Personality Attributes of Social Work

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Personality Attributes of Social Work
Students: An Assessment of Empathy,
Emotional Intelligence, and Resilience
–Selwyn Stanley*, Metilda G. Bhuvaneshwari**
Standardised instruments were administered to assess 73 social work
students at various levels of their degree programme in Tiruchirappalli,
India, with regard to the manifestation of empathy, emotional intelligence
and resilience. A cross-sectional comparative design was used for the study.
The Connor and Davidson Resilience scale (2003), Empathy Assessment
Index (2011) and Emotional Intelligence Scale (1998) were administered
to the respondents to assess the manifestation of the variables of interest.
Data was subjected to statistical analysis. Signifcant differences were
seen between students of different cohorts on the variables studied,
with low levels manifested in students of year 1 as against those in their
fnal year. Signifcant positive relationships were seen between the three
dimensions studied. Empathy and emotional intelligence were extracted
as predictors of resilience through regression analysis. Implications of
the fndings have been discussed in terms of the need to enhance these
attributes in social work students through the provision of appropriate
curricular experiences.
Keywords: Resilience, Empathy, Emotional Intelligence, Social Work
* Lecturer, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland, UK.
** Associate Professor, Social Work, Cauvery College for Women Tiruchirappalli,
Tamil Nadu, India.
Social work is a change-oriented profession that rests on the bedrock of a
relationship that social workers establish with those seeking professional
help (clients/service users). Biestek (1957), one of the earliest writers
who stressed the importance of relationship, envisaged it to be a ‘dynamic
interaction between the attitudes and emotions of the caseworker and the
Social Work Chronicle
7 (1) 2018, 85-110
86 Social Work Chronicle Volume 7, Issue 1, 2018
client…’ (p.17). Indeed relationship has been considered to be the ‘heart
of helping people’ (Perlman, 1979), a ‘communication bridge between
people’ (Kadushin, 1990, p. 36) and is the medium through which change
is ushered in, be it in the person seeking help, their environment or in
both. Besides being a facilitative medium, relationship by itself has been
considered to offer several therapeutic benefts for service users (Rogers,
1961; Sudbery, 2002).
Empathy has for long been acknowledged to be an important attribute
of the caring professions including social work and crucial for establishing
a positive, purposeful and professional relationship with service users.
The term “empathy” has its etymological roots in the German word
“einfuhling”, meaning, “to feel into” the experience of another (Raines,
1990). Along with warmth and genuineness, empathy has been considered
to be one of the core conditions of the helping relationship (Truax &
Carkhuff, 1967). Dymond (1949), one of the earliest writers to defne
empathy, considered it to be the “imaginative transposing of oneself into
the thinking, feeling, and acting of another person and so structuring
the world as he does” (p. 127). Rogers (1959) who developed the
person-centred approach considered empathic understanding to be a key
requisite of the therapeutic relationship and defned it as: “to perceive
the internal frame of reference of another with accuracy, and with the
emotional components and meanings which pertain thereto, as if one were
the other person, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ condition” (p. 210).
Empathy is considered to be a complex, multi- dimensional concept that
has moral, cognitive, emotive and behavioural components (Mercer &
Reynolds, 2002). The importance of empathy as a key ingredient of the
helping relationship has been evidenced in clinical settings where a warm
empathetic style has been attributed to improved clinical outcomes (Di
Blasi, Harkness, Ernst, Georgiou & Kleijnen, 2001) and also correlated
with physicians’ professional satisfaction (Suchman, Roter, Green &
Lipkin, 1993). Developing empathy is acknowledged as being fundamental
to caring and to enhance the therapeutic potential of the patient-clinician
relationship (Spiro, 1992). A key function of the social worker’s role is
the ability to engage with service users in an empathic manner (College of
Social Work, 2012). The judicious use of empathy is considered as being
mutually benefcial to both the client as well as the practitioner and a key
requisite in furthering the helping process (Stanley & Sethuramalingam,
2015). Social workers need to be able to empathize with service users who
are vulnerable and at-risk and may differ from them on several attributes
Personality Attributes of Social Work Students: An Assessment of Empathy, … 87
such as age, gender, ethnicity, religion and other aspects (Turnage, Hong,
Stevenson & Edwards, 2012). Grant (2014) considers accurate empathy as
being crucial for social work practice and advocates that it be developed
at an early stage of professional development. In spite of being recognised
as a key ability required for effective social work practice (Shulman,
2009), research on this quintessential attribute in social work is scarce and
sketchy (Gerdes & Segal, 2011; Morrison, 2007).
