Helping professionals need empathy to build trusting and effective relationships with clients (Gerdes & Segal, 2011). Showing empathy to clients in the helping process may decrease client resistance to disclose certain information (Forrester, Kershaw, Moss, & Hughes, 2008). There is a lack of research on how social work education, including social work internships can affect empathy development of students.
This study examined the influence that a 180-hour social work internship had on students’ dispositional empathy, defined as reactions to the observed experiences of others, using the Interpersonal Reactivity Index in Japanese version (IRI-J) originally constructed by Davis (1983), and translated to Japanese by Himich et al (2017).
Initial data were collected via a panel survey in which the subjects were Japanese undergraduates. The IRI-J is a 28-item measure of a person’s dispositional empathy, consisting of 4 subscales: Fantasy (FS), Empathic Concern (EC), Personal Distress (PD), and Perspective Taking (PT). The IRI-J scale was administered at 3 points, before and after the internship, and a 1 to 2 month follow-up with a convenience sample of the 3rd year students from the university (N=63, female=49, male=14). Their mean age was 20.7 years (SD=1.69). 41.3% of the subjects worked at agencies for the aged, 27% for the disabled, and 17.5% for children. To analyze the influence a social work internship had on their dispositional empathy, the repeated measure of analysis of variance was used to compare the mean scores of 4 subscales of IRI-J, in terms of time and gender. The Cronbach alphas of 4 subscales of empathy on the IRI-J ranged from 0.65-0.85.
The second phase was a focus group discussion with 3 females from the initial phase, whose PT scores were critically developed from baseline to post-test. The participants were asked how they viewed their own empathy, whether they thought their empathy further developed through the internship, and what experiences in the internship affected their empathy development.
The analyses revealed that there was no statistically significant influence of the internship on the students’ empathy development, although the mean scores of subscales were improved at post-test, and maintained at the 1 to 2 month follow-up. The analysis of the focus group data indicated that frequent interactions with clients during the internship, supervision provided at the respective agencies, and writing reports in the post-field seminar class were helpful in the development of empathy.
The findings of the initial panel study suggested that the social work internship did not influence on the students’ empathy development, which is different from the results of the previous studies. However, the focus group data suggests that empathy had critically developed through their internship experiences. To further understand the exact influence of the internship on the social work students’ dispositional empathy development, future research should be undertaken, to include: a) increased sample size, b) examination of the applicability of this US developed scale in Japan, c) control for social desirability, d) control group of students not involved in internship, and e) larger focus group sample.