Abstract: Components of Orientation to Living Among Social Work Graduate Students (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Components of Orientation to Living Among Social Work Graduate Students

Friday, January 22, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Meekyung Han, PhD, Professor, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA
Background and Purpose: Many social workers say their profession is a calling. They are attracted to social work partially because they tend to have high degrees of sensitivity and empathy, as well as histories of personal and/or familial challenges. However, such characteristics strongly relate to trait anxiety, and sometimes such individuals tend not to cope well with challenging demands. Since they harbor self-doubts and worry, they may take home their clients’ problems and feel stressed about fulfilling their professional responsibilities. As a general predisposition to fear and worry, trait anxiety unintentionally puts people at risk of emotional exhaustion, compassion fatigue, poor performance, and burnout. Individuals with relatively high trait anxiety may consistently perceive situations in ways conducive to becoming anxious, eventually leading to reduced self-esteem, which is among the most important, significant predictors of subjective wellbeing.

To enhance self-esteem and mitigate emotional exhaustion and burnout among helping professionals, including social workers, studies have increasingly explored the positive roles of various aspects of orientation to living (OTL), including mindfulness, self-compassion, religion, and spirituality. Nevertheless, the specific content to be covered remains unclear, and relatively limited information is available for social work students. Therefore, this study explores the relationship between various OTL aspects, trait anxiety, and self-esteem among graduate social work students. Identifying personal resources and practices that reduce anxiety and enhance self-esteem among these students will ensure they continue to deliver effective social work services in internships and after graduation.

Methods: This cross-sectional study recruited 60 students (54 females, six males) from two Master of Social Work (MSW) programs in the San Francisco Bay area. Most (61.6%) reported having worked in direct social work service settings before entering the program, and their average level of experience was 2.6 years (SD=1.22). Measures: Mindfulness was measured by the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale; self-compassion by Neff’s Kindness Subscale; spirituality by the Spiritual Involvement and Beliefs Scale; religiosity by the Religiosity Scale; trait anxiety by Spielberger’s Trait-Anxiety Inventory; and self-esteem by the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.

Results: Preliminary findings show a significant relationship among certain OTL components—e.g., mindfulness and self-compassion (a=.39, p<.005), religiosity and spirituality (a=.80, p<.001), and self-compassion and spirituality (a=.28, p<.05). Hierarchical multiple regression analysis revealed that, after controlling for personal/contextual characteristics (e.g., age, social support), mindfulness and self-compassion predicted reduced trait anxiety (standardized b= -.32 and standardized b= -.23, p<.05, respectively). Trait anxiety significantly predicted reduced self-esteem (standardized b= -.55, p<.001), and spirituality predicted enhanced self-esteem (standardized b=.25, p<.05).

Conclusions and Implications: Limited research on the salutogenic effects of mindfulness, self-compassion, and spirituality has been conducted among social work students. This study extends the body of knowledge and contributes to social work education by providing a better understanding of the positive roles mindfulness and self-compassion play in the personal attributes of graduate social work students, seeming to enhance self-esteem. Social work students should be oriented to trait anxiety, so they may be more aware of areas for professional and personal growth, leading to reduced burnout susceptibility, enhanced self-esteem, and greater professional success.