By: Steven Peet, BSW
Social work texts offer up a number of definitions of supervision, but generally they all cover much the same ground. Supervision within a social work context is a process in which the supervisor works with team member(s) to meet organizational, professional, and personal objectives. These objectives can generally be broken down to be around competency, accountable performance, continuing professional development, and personal support (SHB, 2000; Harris, 1987; & Morrison, 2001).
One contributor on this subject, Kieran O'Donoghue, prefers to utilize a more worker-centered definition of supervision. Namely, O’Donoghue (2000) says that “professional social work supervision is a process which facilitates critical reflection upon actions, processes, persons, and the context of social work practice.” In this regard, he chooses to focus on the support and personal development side of the equation, as opposed to specific case management, administration, and agency issues.
One of the problematic issues with supervision is that it is often “taken over” by case management. For example, this may include managers discussing the resources needed for cases, rather than reflecting on practice or learning. Froggett (1998) states that combining case management and practice supervision can often give rise to conflict. Workers he studied highlighted that the “perceived tension” between managerial and professional issues has an impact on staff-supervisor communication. One can possibly take from this that the potential for conflict between the two areas gives rise to issues that ultimately may affect service delivery. Notably, the greatest levels of supervisee satisfaction, reported in Frogget’s study, occurred when there was a congruence between the preferred style of supervisor and the supervisee.
One could argue, therefore, that supervision should be focused on non-management issues, but it is obvious that in the “real world,” these two areas become blurred. One could purely blame the line manager for this, but it is my view that the individual worker should also be personally responsible for the form that supervision takes. As an aid to enhancing this process, for example, the Irish Association of Social Workers (2009) provides each member with a template for a contract between worker and supervisor. This document suggests an unambiguous focus on skills development, reflection, and constructive feedback.
In terms of assessing the benefits of supervision to a client or client group, O’Donoghue (2000) claims that best practice has a role in the maintenance of boundaries and ethics, protection from unsafe practice, and providing a reassurance to the client that the worker is accountable to a higher authority for his or her behaviors. In the same article, he also claims that although the raison d’etre of supervision is undoubtedly the clients themselves, service users generally do not have any voice in the process. He makes the case that there is a certain irony in this, as social workers are often strong advocates for greater transparency.
The approach taken, the methods used, and overall effectiveness of the supervisor are of prime importance to the supervisee. Even the use of the term supervisor itself is key to our understanding of the process: etymologically, the word derives from the Latin “super” meaning “over,” and “videre,” which is to watch or see (Smith, 2005). But in addition to “watching over” the work of others, the supervisor is also generally expected to be both a teacher and innovator.
To look more critically at the modern notion of “managers,” Drucker (1988) makes the case that in the commercial world, a manager is expected to develop relationships and environments that enable people to work together and respond to change. As such, “joint performance” involves having common goals, shared values, the right structures, and continuing development. In the business world, a reduction in “performance” may affect profitability, but the same cannot be said when considering this issue when it relates to social workers or their clients. For example, in an examination of fatal child abuse cases in the UK, Reder and Duncan make the point that the practitioners he studied were often less able to assess the risk to children when they had “excessive caseloads or inadequate supervision” (1999, p. 126).
The most basic building blocks of every team, department, or service are the individual social work professionals who work within each structure. Therefore, the importance of good supervision is paramount. Thompson (2000) says that it is evidently critical for agencies to support their staff and for practitioners to seek out effective supervision. This is due to the emotional component of working in all areas of social work, and it is imperative that support activities should be readily available. This is for a number of reasons, such as minimizing staff attrition and reducing the chances of “burnout.” Thompson also further recommends a number of steps that can be taken in this regard, such as being aware of stress factors, extending coping resources, identifying or utilizing supports, and recognizing that stress is an organizational matter and not a sign of personal weakness.
