Social Work Supervision- Five steps to making it better
To our dismay, we have yet to meet many social workers who provide fulsome reviews of their supervision experiences. Concerning? Yes. Surprising? Perhaps not. It would seem that all aspects of social work, including supervision, have been berated in recent years. Indeed, issues with supervision have been identified in many serious case reviews, including Baby P, Victoria Climbié, and others.
Some anonymous social workers, in our research efforts, have commentated:
“I find regular supervision makes my job easier”
“Supervision does not offer [the] opportunity to reflect on cases or explore [the] impact on own emotional well-being…it’s target driven and impersonal”
“[I’m not satisfied by] low quality supervision”
“supervision is negative…it focuses on what has not gone well”
“There’s a lack of supervision and team meetings”
“I’ve paid for professional supervision before”
We think that, to be an effective and supportive process, supervision should be an enjoyable experience. It should provide an opportunity to unburden yourself regarding cases; a time to reflect on your learning needs, feelings and well-being; and a safe space for you to talk about your pressures and fears. Moreover, in an ideal world, supervision should take place with an experienced and knowledgeable supervisor, based on trust and commitment to the health and well-being of both social workers and service users.
So, what’s the problem? Is it lack of time, resources, availability, organisational failures to understand the realities of the job, or what? We want to know, but the truth is that nobody knows, not definitely at least. Perhaps it’s all of the above and more.
Recent research published by The British Association of Social Workers, found that for newly qualified workers, the main purpose of supervision was case management. Reflection, training, encouragement and personal development were treated as optional extras. This suggests that, within the social work profession, the role of supervision is being confused with that of management, which is more closely related to the work process. Supervision is about the direction of people and requires a greater focus on coaching, leadership and morale.
On the whole, we’re not proponents for scrapping entire systems or the way we do things. Yet, we strongly believe that time for case reflection, identifying training needs, respecting and encouraging one’s workforce are essential for professional development and outcomes.
In this case, there are things that can be done to realistically adapt the way in which we work to address the challenges faced by the profession. So, here’s what we think could be done:
Establish ‘Drop In’ Opportunities
Formal social work supervision, in some locations, appears to be occurring once a month or so. This approach doesn’t work because it doesn’t reflect the nature of job. How are you supposed to effectively manage risk, sensibly prioritise a caseload and manage your health and well-being in an environment that doesn’t assure you support from a manager or supervisor?
Supervision should be an ongoing process – a continual dialogue between social workers and supervisors.
To meet the demands of modern practice, there are at least two options. On the one hand, teams can introduce regularly available ‘drop in’ clinics, operated and run by experienced and knowledgeable supervisors. On the other, there is growing interest in the ‘morning huddle’, a change for all team members to communicate with each other and make sure that everybody has the heads up about the achievements and challenges.
Either approach could reduce pressures on frontline managers, reassure workers that they have someone to share potential difficulties they run into, and provide a little reassurance that they are not working in isolation.
The best asset any social care organisation has is its workforce. Social workers are the experts at what they do. So, why not use them to provide peer supervision?
It makes sense. Do you ever ask colleagues for their opinion on a tricky case or have a case discussion? Then you’re already doing it. Use the strengths available. Not only will it share the skills currently available, it will also provide those who want it with some supervising experience. Research in 2007 suggests that as many as 75% of social workers view their colleagues as an important source of support at work. Additionally, our research into stress among social workers in England found, just 23% of practitioners felt comfortable approaching their managers for support. These figures suggest a severe problem.
Of course, organisations are going to have to adjust current work demands and invent a new form.
Does anyone audit supervision, or does it just go into a filing cabinet somewhere? If, as research suggests, there are legitimate concerns about low quality supervision, who ensures social workers are getting the support and oversight they need?
Walk in Each Other Shoes
A social worker in Wales said, “senior managers are so far removed, they need a telescope to see the frontline”. This paints a pretty dysfunctional relationship between social workers and management.
Why not introduce mandatory hours for managers, of all levels, at the frontline? This could ensure the work, pressures and stresses social workers experience is understood by organisations. And perhaps there is a case for opening frontline staff up to the pressures facing managers.
The Social Workers’ Health Index
Key to understand the nature of the job is understanding the impact of the job on the workforce. Extremely high levels of stress, emotional exhaustion, poor sleep, emotional eating, high staff turnover, low work-life expectancy, and feelings being unable to cope are some pretty solid indicators that things are looking pretty bleak.
Although we know this, anecdotally and from research, are organisations monitoring and preventing stress to an acceptable degree?
What about introducing the social worker health index. A supervision tool that allows managers and organisations to monitor and support practitioners who are showing indicators of stress. It would allow employers to better understand indicators of stress and act to reduce them.
Oliver Beer is a researcher and registered Social Worker. You can follow him on Twitter @