I have often written about how Social Workers can be severely damaged by secondary trauma and the subject is commonly discussed on my Facebook page or its linked group. We deal with so much pain and suffering that it is unrealistic to expect us not to become drained by what we must endure. Over time, this constant negativity can lead to even the most compassionate and caring of people becoming cynical and jaded.
When I’ve raised this issue, lots of you have got in touch to say how you’ve been affected by compassion fatigue in your own practice. Many of you also share how it was a big driving factor behind your burnout and low mood.
With compassion fatigue having such a devastating impact on both our professional and personal lives, something must be done to offer Social Workers better support to come to terms with our experiences.
This is where I think supervision- real therapeutic supervision- can come into its own as a means of helping us resolve secondary trauma, let go of pain, and move on in our work with a renewed sense of purpose.
I’ve been lucky in my career in that I’ve had a positive working relationship with all my managers and service managers. Despite getting on well with them, I’ve found a common theme with all my managers that supervision was more of a clerical than a clinical activity.
The focus of supervisions tends to be on case progression, report deadlines, recording of data and planning tasks for the coming month. There’s usually a short space for how I’m feeling in the workplace (standard answer being ‘fine’) but very little on exploring my emotions regarding the people I am supporting.
When I speak to colleagues from all over the world, their experiences are the same- Social Work supervision is becoming more about documenting case progress and less about exploring feelings.
More worrying than that, a significant number of you are telling me that you rarely get Social Work supervision at all. This is especially concerning when considered in the context that many failings in Social Work are linked to poor managerial oversight.
Coming back to my own experiences, I’m not able to lay any blame at all on my managers for the lack of depth in supervisions or space to freely explore my feelings in a manner akin to counselling. Without fail, every one of my managers has been dedicated, committed, intelligent and hard-working; already in the office when I arrive in the morning and always the last to leave.
Instead, it is the demands of the system that forces them to dedicate their supervision time to a series of administrative task, following a generic template that offers little scope for free-thinking.
When was the person last seen?
When was the last review meeting?
Have you completed the task list from last month?
What are your tasks for this month?
These supervision templates, used across the world, are framed with a series of closed questions that leave little space to explore the emotional impact of Social Work, but do provide neat pieces of data that can be tracked by performance indicators.
With pressure from above to provide this data in a timely manner and avoid the dreaded ‘drift’ in cases, managers have no choice but to succumb to the will of a procedural system that increasingly prioritises paperwork over people.
The knock-on effect of this is that Social Workers are losing possibly the only chance we have to address our secondary trauma, offload our pain and seek to resolve the internal crises that speed up burnout. Without being able to address these issues in therapeutic supervision, we are left to either bottle up our emotions or turn to negative coping mechanisms.
Research from SCIE shows that good quality supervision gives people better job satisfaction, creates more committed workers and reduces turnover. The research findings go on to reveal that inadequate supervision poses a threat to confidence, competence, capacity, workforce stability and morale.
Supervision’s effect on both the individual and wider workforce is clear, so why is it increasingly being reduced to a series of administrative tasks and case updates?
Social Work supervision must be much more than this if we are to bring about positive changes for our service users and keep hold of our valued workers.
If managers aren’t going to be freed from the shackles of repetitive data tasks or given smaller teams to manage, then organisations need to bring in external counsellors who can offer therapy sessions to Social Workers. This way we can have both the audit trail needed to avoid case delay and the truly reflective therapeutic supervision needed to resolve secondary trauma, come to terms with crises, run through scenarios and really think about the people we serve.
There is something deeply wrong in Social Work when our friends working in private industries can readily access free counselling at work, yet we are expected to endure witnessing extreme abuse with little to no support in coping with it all.
Even the best helpers need helping now and again.