In terms of research, Harkness and Hensley (1991) make the case that client focused supervision produces a 10% increase in goal attainment, a 20% improvement in work helpfulness, and a 30% improvement in satisfaction in the client-worker relationship. Their study, which focused on a small sample of client interventions in the mental health arena, found that the effectiveness of supervision and its focus were significant factors in maximizing clinical practice.
Personal Experience of Supervision
In terms of my own recent experience of supervision during my placement within the pediatric department of a large hospital, I count myself as being singularly blessed in this regard. From the outset, I consciously made an effort to make the most of the supervision provided, and I also found that my practice teacher provided a very supportive and safe place to explore my feelings. From the very first session, I decided to be as honest as possible within this “space,” and a number of very frank discussions took place over the following weeks. For example, we discussed at great length how seeing children who have been in serious accidents affected me as a parent. This type of conversation certainly helped me to compartmentalize my feelings, but also to allow any emotional reactions to what I was seeing to be effectively explored in the context of supervision. The other benefit, I felt, was that from an early stage, I had the confidence to make decisions about my chosen interventions with the full knowledge that my practice teacher(s) would support me. In this regard, I felt that the supervision provided was extremely effective and added greatly to my professional development. When I enter practice, I will certainly be seeking out the same.
I concede that the quality and amount of supervision given to students in placement is probably as good as one might find in practice. This is likely to be due to the commitment given to the placement process by the practice teachers and the stipulations set by the college in order to “protect” the students.
On a more general level, what I also witnessed at the hospital, within the social work department, was a great deal of peer support. This ranged from nearly the entire team meeting daily for their morning coffee break, which meant that you could always rely on being able to find someone to talk to about any case-related issues, through to each team member having one or two close friends within the department. The notion of mutual-support was quite palpable between colleagues. On a more official level and relating to the need for continuous professional development, the department also held monthly Continuous Professional Development (CPD) sessions (voluntarily attended by nearly all staff), and in addition, the team was planning to re-commence a department journal club.
My own experience is perhaps in stark contrast to the events that Fergus Hogan recounts from when he was a newly qualified social worker (1998). He recalls being absolutely terrified with the responsibility of his first job, noting that he had actively chosen to work in a team that “offered” the promise of regular supervision. But after his first session, he discovered that his team leader had a very different idea. The focus of supervision had been purely on case management, rather than giving Hogan a chance to talk about how he felt. Hogan states that, at this seminal point in his career, he felt that he needed a place to “talk about fears, worries, vulnerabilities, and hope of being a newly qualified social worker.” As a result of this and of feeling that he was constantly under pressure to prove his own competence, Hogan left that job after only six months.
Use of the Internet for Remote Supervision
With the advent of inexpensive computing and the increasingly pervasive nature of the Internet in our lives, there is potentially a case for developing remote supervision as a technique. As far back as 1997, individuals were using the Internet to connect and conduct peer supervision. Stofle (1998) discusses an example in which two workers opted to alternate between face-to-face supervision and sessions conducted remotely. The workers in question found that their online sessions were just as productive as their actual meetings. Their findings would seem to be still relevant. The advantages the subjects reported were around general convenience, ease of expression, and the useful option to print the conversation in hard copy for referral at a later point. The participants also made the interesting comment that often “some things are easier to write than to say.” In terms of disadvantages, the two workers reported that they missed the ability to see the reactions of each other, there were some technical problems at times, silence or inactivity was often interpreted as the other being distracted or not paying attention, and there was a greater propensity for distractions.
In my view, the other worrying aspect of online supervision is the potential for a breach in worker-client confidentiality. In this regard, participants would need to define clear ground rules, such as ensuring they did not use the names of clients or any other identifying information. They would also need to be highly conscious of the “illusion of confidentiality” that the Internet has and even go as far as making sure they did not use their own names in any correspondence. In an interesting article about the use of social networking sites in social work, Bartley-Young (2009) makes the point that as we live in a technological world, we should certainly embrace all it has to offer. However, she states, we also need to be aware of the inherent obstacles.