Social workers deal with stressful situations albeit vicariously
be it substance misuse, scenarios of exploitation or abuse, family
disorganisation or macro issues such as poverty. Negative life experiences
and events, trauma, hardship and adversity in general can leave people
feeling unhappy, mistrustful, bewildered, upset, depressed, powerless,
hopeless, helpless and in despair. Sharing of such feelings and emotions
in the social work relationship can have a profound impact on the social
worker. Often engagement with distress evoking circumstances generates
high levels of stress. The nature of issues being shared by service users
could also emotionally charge the relationship between the professional
and the help seeker. The capacity to demonstrate empathy, along with
the exposure to challenging situations, including threats to their personal
safety, unpredictability of situations and exposure to narratives of
distress, can have a deleterious impact on the emotional well-being of
social workers (Kapoulitsas & Corcoran, 2015). Appropriate emotional
expression, regulation of emotions and their management are hence
important competencies that social workers need to possess in their
professional tool kit.
Emotional intelligence (EI) is a term coined by Salovey and Mayer
(1990) and has been variously referred to as emotional literacy, emotional
quotient, personal intelligence, social intelligence, and interpersonal
intelligence (Dulewicz & Higgs, 2000). It has been conceptualised as ‘as
the set of abilities (verbal and nonverbal) that enable a person to generate,
recognize, express, understand, and evaluate their own, and others’
emotions in order to guide thinking and action that successfully cope with
environmental demands and pressures’ (Van Rooy & Viswesvaran, 2004,
p. 72). Conceptually EI encompasses skills of empathy, self-awareness,
motivation, self-control and adeptness in relationships (Bar-On, 1997). EI
has also been termed as emotional effcacy and emotional competence and
to be a personality trait that is associated with academic performance in
students (Petrides, Furnham & Frederickson, 2004). It has been considered
to have four dimensions: the perception of emotion, the integration and
88 Social Work Chronicle Volume 7, Issue 1, 2018
assimilation of emotion, knowledge about emotions, and its management
(Mayer, Salovey & Caruso, 1999). EI is related to academic achievement
(Parker, Summerfeldt, Hogan & Majeski, 2004) and to stress management,
problem-solving skills, wellbeing, mental health (Ciarrochi, Deane &
Anderson, 2002; Gerits, Derksen, Verbruggen & Katz, 2005) and to
overall life satisfaction (Ciarrochi, Chan & Caputi, 2000). Understanding
and handling one’s own emotions and those of others is crucial during
various tasks of the social work process, be it engagement with service
users, assessment, decision making, action planning and intervention
(Morrison, 2007). The nature of EI thus makes it a valuable attribute
for social workers and needs to be inculcated in students as part of their
professional training (Stanley & Metilda, 2016a).
Resilience is another attribute required to withstand the emotionally
gruelling nature of professional practice, to avoid compassion fatigue and
burn out (Cooke, Doust & Steele, 2013; Olson, Kemper & Mahan, 2015).
It is positively associated with psychological well-being and negatively
with psychological distress, depression and anxiety and hence important
for one’s mental health and wellbeing (Haddadi & Besharat, 2010).
Resilience refers to positive adaptation, or the ability to maintain or regain
mental health, despite experiencing adversity (Wald, Taylor, Asmundson,
Jang & Stapleton, 2006) and has also been defned as ‘the potential to
exhibit resourcefulness by using available internal and external resources
in response to different contextual and developmental challenges’ (Pooley
& Cohen, 2010, p. 34). From the perspective of vulnerability, it is seen
as “the protective factors and processes or mechanisms that contribute
to a good outcome, despite experiences with stressors shown to carry
signifcant risk for developing psychopathology” (Hjemdal, Friborg,
Stiles, Martinussen & Rosenvinge, 2006, p. 97). It is seen to be a dynamic
relational phenomenon that develops through signifcant interactions over
time (Hurley, Martin & Hallberg, 2013).
