The emotional experience of working in social services


In early 2015 Iriss conducted a creative, and qualitative, research project designed to understand the experiences of social care practitioners across Scotland. We asked practitioners to record their experiences over one week using a diary, a timesheet and prompt cards. This approach is called a cultural probe and is designed to support participants to reflect on their experiences and and feelings about their work.

Diary research is valuable because it allows participants to have a high degree of ownership over the story they tell. Our selection of the diary method was deliberate. We wanted to hear directly from the people providing services and support – in their own words – about the experiences that are meaningful to them.

We were amazed with what we received! The diaries are full of rich, thoughtful, detail about the day-to-day realities of care and support work. They are also full of jokes and memories, difficult stories and rewarding days at work. Most importantly, the diaries are rich with feeling. It is this emotional quality that we focus on in this analysis.

Emotions and diary research

Although diaries are commonly used to understand the experiences of people accessing health and care, to our knowledge, this is the first research project that uses the method to explore the emotional experiences of staff working in the Scottish social services.

An important part of the diary method in other research involves discussing the analysis with people who wrote the diaries. In March 2015, IRISS hosted an event to explore the data from the cultural probe with participants. You can read about that event and listen some of the discussion on our blog.

The University of the West of Scotland and Belinda Dewar in particular have been using the emotional touchpoints method. These prompts furnish people with an emotional vocabulary that they can use to discuss their own experience (see case study). Emotional resilience is often a feature of these discussions (e.g. Jenny Bulbulia, Hunter and Warren 2014, Adamson et al 2014).

In focusing on emotions, we suggest that they are a way of seeing the world: “like hearing or seeing, feeling provides a useful set of clues in figuring out what is real” (Hochschild, 1983, p.31). Sometimes those emotions act as prompts and help us to better understand the nature of work.

We take inspiration from the concept of ‘work knowledges’ to focus attention on “a person’s experience of and in their own work — what they do, how they do it, including what they think and feel” (Smith 2005, p.151). In this way, we focus on the participant’s reflections as a form of expertise — a way of understanding the social care sector from the ground up.

In reflecting on the diversity of emotions within these diaries, we offer three preliminary insights:

First, emotions have “signal” function — that they acts as “clues” to how people make sense of their experience (Hochschild 1983, p.28-34). The emotional quality of these diaries was an unexpected feature of this research. We did not prompt participants to reflect on their emotional experience of work — but that is exactly what they have done in these diaries.

Second, emotions do more than tell individual stories of the experience of care work – they signal us to look at the context which surrounds care workers. Supervision, ill-health at work, I.T. systems – each of these has a bearing on the way individuals come to understand and experience their work.

We suggest that these diaries reflect the emotional sensemaking that occurs during reflective practice (Schon 1983). Participants describe the value of the View from Here project in their diaries and emphasised the need for care workers to find time to make sense of their own and experiences. This integration of knowing and feeling can occur when there is time and space to reflect.


The diaries were one part of a cultural probe that was used to explore the experiences of people providing social care in Scotland. Analysis of the data from the time sheet and four prompt cards is also available on this blog.

cultural probe pack: including prompt cards, camera, diary, time-sheet and instructions

In analysing this data, we draw on the principles of grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss 1967; Corbin & Strauss 2008; Charmaz 2013).  Grounded theory uses a process of coding to draw out particular themes from the raw data.

We began with the concept of emotions and coded for ‘feeling words’ within the diary entries. For example, the words: ‘tired’, ‘joyful’, or ‘proud’. We also coded phrases that began with ‘I felt’ or similar, such as ‘I felt a bit low’ or ‘I felt confused’.

We avoided the inclusion passages that seemed to have an emotional quality but no word or phrase to ground the analysis. As a result, we have no doubt excluded emotional elements of these diaries, but we suggest that our analysis is more robust for focusing on the ‘expressed’ emotions of entries.

We transcribed the relevant quotations. We double checked our analysis by discussing our process of coding and undertaking some tests to ensure that the coding process was consistent both researchers.

Finally, we coded for drivers to illustrate the reasons for the writer’s expression of emotion. For example, an expression of pride was sometimes attached to positive feedback from a manager. Feeling tired was sometimes attached to patterns of shift work. Feeling happy was often attached to the outcomes for people accessing support.

