Metaphors of Resilience
For my current doctoral research, I interviewed social workers to explore their understanding and experience of emotional resilience in relation to their role. They understood that emotional resilience is broadly about coping with adversity but, as the interviews progressed, I became aware of their frequent references to physical concepts of resilience in order to describe their emotional experiences. Having read Lakoff and Johnson’s ‘Metaphors We Live By’ (1980) a few years ago, I had become curious about how much of everyday speech is based on metaphor. In contrast to classic theories of metaphor which assert that it is only used poetically and figuratively, Lakoff and Johnson propose that it is widely used in communication, particularly when talking about abstract concepts, and can tell us a great deal about how we make sense of our everyday experiences.
I wondered what the particular metaphors used by the social workers in my study may communicate about emotional resilience that was not being said in a more direct and literal way. In this article, I will present some of these metaphors and discuss how they may illuminate our understanding of emotional resilience in relation to the social work role.
Steady as a rock: Resilience as solidity and stability
There were many references made by social workers to emotional resilience as a form of solidity including ideas of stability, steadiness and toughness. One social worker defined it as ‘an invisible thing to be built like boundaries’ and another as a “buffer” that could either be “a nice big barrier” or “a little thin veneer”. Others commented that it was about being “thick skinned”, “emotionally tough”, “being a rock” and having a “solid base.” They recognised the vulnerability of their emotional resilience and made references to “being broken”, “having a melt-down” “being spread too thinly” and “fraying at the seams.” One noted that even experienced social workers can “crumble.”
A material object may be able to withstand some amount of physical pressure but there is a breaking point depending on the strength of the object in relation to the extent of the pressure. This metaphor suggests that emotional resilience has a breaking point that is reached when the pressure placed on someone outweighs their ability to cope. Both the quantity and intensity of challenges are relevant; one small pebble thrown at you may have little impact but many small pebbles or one large rock can knock you down. The social workers I spoke to talked much more about the ongoing pressure of heavy workloads and complex bureaucratic processes, the small pebbles, rather than single stressful events. This is reflected in research by Grant et al (2014), which found that low-level stressors offer little opportunity for recovery and therefore have a greater impact on emotional resilience.
Although a ‘nice big barrier’ can be protective to emotional resilience, it may create a potential conflict with the ‘softer’ skills involved in building relationships with service users. One social worker pointed out the pitfalls of “putting that wall up and being like that’s fine, it’s just a job” indicating that this level of self-protection may compromise the empathy necessary to carry out the social work role effectively. A challenge for social workers is to create a veneer that is strong enough to maintain their emotional resilience but not so impenetrable that they lose their capacity to engage empathetically with service users.
Filling the tank: Resilience as fuel
Resilience was described by the social workers in my study as a “reserve” that you sometimes have to “dig deep” for, and that can “drain away” or “be depleted if it is used.” There were several references to the need to “recharge” and “top up the batteries.” The well-known term “burn-out” to describe workers experiencing emotional exhaustion and low motivation, is itself a metaphor indicating that all the fuel has burned away and the person cannot run on empty.
The idea of emotional resilience as a fuel tank offers a more nuanced view than that of solidity, as it highlights how resilience can fluctuate. According to one social worker “some things deplete the tank and some things top it up.” Similarly, in the literature emotional resilience is often considered to involve a combination of risk and protective factors (e.g. Luthar & Cicchetti, 2000; Maston & Coatsworth, 1998; Rutter, 1993); the risk factors deplete the tank and the protective factors top it up. Some of the social workers in my study described dealing with challenges in their personal lives and, as a consequence, having a lower level of resilience to deal with challenges at work. Likewise, experiences at work can impact on personal life, and a neat work/life balance may be hard to achieve.