Resilient individuals seek support from others, have close and
secure attachments, focus on personal and/or collective goals, besides
demonstrating higher levels of self-effcacy (Rutter, 1985). Several social
work practice models draw from concepts associated with resilience
(Guo & Tsui, 2010) and resilience has been construed to be an important
characteristic for social workers (Munro, 2011). One of the tenets of the
contemporary strengths based approach (Saleebey, 2006) is to cultivate
resilience in service users and empower them to deal with adversity
(Norman, 2000). Besides, the development of resilience is also important
Personality Attributes of Social Work Students: An Assessment of Empathy, … 89
to enable social workers deal more competently with the challenges and
demands of practice (Grant & Kinman, 2014) and it has been argued that
emotionally intelligent social work trainees who are socially competent
and empathetic and have good reflective abilities will be more resilient to
stress (Kinman & Grant, 2011).
The nature of the social work curriculum is such that besides requiring
profciency in a range of social science oriented subjects, it also exposes
the student to the rigours of practice placement, often with challenging real
life scenarios. The demands of academia are thus complex and perceived
as being stressful and require considerable resilience and coping abilities
to be able to meet the multifarious demands of the degree successfully
(Stanley & Bhuvaneswari, 2016b). Our focus in this study is on three
key personality attributes namely empathy, emotional intelligence and
resilience in undergraduate students of social work. These attributes
are important for students and as indicated by the literature are core
competencies crucial for effective professional practice. There is a dearth
of literature on these variables in the Indian context and this study seeks
to further an understanding of their manifestation in students of social
work in India.
1. To portray the socio-demographic profle of undergraduate students
of social work in a women’s college in Tiruchirappalli, India.
2. To assess the manifestation of dimensions such as empathy, emotional intelligence and coping in these students.
3 .To compare students of different years of their degree course across
these dimensions.
4. To ascertain correlations if any between these subject dimensions
and with socio-demographic variables.
5. To identify dimensions and their components which predict the
manifestation of resilience in social work students.
Research Design
This study used a cross-sectional design. It is comparative in nature, as
the attributes studied have been compared across students of different year
90 Social Work Chronicle Volume 7, Issue 1, 2018
groups and in terms of other demographic variables. A survey methodology
has been adopted for the collection of data.
∑ Self-prepared schedule to collect socio-demographic data.
∑ The Connor and Davidson Resilience scale (2003) (CD-RISC) is a
25 item instrument. Each item is rated on a 5-point Likert scale (0-
4), with higher scores reflecting greater resilience. It measures fve
factors (sub-dimensions). Factor 1 refers to personal competence,
high standards, and tenacity; Factor 2 assesses tolerance of negative affect; Factor 3 deals with the positive acceptance of change,
and secure relationships; Factor 4 looks at issues related to control
and Factor 5 to spiritual influences. The total score was achieved
by adding up all responses, and ranges from 0 to 100, with higher
scores reflecting greater resilience. The computed Cronbachs alpha
for internal consistency of this scale in the present study was 0.89
which is the same established in earlier studies (Garcia & Calvo,
2013) and is considered to be ‘good’ (George & Mallery, 2003).
∑ Empathy Assessment Index (EAI) by Lietz, Gerdes, Sun, Geiger,
Wagaman, and Segal (2011) is a validated 17 Item self-report instrument that measures fve sub-dimensions namely, Affective
Response, Emotion Regulation, Perspective Taking, Self–Other
Awareness and Empathic Attitudes. Items are scored on a six point
Likert scale (from never=1 to always=6) with higher scores indicating higher levels of empathy. The scale has excellent internal
consistency (α = .82) and strong test-retest reliability as reported
by the authors. In this study the Cronbach’s alpha was .80, which is
considered to be ‘good’ in terms of reliability (George & Mallery,
∑ Emotional Intelligence Scale (EIS) by Schutte et al. (1998) is a
33 item instrument that measures three sub-dimensions namely:
appraisal and expression of emotion, regulation of emotion and
utilisation of emotion. The items are measured on a 5-point Likert
scale with responses ranging from strongly disagree (score 1) to
strongly agree (score 5). Higher scores indicate higher emotional
intelligence. Internal consistency analysis by the authors showed
a Cronbach’s alpha of .87 and sound test-retest reliability (r=.78),
Personality Attributes of Social Work Students: An Assessment of Empathy, … 91
predictive validity, and discriminant validity as well. In the current
study the alpha computed was .87, the same reported by the authors,
and is considered to be ‘good’ in terms of reliability (George & Mallery, 2003).
