Where has all the reflection gone?

Academic Rhian Taylor wanted to find out what happens when you step away from the spreadsheets and get back to old fashioned communication

Photo: Burger/Phanie/Rex. Posed by models
Photo: Burger/Phanie/Rex. Posed by models

By Rhian Taylor

In my previous role as practice manager in a youth offending service, I became increasingly aware of changes to supervision practice. Like many, my organisation had moved from a more reflective style of supervision to one where case management procedures increasingly dominated. A spreadsheet documenting case management tasks needed to be completed in every session, computers were used and every case needed to be discussed.

Reflective content

I felt a significant change to my own practice as a supervisor, particularly with regard to the reflective content of my supervision, and I wondered what this was like for supervisees.

To investigate further, I undertook a qualitative research project, exploring supervision and reflection in the organisation by interviewing 21 members of staff.

Although the study was on a small scale and as such no firm conclusions can be drawn, my findings did indicate certain trends.

Whilst supervision was well-embedded within the organisation, with all its social workers receiving it regularly, its function seemed to have changed. Much of the discussion about service users focused on whether relevant assessment documents had been completed, rather than concentrating on the wellbeing of service user or how to promote change.

Limited opportunities

Over half of respondents reported limited opportunities to be challenged about casework, discuss emotions, or explore the political and social context of the work.

Questions also emerged around whether supervision was effective in positively impacting on practice with service users, or if supervision was predominantly meeting organisational needs.

When asking participants about the priority given to the different functions of supervision – management, development, support and mediation—all participants except one put management as the primary focus of their sessions. Asked to allocate a percentage to the degree of focus on management, participants’ responses varied from 30-98%. The average was 67%.

Organisational pressures

These responses indicate a picture where management needs and organisational pressures are squeezing the role of reflection within the supervision process. But, crucially, reflection still emerged as very significant to practitioners. Nearly all respondents talked about the value of ad hoc supervision with their supervisor, the importance of a reflective team culture, and the value of discussions with colleagues about cases.

It was almost as if reflection had moved from the formal supervisory space to more informal spaces within teams. For a few participants, who had lost their fixed team base and did a lot of their work remotely, not having their colleagues and supervisor so directly available was particularly difficult.

Acting on the research

As I’ve written about in a previous article, the great advantage of conducting research when you are a practitioner is your potential to act on your research findings. In response to my research, and with the support of the senior management, a working group was set up to address some of these issues. Could we increase reflection and reduce the focus on the management function in supervision, whilst still meeting organisational needs for accountability?

Whilst recognising that the case management tasks still needed to be examined, we identified that the majority of this monitoring could be done by administrative staff outside of the supervision session, with supervision being used to pick up any pertinent issues which emerged from administrative reports.

Eye contact and focused listening

This change also meant reducing the necessity to use computers in supervision sessions so we could rediscover the eye contact and focused listening that was getting lost, as supervisors tried to listen and record at the same time.

We then addressed the requirement to discuss every case in supervision. This sometimes meant trying to discuss 20 young people and consequently meant that discussions ended up being superficial and rushed.

We recommended in-depth discussion of two to four cases per session- with at least one chosen by the supervisee and one by the supervisor.  The supervisor selecting cases seemed to minimise the possibility of supervisees just focusing on cases going well, or ones that they knew were up to date.

It seems clear that reflective supervision is under significant threat in our heavily regulated social services departments, but my research suggests practitioners will refuse to let it disappear.  Reflection is a response to the complexity of social work. Its place in supervision is vital in encouraging an effective and resilient future workforce.

Rhian Taylor is a lecturer in social work at the University of Kent. Further details of her research study can be found at http://ssrg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Taylor.pdf

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One Response to Where has all the reflection gone?

  1. Graham October 29, 2015 at 9:54 am #

    This is a very interesting article and reflects, I think, the way managerialism has diminished the social work role over the past 20 years. This is particularly so in adult care where the transfer of financial responsibility following on from the 1990 NHS and Community Care Act meant that a local authority’s primary responsibility became to manage a limited budget, rather than to meet the needs of it’s service users. The resultant process driven system led a senior manager of mine to refer to this as the ‘sausage factory’ approach. That was about 18 years ago and things have got progressively worse since then as management systems have become more thoroughly computerised and the demand for information from the top has increased accordingly. The author’s solution to her problem is admirable but made me envious! As a cost saving measure administrative staff have been largely done away with in my authority in the mistaken belief that front line work is so protected. In fact the result is that front line staff now spend maybe 75% of their time sitting in front of computer screens fulfilling largely administrative functions, which they dislike and are not very good at. Expensive way of saving money!