

Scherer, 2012, p. 354)

They see feelings as an interpretation of an emotion, considering external influences and making it available to be communicated. In comparison, the word emotion describes short lived phenomena and activates goal relevant thoughts (Mulligan & Scherer, 2012; Reddy, 2001).

Hochschild describes feelings as something that happen before an action, similar to scripts before a performance (Hochschild, 2012). Hochschild describes such feelings as a

“powerful tool for directing action” (Hochschild, 2012, p.56). She calls a feeling occurring before an action, “feeling rules”, and describes it as the driving force behind emotion work (Hochschild, 2012). Depending on the social situation, feeling rules can either be explicit or implicit in influencing how one feels in a specific situation. Such rules can be utilised by individuals or regimes creating emotional regimes where such rules become normative (Reddy, 2001).

An example relating to social work is that practitioners should be open, receiving each client with equal respect. However, being human, there are clients with whom social workers find it easier to connect with than others. Should there be a client that a social worker struggles to work with, discrepancy between what the practitioner should feel, “the feeling rule”, and what is actually felt, occurs. Such feeling rules keep society in check with what the appropriate emotional response in specific situations is (Hochschild, 1979). Hence, such rules should be seen in a cultural context as one rule might apply in one country but not in another.

On a macro level emotions are politically significant as they provide a platform for influence on the life of individuals (Reddy, 2001). Hence, political regimes might resort to establishing a normative order for emotions (Reddy, 2001). This would mean that feeling rules, as Hochschild describes them become explicit and formal. Penalties control that individuals keep to the emotional regime (Reddy, 2001). Different social settings are characterised by different emotional regimes; strict regimes offer tools to manage emotions but reduce self-exploration; loose regimes allow for self-exploration and a range of tools to


manage emotions individually and in groups (Reddy, 2001). Strict regimes might request individuals to act according to prescribed normative emotions, for instance to show respect to elderly, and proscribe penalties if they are not followed.

Feeling rules or such emotional regimes can also be laid out by social work

organisations and influence how work is conducted. If there is a discrepancy between what is felt and what ought to be felt emotion work moves into focus.

3.4. Emotion work

When trying to be happy at a celebration or sad when someone has passed away even though happiness or sadness is not present, emotion work is being done.

Hochschild (1979) describes emotion work as an act of changing an emotion; one has to work on an emotion to change the behavioural outcome or the emotional reaction (Hochschild, 1979). There are two types of emotion work: (1) evocation, where one tries to evoke a specific emotion which is absent and (2) suppression, where one is working on an undesired present emotion in order to change it (Hochschild, 1979). For instance, in social work practice a social worker might have to put him- or herself in the client’s position. Such modification of emotions can be a response to the discrepancy felt between one’s own emotions and the feeling rules or certain expectations present.

There are several techniques of emotion work that are utilised in different contexts.

For example a person can try and change own ideas cognitively with the aim to manipulate the connected emotion with an idea (Hochschild, 1979). A person may be emotionally aroused and through some bodily action calm themselves down, which can be seen as an attempt to modify physical reactions to an emotion (Hochschild, 1979). Another technique is to change body language or spoken words with the aim to change the underlying emotion (Hochschild, 1979), for instance if one is trying to smile despite being sad.

When looking at how emotion work is perceived by others the consideration of the relationship between two people communicating is important. On the one hand, if they know each other well, the knowledge they have about each other affects the interpretation of behaviour and emotions (Hochschild, 1975). On the other hand, the more distant or unknown the other person is the more an individual has to rely on public knowledge about that person (Hochschild, 1975). For instance, when a social worker meets a new client, the practitioner will have to rely on what has been said in documentation about this client, and vice versa, before meeting the social worker, the client has to base all knowledge on what is generally known about social workers. Cultural differences in how emotions are translated should be taken into consideration at that point: a smile in one society may not mean the same in another and may also be feigned by a person to seem polite, not because they are actually displaying happiness (Fineman, 2003; Hochschild, 1975).

The interpretation of an expression is connected to how confident one is in that person’s emotion. For example, if a client has been greeted by a social worker with the same welcoming smile, but always had negative experiences, the value of that expression will fall and confidence in being welcomed might deteriorate. This is where Barbalet's (2004) viewpoint of emotions having to be seen in relation becomes evident.

When discussing emotion work a certain aspect of acting is needed to make emotions correspond to existing “feeling rules”. Hochschild refers to two different ways of managing emotions, deep acting and surface acting (2012).

3.5. Deep acting and surface acting


When manipulating an emotion Hochschild describes two different ways of acting;

surface acting and deep acting. The former occurs when an individual changes the body language but not the actual emotion (Hochschild, 2012). The aim is to achieve a certain reaction from the person one is performing for. In contrast, deep acting means that a person is working on an emotion trying to achieve a spontaneous expression of that real emotion. The difference between the two is that a person performing deep acting does not try to seem sad rather the sadness is a result of the work done on the emotion (Hochschild, 2012). Deep acting can be achieved through either, directly encouraging emotions, or utilising trained images (Hochschild, 2012). Since society established social codes and customs for specific situations some amount of acting is required to fit into the given system. Not appropriate feelings, according to the cultural code, or feeling rules present, can create discrepancy within oneself, for instance if one feels relived after the death of a parent rather than sad (Hochschild, 2012).

Hence, it is visible to others and people can feel it themselves if an emotion does not fit into the context.

3.6. Transmutation

Since social work is a profession introduced to meet the population’s needs, certain expectations are applied to practitioners. Private emotions and feeling rules occur in social work practice and may be reinforced by the organisation (Fineman, 2003; Hochschild, 2012).

When an organisation takes private emotions trying to impose them on the employees who in return act according to the expected “feeling rules” Hochschild speaks of transmutation (Hochschild, 2012). Transmutation is achieved when a person successfully changes an emotion according to social expectation (Hochschild, 2012), for instance if there is a link between trying to be a receptive host at a private gathering and making a client feel welcome at a meeting. On the one hand such transmutation is good for the social worker as they can act according to the rules present in society and the organisation. On the other hand,

transmutation may reduce the social workers’ abilities to rely on their natural emotions.

Hence, transmutation can have two opposing impacts; firstly, if it succeeds the worker may lose the signal function of emotions as all will be acted upon “feeling rules” and natural emotions might be neglected; secondly, if transmutation fails, the signal function of acting may be at risk as more spontaneous and natural emotions are being followed, leading to uncontrolled emotional expressions (Hochschild, 2012).

Barbalet (2004) agrees with Hochschild (2012) when she points out that such

emotional labour in form of transmutation can have an impact on a person’s ability to feel. He further continues that such transmutation can be interpreted as being part of capitalistic structures in which workers are being exploited of their products, which in this case is emotional labour (Barbalet, 2004).

Transmutation can be understood as being beneficial for an organisation and regimes which wants to have prescribed emotions dominate. However, it impacts negatively on the workers as it forces acting instead of relying, reflecting, or acting on natural emotions, for the benefit of the organisation’s or regime’s aim.

3.7. Emotional labour at work

Difficulties may arise when emotion work is supposed to be performed in social work practice, especially when a person struggles to identify with the work role. Hochschild (2012) writes about how one may depersonalise in a situation; distancing oneself emotionally from


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