Setting for the Study
Cauvery College is a college for women and a leading provider of higher
education in the city of Tiruchirappalli (also known as Trichy or Tiruchi)
centrally located in the state of Tamilnadu in south India. The city is
located on the banks of the river Cauvery and is a major hub for the
Indian Railways and is also a leading centre for education. Cauvery
college is a self- fnancing college (receives no Government funds) that
was established in 1984 and is run by a private educational trust. It is an
arts and science college affliated to the Bharathidasan University and
offers fourteen undergraduate three year degree programmes and nine
two year post graduate courses including social work at both levels. The
college caters to about 4000 students at all levels.
Data Collection
Initial permission for the study was obtained from the Principal of the
college. Students in each year (years 1, 2 and 3) of the social work
undergraduate degree were briefed about the nature of the study. Informed
consent was obtained from all students who agreed to participate. Data was
collected in the classroom with one of the investigators present to provide
clarifcations. Students were told that participation was entirely voluntary
and that they could drop out of the study at any point without assigning
any reasons and would not be contacted further. It was emphasised that
their non-participation or discontinuation would in no way influence their
academic life in the college. Respondents were not required to provide
their name, roll number or any other personal identifying data and
confdentiality was assured.
Statistical Analysis
We have used t tests for two group comparisons and computed ANOVAs
for comparisons involving more than two groups. Pearson’s correlation
coeffcients have been used to look at the relationship between key
92 Social Work Chronicle Volume 7, Issue 1, 2018
variables and their sub-dimensions. Finally linear multiple regression
using the enter method was utilised to look at the predictors of emotional
Respondents of the Study
73 students in all three years of the social work degree agreed to
participate in the study and were present on the pre-announced dates of
data collection. Details of students enrolled in each year as well as those
enlisted as respondents for the study are presented in Table 1.
Table 1: Table Depicting the Number of Students Enrolled and
Enlisted for the Study
Year of study
Students enrolled
Respondents’ Profle
The majority (68.5%) of respondents were in the 18-19 year age group,
and the mean age was 18.6 years. They hailed predominantly from a
rural background (68.5%) and from nuclear families (83.6%). In terms of
religious orientation, the majority came from Hindu families (90.4%) and
the remaining from a Christian background. The medium of instruction
for the majority in their school prior to joining the degree was Tamil
(vernacular) (79.5%) and the remaining had been to English medium
schools. The majority of these schools (57.5%) were located in rural areas.
During their school days (78.1%) as well as currently in college (64.4%)
the majority lived with their parents, while the others stayed/were staying
in student hostels. The educational background of their parents was
considerably low with the majority of parents having studied at different
levels up to higher secondary school. 2.7% of fathers and 15%t of mothers
had never been to school. The father was the main breadwinner in most
families and the majority (50.7%) were engaged in farming or employed
Personality Attributes of Social Work Students: An Assessment of Empathy, … 93
as casual labourers (called ‘coolie’ in the vernacular) in farming or in the
construction sector.