Grounded theory is designed to take a “systematic, inductive, comparative and interactive approach to inquiry” (Charmaz 2008, p.156). Our approach echoes this definition. We began with the data from the diaries, looked for themes and drivers and then used internal validation to ensure that our interpretation of emotional codes was consistent across the researchers.


We read all 74 diaries and found there to be 522 references to emotions in the diaries.

Each diary had a front page with some sample prompts which included asking participants what they found most challenging (76 references within a total of 522 codes) and most rewarding (70 references within a total of 522). Overall, respondents’ reflections on their work were overwhelmingly emotional. It is for this reason that we chose to analyse these diaries from an emotional perspective.

We used six emotional categories to code the diaries:

  1. Frustrated – sometimes meaning hard, difficult, challenged or stressed (87 codes out of a total of 522)
  2. Happy – sometimes meaning enjoyment (62 / 522)
  3. Worried (59 / 522)
  4. Tired (43 / 522)
  5. Disappointed – sometimes meaning sad and upset (32 / 522)
  6. Proud – sometimes meaning appreciated and admiring (24 / 522)

‘Frustration’ and ‘happiness’ are the two most frequent codes. This reflects some of the polarising experience of working in care demonstrated in the diaries. However, it is important to note that we cannot oversimplify these emotions into categories of negative and positive. Some of the codes around ‘frustration’ may represent a practitioner’s personal investment in supporting someone’s outcomes and equally some of the ‘happy’ codes may reflect a practitioner’s happiness at having the day off.

Analysis: The emotional experience of working in social services

The diaries reveal that working with people in the context of care and support is an emotional experience. Emotions were mixed, complex and driven by a variety of interpersonal and environmental factors. Overall, the diaries revealed that practitioners were deeply emotionally invested in their roles, and that the emotional impact stretched beyond working hours and into their personal lives.

Once we began to understand the range and depth of practitioners’ emotional experiences, we focused on what drives their emotional responses. We call these ‘drivers’, in that these experiences, relationships and outcomes drive the emotional response of practitioners.

These have been categorised into three groups:

  1. Working with people
  2. Life at work
  3. Personal wellbeing

There is inevitable overlap between categories, and many drivers have complex emotional impact. However it is important to note that these drivers do seem to lead to particular clusters of emotions. For example, working with people accessing support, seeing people achieve their outcomes and the relationship that develops between people all tend to lead to feeling rewarded, proud and happy. In contrast, terms and conditions, travel and health in the workplace all tend to lead to feeling challenged, tired and worried. Interestingly, there is sometimes an even split between these two spectrums. For example relationships with other staff tend to drive equally to feeling frustrated and feeling rewarded.

Working with people

People who access support achieving their goals and outcomes was a primary feature of the diaries. This included descriptions of people achieving things like social outings, diet changes, new housing options. This driver was largely linked to positive emotions in practitioners such as feeling proud and rewarded – almost always to do with other people being happy and seeming to feeling supported.

“Out at local social club and disco – got up and sung with service user! Felt very proud of him for trying and he looked really happy”

Practitioners also discussed the barriers to meeting outcomes – e.g. need for mobility aides or encountering prejudice, which was frustrating and challenging. It seems that when outcomes are achieved by those supported by services, they are mirrored in the positive outcomes for practitioners.

The well-being of people accessing support was also a feature of the diaries. This includes the health (physical and mental) of people accessing support. A range of emotional responses to well-being were documented, the most frequently occurring being ‘difficult’ and ‘hard’.

“You feel helpless but all you want to do is help them”

However other emotions such as feeling ‘rewarded’ ‘happy’ and ‘proud’ were equally represented. Also included in this driver was the feelings practitioners have when someone they have supported dies, an experience reflected in some of the diaries.

Interpersonal relationships are a dominant feature of the diaries. The administration of communication (setting up meetings and calls) was a strong feature of the discussion about relationships. In these diaries, robust relationships tended to lead to feeling rewarded and happy.

“Head to meet boy who was released in December … we had explored huge chunk of his life – past and present. Such a rewarding part of my work having had a rich and varied life experience with many ups and downs and roundabouts. I am able to tap into this and offer these young people solutions or different perspectives”

Some practitioners struggled with the impact of the behaviours/choices of the people they supported, which they perceived as negative and which impacted on them personally leading to stress and worry. These diaries showed the depth of relationships between practitioners and people who access support, and how strongly these relationships could impact on the emotional experience of care.

