Interview with Dr. Natalie Kenely

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Official Bio of Dr. Kenely ( for more information visit

Dr Natalie Kenely is Head of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work within the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, where she has lectured since 1994. As Senior Lecturer, her main areas of teaching include personal and professional development, macro-practice, and management and leadership in social welfare. She has chaired the Faculty’s Research Ethics Committee for the past 4 years, and currently sits on the University Research Ethics Committee. She coordinates Practical Placements of social work students within the Department. Dr Kenely provides supervision to social workers in the field.

Her research interests include:
- Management and Leadership
- Emotional Intelligence
- Resilience
- Reflective Practice
- Compassion fatigue and burnout

Her PhD Thesis, titled Emotional Intelligence and Transformational Leadership in Social Work, sought to explore issues of organisational climate, human resource functions and leadership in the light of their effect on relationships within a major social work services Agency, and therefore their influence on the levels of emotional intelligence within the Agency.

Dr Kenely has presented her research in conferences both locally and abroad and was awarded Best Paper Award in an International Conference on Leadership held at Ashbridge Business School in London in 2013.

Dr Kenely is a warranted social worker and is a member of the Maltese Association for Social Workers (MASW). She is currently the University representative on the Junior College Board. She chaired the National Commission for the Family between 2012 and 2013. 


  1. First of all, thanks for being with Sharing4Good, Dr. Kenely. You have been very active in the volunteering sector. How was your journey towards becoming a Scholar and the Head of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work? How did it start?

For 6 years back in the 1980s I studied the natural sciences (Biology, Chemistry and Physics) preparing myself to enter University to become a Doctor of Medicine.  But while I studied at Sixth Form, I was for the first time exposed to volunteering, through the work I did with a group of youths with the elderly.  That is where I would say that the seed of volunteering was sown in me. Having had the opportunity of being exposed to social work, psychology and sociology, and the human sciences, during a gap year before I entered University, I fell in love with all that was related to these subjects and made a complete U-turn in my life.  I left the natural sciences and embarked on studies in psychology and social work.  And I graduated as a social worker in 1991.  I worked in different settings – school, health, child protection, residential homes for children, youth – before moving into academia, eventually furthering my studies and obtaining my PhD in 2008.  This is now my second academic year as Head of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work.


My volunteering did not stop throughout these years.  I am a founding member and have remained active in a Catholic youth group “Youth Fellowship” in Malta for the past 30 years.  I even left my job and worked on a full-time basis, with no pay for two years with this group.  Those years were crucial in many ways and on different levels – spiritual, psychological and practical.  They gave me a strong foundation and were important years of growth in resilience and love for volunteering.



  1. You have also been a Leadership and Coaching practitioner. What is your understanding of leadership and how can leadership studies help the field of social work? This was also one of the topics of your PhD thesis if I am not wrong.

Leadership, more specifically Transformational Leadership, was indeed the main focus of my PhD thesis. Leadership to me is pivotal.  The primal and pivotal role of a leader in any organization or team cannot be emphasized enough.  To me leadership is about having a vision, having the skills to be able to communicate that vision to your people, knowing where you are heading and how you intend to get there, getting your people on board and enthusiastic to work towards that vision, and putting in action a strategy to reach that goal!  It is also about giving individual consideration to the people you lead – knowing your people, working with them or walking the walk, being ready to do what you expect your people to do. Leadership is about stimulating your people to be creative and innovative, to challenge you and the status quo, to remain lifelong learners. Leadership is about being inspirational and courageous. The bottom line for me however remains that leadership must, at all costs, be ethical.  It must be led by respect for the dignity and rights of others.  Ethical leaders are honest and humane, they lead by example and are trustworthy.


It is only this kind of leadership that can make human service organisations survive in the face of adversity and the ever-changing face of social reality. Studying leadership, evaluating leadership functions within organisations and applying evidence based recommendations to practice would ensure the climate necessary for social workers to not burnout and to thrive despite the difficult realities that their work exposes them to.


  1. What is resilience for you and how can a practitioner foster or help instill it in a beneficiary or service user?

Resilience is a complex and multi-faceted construct. Put simply it is the ability of a person to recover from adversity and to react appropriately in the face of challenges.  We often speak of resilience as the ability to bounce back. Resilient people experience heightened wellbeing.


Practitioners can foster resilience and instill it in service users or beneficiaries first of all, I would say, by modeling resilience.  People need to learn how to cope with adversity.  Resilience can grow if people: stay mindful and in touch with what is going on inside; stay aware of how they normally manage stress; maintain and develop important relationships and connections; learn lessons from past experiences and so on.  Leaders need to provide safe spaces and practices in the workplaces that foster a climate that allows all this to take place.