For the majority (76.7%), their mother was not in paid employment
and looked after the domestic front. The reported total monthly family
income ranged from Rupees 1,000 to 70,000 with a mean of Rupees 11,100
(approx. 178 USD) per month. The socio-demographic background of the
respondents, by Indian standards is consistent with a lower-middle class
When asked why they chose to do a degree in social work, the majority
of students (56%) attributed it to guidance and encouragement received
from family and friends, 30% said they were encouraged by their former
teachers and the rest felt that it would help them to secure employment
(14%). While the majority (84%) expressed their desire to take up a social
work career or in related felds such as counselling, the others said they
would take up some other occupation. When asked about their opinion
about the course that they had joined, the responses from the majority were
positive and they used words like happy (16.4%), interesting (27.4%) and
useful (24.7%) to describe their experience. A question specifcally asked
to those in the 2nd and 3rd years related to any change that they felt their
degree had brought about in them. While 24% felt that the course had not
brought about any signifcant change in them, other responses pertained
to an increased awareness of social problems (23%), change in behaviour
(13%) and attitudes (8%) besides becoming more helpful towards others
Empathy, Emotional Intelligence and Resilience
Table 2: Distribution of respondents by mean scores on key dimensions and year of study
Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Factor 1
Factor 2
Factor 3
Factor 4
Factor 5
Total Resilience Score
94 Social Work Chronicle Volume 7, Issue 1, 2018
Year 1
Year 2
Year 3
Regulation Perspective
Taking Self-Other
Awareness Empathy
Total Empathy Score
Appraisal of emotions
Regulation of emotions
Utilisation of emotions
Total Emotional
Intelligence Score
Table 2 portrays the manifestation of the key variables of this study
in students of all three years. An important observation based on the data
in table 2 is that the total scores of all three key variables studied show an
increase from year 1 to year 3. This is also observed for the sub-dimensions
of the EI scale, but not necessarily so for all the sub-dimensions of the
resilience and empathy scores. The scores for all three total scores are
lowest in year 1 and highest in year 3.
Between Year Differences on Key Dimensions
A one way analysis of variance was conducted between the three year
groups to test for statistically signifcant differences and the results are
depicted in table 3.
Table 3: One Way Analysis of Variance based on Year of Study for
Key Dimensions
Sum of
Signif cance
Factor 1
Between Groups
Within Groups
Factor 2
Between Groups
Within Groups
Personality Attributes of Social Work Students: An Assessment of Empathy, … 95
Sum of
Signif cance
Factor 3
Between Groups
Within Groups
Factor 4
Between Groups
Within Groups
Factor 5
Between Groups
Within Groups
Total Resil
ience Score
Between Groups
Within Groups
Between Groups
198. 73
Within Groups
1414. 77
Between Groups
Within Groups
Between Groups
Within Groups
Total Empa
thy Score
Between Groups
Within Groups
Appraisal of
Between Groups
Within Groups
of emotions
Between Groups
Within Groups
Utilisation of
Between Groups
Within Groups
Total Emo
Between Groups
Within Groups
p<0.05*; p<0.01**; p<0.001***
The data shows a statistically signifcant difference between the year
groups on the total scores of all three key dimensions. In terms of their subdimensions, this difference is seen for factors 3, 4 and 5 of the resilience
scale, the perspective taking and empathic attitudes sub-dimensions of the
empathy scale and the appraisal of emotions and regulation of emotions
sub-dimensions of the EI scale.
96 Social Work Chronicle Volume 7, Issue 1, 2018
Table 4: t test for subject dimensions on selected socio-demographic variables
Emotional Intelligence
Rural (50)
Urban (23)
0. 48
of In
English (15)
126. 07
Tamil (58)
Hostel (26)
Day scholars
Hindu (66)
Christian (7)
Note: Figures in parentheses are respondent numbers
Personality Attributes of Social Work Students: An Assessment of Empathy, … 97
Comparison of Key Dimensions on Select Socio-DemoGraphic Variables
Table 4 presents comparisons for all respondents based on their nativity
(rural v/s urban), previous medium of instruction (English v/s Tamil),
residential status (hostel v/s day scholars) and religious background
(Hindu v/s Christian). The t tests do not show any statistically signifcant
differences for the total scores of all three key dimensions (for all p>0.05)
based on these comparisons.
Correlations among Dimensions and their Components
The inter-correlation matrix in table 5 shows a high positive correlation
between the total scores of all three dimensions. It is of course to be
expected that sub-dimensions of each scale will show strong correlations
among themselves and to the total score for that particular key dimension.
An important observation is that all correlations in the matrix, however
weak or strong are of a positive nature. It is also seen that sub-dimensions of
one dimension enter into correlations with those of other key dimensions.
For instance perspective taking (of the empathy scale) is correlated with
the total resilience score as well as three of its sub-dimensions (Factors
1, 2 & 3). Self-other awareness (sub-dimension of empathy scale) also
shows a similar relationship with the total resilience score and all its
factors (except factor 5).
