University of Worcester Worcester Research and Publications

‘Swimming in darkness’ – a phenomenological study exploring social workers’ lived experience of emotion within their work with children

Ayling, Peter ORCID: (2018) ‘Swimming in darkness’ – a phenomenological study exploring social workers’ lived experience of emotion within their work with children. In: European Social Work Research Conference, 9-12.04.22, Leuven, Belgium. (Unpublished)

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Poster 'We are swimming in darkness' Belgium April 2019 final version PDF Pete Ayling.pdf - Presentation

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Context of study: This poster presentation will highlight emerging findings from an initial study which seeks to capture the lived experience of social workers in their use of empathy and their emotional responses to the children with whom they work. The use of empathy as a skill and the worker’s ability to regulate their own emotions have been identified as important indicators of their ongoing emotional resilience. (Grant & Kinman, 2014)
Method: The project utilises a multi method exploratory approach combining Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) with Visual Research methods to support the participants’ exploration of their own experiences. Participants engage in a projective, image creation task using small world objects, which seeks to capture emotional aspects of their practice with a specific child. They then participate in a semi- structured interview to discuss their image and associated thoughts and feelings about their work. This innovative study design, informed by the researcher’s therapeutic practice with children, seeks to support participants to step back from their everyday practice in order to approach their experiences from a more reflective, externalised position (Mannay, 2010). Visual methodologies have been proposed as particularly useful when exploring complex, multi-dimensional experiences such as emotions (Kara, 2015). The research design seeks to offer a synergy between the methods used and the focus of the study on the exploration of emotion. Examples of these will be presented in the poster.
Sample: Participants were recruited from 2 Children’s Services departments in England during the summer of 2018. The sample includes 8 experienced social workers (defined as having three years or more experience) and a smaller comparison group of 3 newly qualified social workers (less than 18 months experience).
Data analysis and Findings: The Data analysis is ongoing at time of writing. Emerging findings from the study will be presented, through both key Superordinate and sub-ordinate themes emerging from the IPA analysis and an analysis of the visual symbols and themes emerging from the image creation task. Findings include the extent of workers’ emotional commitment to children, the use of touch and authentic sharing of emotion with children, the relationship between empathy and action in social work, the specific emotional impact of removing children from their birth family or placement and the emotional impact of organisational structures and procedures.
Implications of study: It is anticipated that the findings from this study will contribute to our understanding of supporting emotional resilience and practitioner wellbeing. Implications for the education of social work students in relation to empathy skills with children will also be considered. The presentation will also seek to consider the potential benefits and limitations of integrating IPA and visual research methods.

Grant, L. and Kinman, G. (2014) Developing Resilience for Social Work Practice, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kara, H. (2015) Creative methods in the social sciences. Bristol: Policy Press
Mannay, D (2010) ‘Making the familiar strange: can visual research methods render the familiar setting more perceptible?’ in Qualitative Research. 10:1 p.91–111
Dawn Mannay, Eleanor Staples & Victoria Edwards (2017) Visual methodologies, sand and psychoanalysis: employing creative participatory techniques to explore the educational experiences of mature students and children in care, in Visual Studies, 32:4, 345-358,

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Poster)
Uncontrolled Discrete Keywords: empathy, emotional responses, social workers
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Divisions: College of Health, Life and Environmental Sciences > School of Allied Health and Community
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Peter Ayling
Date Deposited: 07 Jun 2022 10:39
Last Modified: 07 Jun 2022 10:39

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