  1. What are your latest interests in the field of research?

My main areas of interest are reflective practice; support network of social workers; burnout prevention in helping professionals; resilience; emotional intelligence; leadership.


  1. Since your start as Head of the Department, which have been your major satisfactions?

I have overseen four important things – the employment of a new member of staff after years of waiting; the start of a new Master of Arts in Social Policy (Inclusion and Cohesion); launching this coming academic year – a new Master of Social Work that will provide graduate entry into the social work profession; increasing number of graduates in social work.

Beneath all this is the satisfaction of working with a team of other academics and practitioners in the fields of social work and social policy who are passionate about anchoring these professions and developing new graduates who carry with them the knowledge, skills and values necessary to be effective in the social field and beyond.



  1. Could you tell us more about the Best Paper Award you received in an International Conference on Leadership held at Ashbridge Business School in London in 2013?

I was awarded the Best Paper Award for a paper I wrote and presented about the findings of my doctoral research. I carried out my research within the main social work services provider in Malta. The study explored the existing level of emotional intelligence within the Agency and ways in which its human resource functions, climate and leadership could be made more effective in order for the workplace to become a more emotionally intelligent one. It was thus placed within an Action Research framework.   The participating managers were provided with training and coaching.

An international Panel of experts on the topic of leadership selected my paper for the Award. Their feedback was very encouraging and uplifting. It was a huge satisfaction to receive an international award from amongst papers presented by other researchers from across the globe.


  1. How do you see your department in in five years’ time from now?

All the members of staff in my department are hugely involved in the community.  Community engagement is an important part of what we do – through our involvement in governmental and NGO boards and committees.  My vision for the department is that it continues to be the prime mover and source of influence for social policy formulation and implementation, and for teaching and advocating for best practices in social work. Our commitment to the development and formation of practitioners in the fields of social work and social policy remains our top priority.  I also see our department growing in the contribution it gives through research initiatives on an individual as well as on a departmental level.  I also see my department moving towards consolidating and strengthening its Master programmes.  I also see the members of my Department publishing their research and work internationally – a number of book chapters and articles are lined up for the coming couple of years.



  1. Do you have any special project for 2018? Initiatives at international level?

A number of members of the Department are involved in delivering papers at international conferences throughout this year.  Individuals are also involved in various EU projects where we collaborate with academics and professionals from around Europe…Violence Against Women; Children in Out-of-home Care are the current main ones.  Our Department is also very active in negotiating and setting up Erasmus agreements with different European Universities, for student and staff mobility.  This is in line with the University’s internationalization strategy. 



  1. How was your experience as the Head of the National Commission for the Family between 2012 and 2013I led the National Commission for the Family for just over a year.  It was a lovely experience of working with and leading a group of people who, all in their own different ways, could contribute with their expertise, to the understanding of and response to shifting patterns in families in Maltese society.  It was a time of rapid social and political change, and our remit was primarily that of consultants to the Minister of the Family, at the time, advising on how to respond to these changes.  The Commission researched these changing trends and managed to present a working document that outlined the major needs and strengths of the different forms of family that co-exist in society.  The Commission was re-configured once there was a change in government in 2013.



  1. Can you tell us a bit more about social work in Malta? What are the major trends? Does a social worker in Malta get full recognition for her contributions to the society?

Social work in Malta is considered one of the “younger” professions in the country – but one that has made huge strides and is         catching up with other professions, in terms of recognition and acknowledgement.  The major trend in social work services, I would say is that towards community services and outreach work in the community.  This does not lessen the multitude of services that are available, both those offered by the state and others offered by NGO and the Catholic Church.  These include: children and family services, child protection, fostering, adoption, residential services for children and young people, youth, drug and alcohol prevention and rehabilitation, school social work, mental health, elderly, disability, court services, domestic violence, homelessness…and more.


  1. For you youth empowerment is?

Agenzija Zghazagh is an agency that was set up in Malta in February 2011.  Its aim is that of “promoting the interests of young people and to provide assistance to youth organisations and young people in achieving their potential.”  It is in line with this agency’s aims and objectives that I understand youth empowerment.  It would mean allowing and encouraging the participation of youth in society by ensuring they have access to all the resources they require to thrive, as well as to health, education and employment. I have worked for more than 30 years with young people through my continued volunteering, and I have understood that they want to be given the opportunity to participate in decisions that would affect their lives.  They do not want to be passive recipients but active citizens seeking change and growth. They are creative but so often expected to fit into boxes that we create; they are innovative but so often faced with closed doors and status quo.  We need to allow them the space and the opportunity to spread their wings responsibly.


Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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