Empathic attitudes correlate with all factors of the resilience scale
(except factors 1 & 2) as well as its total score. Looking at correlations
between the sub-dimensions of the EI scale and those of the other two
instruments, it is seen that appraisal of emotions has entered into correlations
with all the sub-dimensions of the empathy and resilience scales as well as
their total scores. On the other hand regulation of emotions and utilisation
of emotions (sub-dimensions of resilience scale) have not entered into
any signifcant correlations with any of the dimensions of the empathy or
resilience scales (except with factor 3 of the resilience scale). The total
EI score shows varying levels of correlation with all the sub-dimensions
of the empathy and resilience scales except with factor 3 of the resilience
scale and the perspective taking component of the empathy scale.
98 Social Work Chronicle Volume 7, Issue 1, 2018
Table 5: Inter-correlation matrix for key dimensions and their components
1.Factor 1
2.Factor 2
3.Factor 3
4.Factor 4
5.Factor 5
6.Total Resilience
7.Perspective Taking
8.Self-other Aware
9.Empathetic Attitudes
10.Total Empathy
11.Appraisal of emo
12.Regulation of emo
13.Utilisation of emo
14.Total Emotional
Intelligence Score
*p<0.05; **p<0.01; ***p<0.001
Personality Attributes of Social Work Students: An Assessment of Empathy, … 99
With regard to correlations of demographic variables with the key
dimensions, age of the respondents correlated positively with the total
empathy score (r=0.25, p<0.05) and the total EI score (r=0.32, p<0.01)
but not with the total resilience score (r=0.17, p>0.05). The respondents’
birth order, their number of siblings or family income did not enter into
any signifcant correlations with any of the key dimensions.
Predictors of Resilience
A preliminary multiple regression was conducted to see if the total EI
and Empathy scores predicted the manifestation of resilience in the
respondents. Using the enter method it was found from the ANOVA table
that both the total empathy and EI scores explain a signifcant amount of
the variance (31.4%) in the manifestation of resilience in the students (F
(2, 70) = 16.05, p < .001, R2 = 0.31, R2Adjusted = 0.30). The analysis also
showed that both empathy (β =0.44, t (72) = 4.06, p<0.001) and EI (β
= 0.22, t (72) = 2.01, P<0.05) signifcantly predict the manifestation of
As both the total empathy and EI scores were extracted as signifcant
predictors of resilience in the frst analysis, we carried out a second
regression by omitting the total scores and including only the subdimensions of both the empathy and EI scales. The ANOVA table showed
that together the sub-dimensions of both the empathy and EI scale
accounted for a signifcant amount of variance (36%) in the manifestation
of resilience (F (8, 64) = 4.49, p < .001, R2 = 0.36, R2 Adjusted = 0.28). The
analysis showed that of the eight sub-dimensions entered in the analysis,
only appraisal and expression of emotions (sub-dimension of EI scale)
(β =0.25, t (72) = 2.16, p<0.05) and perspective taking (sub-dimension
of empathy scale) (β =0.31, t (72) = 2.17, p<0.05) emerged as signifcant
predictors of resilience in the students.
The results indicate that empathy, EI and resilience were lowest in fresher’s
(year 1 students) than in those in their fnal year (year 3) and we obtained
statistically signifcant differences between students of the three cohorts.
Our fndings are similar to those reported by an earlier longitudinal study
of Spanish social work students which found that resilience increased from
one academic year to the next (Palma-Garcia & Hombrados-Mendieta,
100 Social Work Chronicle Volume 7, Issue 1, 2018
2014a). However the cross-sectional nature of this study and the fact that
three different cohorts of students have been included does not permit the
inference that the key dimensions studied mature and develop over time
with age and experience.
The selected demographic variables on which respondents were
compared included their former medium of instruction, their religion,
current residential status and nativity and respondents did not show any
signifcant differences in terms of the key dimensions studied. This to
some extent negates the influence exerted by these demographic variables
on the key dimensions.
The positive correlations obtained between the total scale scores
of all three key dimensions studied and many of their component subdimensions indicate that they tend to reinforce each other. Empathy is
seen to be an important component of EI (Mayer & Salovey, 1997). As
in this study, positive correlations have also been obtained in an earlier
study between resilience and EI and between empathy and resilience
scores in social work students (Kinman & Grant, 2011). Cause-effect
interpretations however need to be assigned with caution, given the crosssectional nature of this study.