Life at work

The biggest driver for emotional responses in the diaries is work tasks – a category that we have used to describe specific aspects of supporting people such as providing specific support, finding placements.

A quarter (25/93) of all of the entries that discussed work tasks focused on a lack of time and an inability to complete tasks. This led to people feeling challenged, worried and concerned. Overall, the diaries reflect the impact of an overwhelming workload amongst social service staff.

“I often feel guilty for not spending enough time with service users. How much is enough?”

The quality and nature of their relationships with colleagues and managers is another key part of practitioners’ emotional experiences. Internal relationships with colleagues from the same agency/organisation led to a variety of emotional responses. ‘Rewarding’ the most common (10/46) but ‘frustration’ comes close second (8/46).

“I find it frustrating the my managers do not take my views seriously”
“The most rewarding part of today was seeing the student on placement develop … I felt I had done something right

Having supportive relationships with colleagues and managers led to positive emotions. Relationships with external/partner organisations were mentioned 12 times, and 11 of these entries speak about these relationships leading to frustration. These findings are echoed in the analysis of prompt cards and timesheets.

Support systems were also a feature of the diaries. Supervisory relationships could be seen as supportive and unsupportive, depending on the nature of the relationship, but led to an emotional response. Technology is mentioned seven times, always as a deficit or frustration.

“Computer systems really slow – typing faster than system time for this – frustrating!

Training is only mentioned twice in the whole dataset, perhaps indicating its limited impact on the emotional experience of practitioners on a day-to-day basis.

Travel, which includes commuting, bus schedules, weekend working, and pool cars, led to frustration, tiredness and challenges for staff.

Surprisingly, there was limited discussion within the diaries about terms and conditions such as patterns of shift work, pay,etc.

“Can I really justify doing a job where I travel for more hours than I get paid?.. I feel like I’m still doing it because I feel guilty about leaving the clients”.

This driver only appears 25 times, but leads to feelings of frustration and tiredness/exhaustion. Terms and conditions are a feature of the prompt card section of the data set.

Personal Wellbeing

Work-life balance and personal lives outside of work were also a feature of the diaries. Some of the positive personal emotional language (happiness and joy) was related to spending time away from work and taking breaks. It seems that there is a weariness in people’s experience. Practitioners spoke about being worried, thinking about work outside of working hours and being personally responsible for not keeping a work/life balance.

“ ..after you leave you still don’t stop thinking… this goes on for a couple of hours until you get to relax

Practitioners also wrote about work life balance in the prompt cards and timesheets, which have been analysed by colleagues at the University of Glasgow.

Health in the workplace was also a feature of the diaries. There were 14 mentions of ill health, or worrying about the poor health of others.

“I’m still not feeling so great today.. I just feel exhausted.”

Poor health lead to feelings of worry and exhaustion. As the analysis of prompt cards and timesheets shows, most staff work more than their contracted hours, often working unsociable hours.


This analysis is grounded in the words and emotional expressions of the diary entries we received. While we had some opportunity to test our findings with practitioners, we have not validated the individual entries and our analysis of their emotional content with each practitioner. We have used internal sense-checking to ensure we were robust in our analysis. Further research is needed to situate the emotional quality of these diaries within wider debates about emotions, social structure and behaviour (see for example, Antonio Damasio’s discussion of emotions and decision making).


For us, the process of reading and analysing the diaries was an emotional experience in and of itself. We felt that the emotional labour of care (both the joy and the challenge) weighed heavily on practitioners, and spilled over into their personal lives.

Practitioners find joy and pride in what they do, mostly through seeing the people they support achieve outcomes and through building meaningful relationships with the people they support and work with. However, we need to recognise the tremendous day-to-day stress and difficulty that these diaries presented, which showed a workforce feeling overwhelmed by increasing workload and lack of emotional and practical support in the work they do.

The analysis of the diaries provides a valuable insight into the reflections of social care staff. Unlike interviews, focus groups or surveys — this part of the research was unprompted and un-facilitated. We made no suggestion about the kind of writing people might like to include in the diary (aside from a request for anonymisation) and placed no limits on the length of the entry. The value of these diaries lies in the honest reflections of the participant.

The diaries have particularly meaningful to us as researchers and former care workers. We had strong emotional reactions in our analysis of these diaries, feeling a connection with the material and experiences of people who work in social services. We feel honoured to have been given insight into day-to-day practice.


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