Project: Emotional Intelligence (EI) and performance in child and family social work

Dates: 2012 – 2015

Funder: ESRC Future research leader scheme

Research Team: Dr Laura Biggart


For public sector workers such as social workers, teachers or nurses, good interpersonal skills are very important for the quality of service that they deliver. Skills such as listening and thinking about how the other person may be feeling are all important. Just as important is the ability for individual social workers to manage their own anxiety and stress, otherwise they may not perform as well as they should. Emotional intelligence refers to a number of related skills in individuals: understanding how emotions work; recognising emotions in themselves; recognising emotions in others; managing their own emotions.


This research will investigate what factors constitute good performance in child and family social work specifically, as this is considered to be one of the more stressful jobs to do. The aim is to see whether something called emotional intelligence helps social workers do a better job and whether emotional intelligence also helps them manage their anxiety and stress better.

If emotional intelligence does help both performance and managing anxiety and stress, we want to see if teaching emotional intelligence skills to child and family social workers makes a difference to their performance and anxiety levels over one year whilst they are in work managing emotions in others.


The research project has four phases: the first phase will examine existing measures and conceptualisations of good social work performance and explore these with four focus groups of social work service users; social workers themselves; social work managers and social work lecturers. The second phase involves designing and testing a questionnaire which can capture these elements of social work performance identified from the literature search and focus groups. The second phase also examines if this questionnaire of social work performance is linked to emotional intelligence. The third phase designs an emotional intelligence intervention based on what is known to work from known existing interventions. The fourth phase develops an emotional intelligence training package to deliver an intervention to one group of social workers and compare their performance to another group of social workers who do not receive the training. Their performance will be tracked over the period of one year.


The research is important for two main reasons: firstly social workers’ stress is known to affect performance; secondly, if emotional intelligence skills are important to carry out the job it is essential that these skills are adequately assessed at the stage of recruitment both to training and into work – and then supported in practice.

Findings will therefore inform our understanding of the role of emotional intelligence in child and family social work and whether training can enhance emotional intelligence in ways that make a difference not only to practice but also to social workers’ anxiety levels. This can be taken into account in both qualifying training of social workers and their continuing professional development.