The regression analysis establishes both empathy and emotional
intelligence and their respective components of perspective taking and
appraisal and expression of emotions as signifcant contributors to the
manifestation of resilience in social work students. These fndings are also
in consonance with those of Kinman and Grant (2011).
It has been noted that increased workloads, bureaucracy and the complex
nature of decisions that need to be made have resulted in increasing levels
of stress among social work practitioners (Stevens & Higgins, 2002). An
earlier study from India has indicated high levels of anxiety and stress
among student social workers (Stanley & Bhuvaneswari, 2016b) and high
levels of psychological distress are seen in social work students in the
UK (Collins, Coffey & Morris, 2010) as well as the USA (Harr & Moore,
2011). It has been evidenced that training and social work practice can
influence personality traits in student social workers that are positively
associated with their resilience (Palma-Garcia & Hombrados-Mendieta,
2014b). Against this background it becomes important that social work
Personality Attributes of Social Work Students: An Assessment of Empathy, … 101
students are enabled to develop enhanced resilience to cope effectively
with the manifold challenges of professional practice. This study has found
empathy and EI to be signifcant predictors of resilience and hence it is
important to focus on strategies that develop skills relating to empathetic
expression and EI in students. Further as resilience, empathy and EI are
positively correlated; developing skills in one or more domains could
potentially have benefcial outcomes for the others.
Relationship skills are important in social work practice not only in
terms of interactions with service users but also for teamwork with other
colleagues and are important for supervisors, administrators, leaders, and
for managers (Morrison, 2007). EI is an important feature in effective
interpersonal skills and is positively related to empathic perspective taking
and self- monitoring, social skills, cooperative ability and the ability for
close and affectionate relationships (Shutte et al., 2001). Empathy is a key
component of emotional intelligence and is likely to underpin resilience
in social workers (Howe, 2008). EI can be acquired and enhanced with
suitable training (Goleman, 1995; Caner & Salovey, 1997) and empathy
may be amenable to positive change with a range of interventional
strategies (Stepien & Baernstein, 2006).
It has been observed that resilience may be fostered by exposure to
manageable challenges or small doses of a stress experience (Rutter, 2013).
Role playing scenarios could provide such challenges to students and could
be incorporated in small group sessions to facilitate the development of
these skills in a safe classroom environment. Role plays have been found
to be effective in developing interviewing and relationship skills in social
work students (Dennison, 2011) and such experiential techniques need
to be given more importance. At present our experience in India is that
issues relating to empathy for instance are rather cursorily dealt with
in the classroom through lectures. While students develop a theoretical
understanding of these concepts, their practice is guided more by intuition
and trial and error. What is required is a conscious effort to develop skills
of empathy and relationship competence in practice simulated situations
with appropriate analysis and feedback given to students so that they are
able to integrate these skills sets within their repertoire. Organising skills
labs for social work students where elements relating to communication
are honed and the management of emotions and their expression is
developed would go some way in achieving this.
Students of social work in India lack the emphasis on reflective practice
that students in the West are exposed to. Reflective ability is a crucial
102 Social Work Chronicle Volume 7, Issue 1, 2018
component in supporting the development of resilience (Grant & Brewer,
2014). Reflective abilities may be benefcial in protecting students from
the negative implications of engaging with the problems of service users
and for their own wellbeing (Grant, 2014) and could thus enhance their
resilience. Structured classroom activities to promote experiential learning
need to be introduced to enhance these skills. While students in India write
reports on placement, these tend to be rather descriptive and so the writing
of reflective logs is another measure that needs to be encouraged, as they
are useful tools for professional development (Wilson, 2013).
Involvement in flm and/or book clubs, use of digital stories in
assessments, and students being encouraged to write poems and short
stories from the perspective of a service user, could encourage them to
engage with issues from different perspectives, and to examine their
emotional responses, values, beliefs and assumptions, that are key
factors in reflective practice (Considine, Hollingdale & Neville, 2015).
Experiential learning has been found benefcial in developing empathy
and educators have used techniques such as theatre, literature, and writing
to foster empathy in medical students (Stepien & Baernstein, 2006).
Experiential learning and reflective, emotional writing activities
have been effective in enhancing reflective ability, empathy and in levels
of emotional intelligence in social work students (Grant, Kinman &
Alexander, 2014). The use of narrative literature, both biographical and
fctional, to foster empathy in social work students in Australia has been
demonstrated by Turner (2013).
