Effective Social Work Supervision: Top Tips

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Social Work Supervision: As a qualified Social Worker and experienced Manager, I have been approached by a number of Professionals and Service Providers recently asking me for advice on what is ‘effective supervision’.

Working in the Social Work/Care Sector is a demanding profession. It requires a wealth of skills, knowledge and constant review of one’s practice. It is demanding intellectually and can be both physically and emotionally draining. We work with societies most vulnerable in their time of need or crisis. As such, one of the most essential supportive mechanisms we require as practitioners is effective (and reflective) supervision.  However, the term itself can be very ambiguous and confusing.

Whether you’re an experienced Social Worker, Newly Qualified Social Worker or Support Worker; active supervision is an essential requirement. It should promote your emotional well-being, learning and development and line management accountability. Good supervision and support is often reported as being one of the key areas for staff retention. So, what does ‘effective supervision’ look like? Whilst not an exhaustive list, here are some great top tips.

Avoid re-arranging or cancelling

Whether workload pressures or being ‘double booked’; often the first to be ‘axed’ from the diary is supervision. It is as though supervision is seen as secondary to any other aspect of our work. It is not. Regular supervision allows us to reflect on our work (the what, where, when and how), it offers us a forum where we can ‘offload’. It is needed to offer support, advice and guidance relating to practice, whilst also paying adequate attention to personal and professional development. Without it, it increases the risk of burn out, isolation and the potential for poor practice.

Bring an agenda

Sounds simple, but you would be surprised at how many managers and staff fail to have an agenda for supervision. It can literally be on a piece of scrap paper. An agenda will offer you direction. It will help you identify what it is you want out of the supervision session – it is a task centred approach to working. Remember, it is YOUR supervision!

Use supervision to promote reflective discussion

One of the most important skills for Social Care or Social Work Professionals is in the ability to think critically and to reflect on our behaviour. We do this so as we can review our work with those in need and identify what worked well and what areas we need to develop. As such, any good supervision session will focus heavily on reflective practice. Use the session to discuss ‘real case’ examples. Link your understanding of theory and how this has informed your practice – it helps you to ‘make sense’ of the situation. This is one of the best forms of learning in practice.

Be honest about workload capacity

Those that work in the Social Care or Social Work sector are selfless. Whilst I believe this to be an excellent quality, it can sometimes be our downfall. What I mean by this is that we often focus on supporting others ahead of supporting ourselves. This will often result in practitioners taking on more work than they can appropriately (or safely) manage. If not managed, this can be a recipe for disaster in two ways: 1) It will result in rapid burn out and 2) It will result in poor service delivery to those requiring support. As such, you should detail in supervision your workload capacity. If you have too much on, then say so.

Note: Do not be afraid to say that you cannot take on more work. Get it added to your supervision record – remember, this is your record and in order for it to be ‘signed off’, you must agree with the content. A good manager will support your professional judgement. A poor one will continue to pile the work on you, until you are unable to function. If the latter is what you currently experience, seek senior manager support. Whilst I appreciate this is easier said than done, there are policies in place to support staff supersede such issues.

Managers: Avoid micro-managing

In my experience, micro-managing is the most debilitating form of management. It’s ‘style’ will often result in the development of professional self-doubt, a lack of confidence and an over reliance on seeking approval for every aspect of work. It can cause professionals to develop anxious related practice. As a result, decisions are often defensive rather than defensible.  I have personally experienced what micro-managing can do, and I can tell you, it is not helpful in any shape or form!

Instead, allow the Practitioner to explore and develop their own way of working – this can be promoted in supervision by asking open ended questions to elicit appropriate responses. We do value professional judgement and accountability after all.

Recognise and promote positive practice

Make sure that within the supervision session there is at least one agenda item that focuses on promoting the practitioners practice. By focusing on at least one area of work that they have done well will contribute to increased feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. The recognition of their positive qualities, in what is deemed a challenging yet rewarding profession, will result in increased job satisfaction, staff productivity and subsequent staff retention.

Invest in staff development

Any good supervision session should have a section dedicated to staff development. Therefore, make sure you bring a list of all upcoming training, courses or events or areas that you would like to develop further. Any good Supervisor should want to invest in staff development. Not only does this increase service delivery (the more skilled the worker, the better the outcomes), it will also promote staff self-worth and value.

Use Your Social Work Skills

A good manager will have the ability to support the supervisee by having capacity for containment, empathy, reflection and should encourage analysis of in depth discussion. This will assist front-line staff cope with the complex day to day work with Service Users. It sounds simple, but the ability to be person-centred to the Professional is a very powerful tool. Remember, practice what you preach!

The 4 x 4 x 4 Model of Supervision Model – Wonnacott (2012)

There are a wealth of model’s and theories that explain or identified the need for good supervision. However, from my experience, Wonnacott’s (2012) Supervision Model promotes critical analysis/reflection within an organisational context/framework.

The model seeks to bring together:

The four stakeholders in supervision

  • Service users

  • Staff

  • The organisation

  • Partner organisations

The four functions of supervision

  • Management

  • Development

  • Support

  • Mediation

The four elements of the supervisory cycle

  • Experience

  • Reflection

  • Analysis

  • Action

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