Peer Group Supervision
When supervision is not available, a number of professionals may choose to come together as colleagues or peers to support each other. This can often be done “unconsciously,” such as when former students continue to meet regularly after they enter the workplace, to share their experiences. This can be especially beneficial when individuals choose not to discuss actual casework with their partners or family, because of concerns about confidentiality or even just a desire of the worker to not burden other people with what they may have seen in a work context. In a relevant piece discussing the merits of peer supervision for newly qualified psychologists, Ackhurst and Kelly make the point that the use of colleague-based groups offers the opportunity “of relieving the potential circularity of their learning when they practice in isolation; enhancing coping skills...[and] a way of keeping pace with developments in the field” (2006). The point is also made that such groups are also resource efficient. Other benefits include support and encouragement, thus increasing morale, enhancement of skills through observing/critiquing of each other, generation of new ideas, and resolution of conflict situations. This piece highly recommends the use of peer support supervision in combination with traditional “dyadic” ways of working. The use of peer-group supervision, either informal or formal, has potentially the same benefits for social workers.
A growing trend is in terms of agencies that choose to buy-in or contract supervision from an external source. Increasingly, this happens when social workers operate outside a team structure or when the management skills are not readily available. In New Zealand, O’Donoghue (2000) makes it clear that such an initiative must be applauded, as the “powers that be” have obviously identified a need for effective supervision. But he raises the cautionary note that the people doing the “purchasing,” therefore, have an influence on what is provided in terms of length, content, quality, and type of supervision. His point is that the resulting supervision may emphasize techniques and practice skills rather than “knowledge [and]...critical reflection in relation to the person’s environment.” The argument is that simply purchasing supervision off the shelf does not necessarily mean the supervision will be effective. Similarly, “without a culture of best practice and a professional orientation; social work supervision becomes subject to ideological, agency and managerial capture” (Taverner, 1989, in O’Donoghue, 2000).
I would make the case that supervision is a very contemporary issue, and that as social workers continue to be under-supported and under-resourced, provision of good quality supervision is paramount. It is vital to social workers themselves and the clients with whom they work. Therefore, the lesson for me has been this: when I am successful in finding a position, I will try to ensure that supervision remains distinct from case management. I will strive to utilize the space provided to me, and I will maximize its extent. In addition, I will utilize mutual peer support, either within the work team structure or through the contacts I have made during my studies, as a supplement to supervision. I believe that if I don’t make the effort to ensure all of these things are in place, then I will be letting myself down.
Ackhurst, J., & Kelly, K, (2006). Peer group supervision as an adjunct to individual supervision: Optimising psychologists training. Psychology Teaching Review, 12 (1), 3-15. Available at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/lihs/.../Peer %20group%20supervision_article.doc.
Bartley-Young, T. (2009, Fall). Facebook: Ethical and clinical considerations. The New Social Worker, 16 (4). Available at: http://www. socialworker.com/home/component/remository/Download/TheNewSocialWorkerMagazine/TheNewSocialWorkerVol.16No.4%28Fall2009%29/.
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Reder, P., & Duncan, S. (1999). Lost innocents: A follow-up study of fatal child abuse. London: Routledge.
Southern Health Board. (2000). Southern Health Board supervision policy for social workers. Internal document (now the HSE-Southern Region) distributed to staff and management.
Smith, M. K. (2005). The functions of supervision. In The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education. Available at: http://www.infed.org/biblio/functions_of_supervision.htm.
Stofle, G, (1998, Fall). Online supervision for social workers. The New Social Worker, 5 (4). Available at: http://www.socialworker.com/onlinesu.htm.
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Thompson, N. (2000). Understanding social work: Preparing for practice. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press.
Steven Peet graduated as a mature student with a Bachelor of Social Work from the University College Cork (Ireland). Previous to that, he worked in the business world. He has just completed his first six months of employment working in the area of children, youth, and families and is furthering his studies with a MSc in Primary Care.