The role of mental characteristics such as planning, self-reflection, and
active personal agency in resilience processes has also been acknowledged
(Rutter, 2013). Studies from India have found a strong positive association
between role effcacy and EI in social work professionals (Singh, 2006;
Pareek, 1997). It is hence important to aid students to develop skills of
personal self-effcacy that could potentially influence their professional
repertoire. Stress management skills, training in relaxation techniques and
generic self-care skills such as effective time management, goal setting
and prioritisation, planning and organisational abilities need to be imparted
alongside the core social work curriculum. Experiential learning techniques
to promote self-effcacy and consequently resilience in social work
students have been advocated (Farchi, Cohen & Mosek, 2014). Resilience
promotion workshops for social work students that incorporate themes
such as mindfulness, peer coaching and support, cognitive-behavioural
Personality Attributes of Social Work Students: An Assessment of Empathy, … 103
techniques, using supervision for reflective practice, promotion of selfawareness and action planning are some resilience enhancing measures
that have also been suggested (Grant & Kinman, 2012).
We also need to provide safe spaces for emotional thinking (Howe,
2008) and this is important particularly while discussing issues that
involve grief, trauma, exploitation, injustice and abuse. The classroom
ethos needs to be free of prejudice and hostility, open to accommodating
disagreement and dissent and one that fosters open sharing of opinions,
feelings and emotions. A supportive environment along with positive
supervision plays a pivotal role in shaping resilience along with support
provided for professional development, education, personal experiences,
safety measures, self-care, and self-protection (Kapoulitsas & Corcoran,
2015). Social work educators thus have a crucial role in ensuring that
students who graduate are equipped not only with the knowledge base
required for practice but also with adequate skills that promote personal
self-effcacy and interpersonal competence and thus fosters resilience in
them and equips them to deal with the many challenges of professional
The cross-sectional design adopted in this investigation precludes our
ability to infer whether the key dimensions studied develop and mature
over time from admission to graduation and whether exposure to the
social work curriculum and placement experiences can be related to their
manifestation in social work students. This inference is also limited by
the lack of a reference (comparative) group against which to contrast
social work students from those in other degrees. We are hence unable to
assess whether the manifestation of these dimensions are ‘more’ or ‘less’
when compared to students of other disciplines. We are now engaged
with a similar study that overcomes these limitations by tracking these
dimensions in a cohort of social work students as they progress through
their degree and to also compare these dimensions with a group of nonsocial work students.
This study was conducted in an exclusive college for women and so
gender based comparisons were not possible. Generalisations to social
work students elsewhere are also limited owing to socio-demographic and
cultural differences, differences in taught content and theoretical emphasis
and to the uniqueness of placement experiences.
104 Social Work Chronicle Volume 7, Issue 1, 2018
There is evidence that resilience for example, is related to personality
variables such as neuroticism, extraversion, conscientiousness, and
openness (Campbell-Sills, Cohan & Stein, 2006). We have however
not looked at these variables and they could be important in terms of
understanding their influence on resilience, empathy and emotional
In spite of these limitations, this study makes a signifcant contribution
to the extant literature, particularly in the Indian context where these
dimensions have not received the kind of focussed attention that they
Empathy, emotional intelligence and resilience are three personality
attributes that social workers need to consciously develop for effective
practice. These attributes not only influence service users but also are
important to preserve the emotional wellbeing and mental health of
social workers themselves. There is a paucity of research on how these
dimensions develop in social work students and how student experiences
can enable the development, strengthening and nurturance of these key
characteristics. This study has shown that students in different years of
their social work degree manifest these traits to varying degrees. Strong
positive correlations among these dimensions also indicate that focussed
development on one or more of these dimensions could potentially have
benefcial impact in terms of the others. Resilience in particular can be
fostered by enhancing skills in communication, emotional expression
and management and hence measures to foster accurate empathy and
emotional intelligence in social work students could go a long way in
enhancing their resilience.
The authors wish to thank Dr. V. Sujatha, Principal and Dr. G.Kanaga,
Head, Dept. of Social Work, Cauvery College for Women, Tiruchirappalli
for enabling us to undertake this study.
Conflict of interest: None
Funding: None
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