From the idea of resilience as fuel, there also emerged a sense of a journey and the need to be able to “move forwards.” This can be a challenge when, in the words of one social worker “you solve one crisis and you know there's another one just waiting around the corner.” As well as the pressures of crisis work, most of the social workers I spoke to referred to the demands of workload with one stating that the ongoing allocation of work made her feel that “there’s no end to this.” To remain emotionally resilient there needs to be “light at the end of the tunnel.” Seery et al, in their study of the effects of cumulative adversity, suggest that while exposure to some level of adversity can promote the development of resilience by increasing coping capacity, “adequate opportunity for recovery between stressors” (2010, p.1037) is necessary for this to happen. Recent research into the impact of austerity indicated that 90% of social workers were considering leaving their jobs (Unison Scotland, 2019). When there is no light at the end of the tunnel, many social workers evidently see the only option as ending their journey. Flexible working patterns may enable social workers to build in opportunities to refuel alongside caseload management and fair allocation policies that do not deplete reserves to the same extent.
Staying afloat: Resilience as buoyancy
The ability to ‘stay afloat’ was a metaphor commonly used by the social workers in my study. One experienced worker felt that she had a role in “buoying things up with new staff” while another was regretful that he found himself “watching colleagues drown.” The social work role was depicted as being “chucked in at the deep end” and one that “would swamp you if you weren’t resilient” while emotional resilience was felt to involve “being able to float with the tide rather than fight against it.”
Again, there is a sense of a point beyond which individuals can no longer tolerate pressure however the buoyancy metaphor also points to the need for external resources and support. We may be able to use our internal strength to stay afloat for a while but when this has been exhausted there is the possibility of being rescued from drowning by the person who, as one social worker put it, “pulls you out of the swimming pool.” The role of external intervention to support emotional resilience has been emphasised by those who advocate for an ecological approach to resilience and seek to move away from seeing it as only as a personal responsibility (e.g. Garrett, 2015; Neocleous, 2013; Ungar, 2018). Desmond Tutu’s famous quote uses the same metaphor as a reminder to examine the root causes of adversity;
“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
If the focus is on enhancing the individual coping mechanisms of social workers, the opportunity may be missed to address the structural and organisational challenges that cause social workers to feel that they are drowning in the first place.
A fair exchange: Resilience as currency
The social workers in my study appeared very committed to doing their best for service users but there was a recognition of the personal cost of this, which became apparent through metaphors of currency. Resilience was referred to as “personal capital” and “internal resources.” There was a view that social workers do not receive a great deal of appreciation from their employers, which can lead to a reluctance, in the words of one worker “to go the extra mile because the extra mile comes at a personal expense.” This worker was critical of her organisation’s approach, saying that proposals to reduce caseloads were not acted upon and ultimately they just wanted to “sweat the assets” and “squeeze every ounce of work out of us until we drop dead.”
Like the other metaphors, resilience as a form of currency highlights that it is in finite supply but it also encompasses an expectation of exchange or compensation. This was not generally expressed as a desire for monetary reward but as a need to feel valued by the employer. An appreciation was expressed by one of the social workers that he was given a break from being allocated work if he was feeling overloaded but he was aware that in other teams there is no such “give and take.” Hochschild’s study of ‘emotional labour’ (1983) demonstrates how organisations can exploit workers’ emotions for organisation productivity. Social work, by its nature, can be emotionally demanding. Many of the social workers in my study, while very accepting of this, were disappointed that it was not fully recognised or supported by their employers. Attempts by their organisations to enhance the emotional resilience of social workers through ‘wellbeing’ workshops showcasing a variety of relaxation techniques or workplace satisfaction surveys, were felt to be tokenistic. Hand massages are all very well but offer little compensation when issues of workload, bureaucracy and resources remain unaddressed.
The meaning behind the metaphors
All of these metaphors highlight that resilience is finite. The need to build in periods of recovery and replenishment, to top up on fuel reserves, or to come up to the surface of the water for breath, is essential for emotional wellbeing and effectiveness in the social work role. As well as supporting social workers to enhance their emotional resilience by drawing on internal resources, it is important to recognise that resilience is not purely an individual responsibility and that, at times, we need a hand to reach in and guide us out of the water. This includes addressing endemic organisational pressures such as workload and resource issues, without which any attempts to enhance wellbeing are potentially going to be experienced as tokenistic and devalue the efforts that social workers make in their day to day working lives. If these pressures are addressed, social workers may have enough resilience to ‘soften’ their veneer and engage in an empathetic way with service users, a task that they all expressed as the essence of the social work role.
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[Accessed: 14 Sept 2020].