Tips on balancing being a supervisor while also being a practitioner

Wearing two hats or more is all in a day's work for our adult social care columnist Elizabeth Rylan, who juggles practice with being a supervisor

Photo: krasnevsky/Fotolia
Photo: krasnevsky/Fotolia

By Elizabeth Rylan*

Being a social worker requires adaptability, flexibility and the ability to respond to new and unpredictable situations. We practise across a range of settings and in one day I might review an older person with dementia in a residential home, assess a young adult with autism and then prepare for a mental health tribunal. I often think of this as having to have a range of ‘hats’ of varying styles – I may be carrying out the same role, but what this looks like in practice will differ.

Additionally, in my current role, I am both a case-holding practitioner and a supervisor to an unqualified, case-holding member of staff. I have always been interested in supporting and mentoring others but the step up to become a formal supervisor was a big change. However, once I had worked through my initial, perhaps commonly felt concerns (who am I to instruct another person what to do? Do I know enough? What if I get it wrong?) it has become part and parcel of my day job and one of the aspects I enjoy the most.

One of the aspects I was very conscious of when starting as a supervisor was balancing competing demands. Over the past 18 months I have supervised three different members of staff and have tried to work through how to best negotiate the differing dynamics. This is what I have learnt:

  1. Start as you mean to go on
    In my view, a clear and co-produced supervision agreement is key to promoting a shared understanding right from the start. This can include aspects such as the purpose of supervision; the remit of both parties; what supervision will ‘look’ like, for example, whether discussions will be recorded in notes or on case files; and also what to do if there are difficulties in the supervisory relationship.As yet, I have never had cause to refer back to this document to remind my supervisee of their responsibilities and I think that may be in part because expectations have been clearly set out and I have sought their buy-in to the process from the beginning.
  2. Be honest and be human
    I carry a full caseload myself with no reduction for being a supervisor and it can be daunting to try and squeeze even more into an already packed schedule. I am efficient but I’m not superhuman, and I have learnt the importance of being honest not only with myself in terms of what is realistic for me to achieve, but also how to communicate this to my supervisee. I am upfront and open with them that my priority is the client, whether they are allocated to me, allocated to them, a situation I am overseeing on duty, or supporting another colleague on a one-off piece off work. That means that I have to be focused and clear in how I prioritise. So if they ask me whether I have time to talk through a situation, they have to be prepared for occasions when I may have to say “not right now”.I always try to gauge the urgency of the query so I know if I need to make that my focus. Otherwise I will always try my best to offer an alternative time when we can discuss matters properly. This means they have the assurance that I will provide the guidance, but at a time when it will be more mutually beneficial, rather than when my mind is whirring away on another matter and my attention is somewhere else entirely, which is when there is a greater risk of skimming the surface and missing a crucial piece of information.
  3. Have clear boundaries
    I am both a colleague and a supervisor to the person and need to juggle the hats. For example, I may be giving them guidance on a specific case in my role as the duty social worker, and then later providing them with supervisory feedback on how they are managing duty processes in general to support their continued development. Being a colleague can have its advantages; I am working with them on a day-to-day basis and can provide increased input particularly if they are a new starter with the team or struggling with a contentious issue. However, I am conscious that they could feel that their line manager is ever present and therefore feel under observation, and I want to instil in them a sense of being able to get on with their job without checking every aspect at every turn.I am also aware that as a colleague I may be feeling similar pressures or share their exasperation with an ineffective process. It can feel hypocritical to have to convey the party line and ensure they do X, Y and Z, if I feel that it is overly time-consuming or of little value to the client. It is important to remember that how I feel about the issue is a matter for my own supervision, and my role with my supervisee is not to join in the moaning but to support them to find a constructive response to channel their frustrations to positive effect.
  4. Learn from experience
    Looking back to when I started in the role, there are of course aspects which with hindsight I would do differently and discussions I could have handled better. If I am giving guidance to others then I also need to be prepared to receive constructive feedback myself to expand and consolidate my skills. I have been a supervisee for much longer than I have been a supervisor, and I have reflected on my own experiences receiving supervision to consider what I have found most and least useful and methods I would like to incorporate as I develop my own style.
  5. Using your own supervision
    Of course I like to think that I am a delight to supervise! But stepping up into the role prompted me to reflect on how I interact with my own supervisor, particularly following a recent change in my line manager. I now have a better understanding and insight into their role and empathy for the demands that they are seeking to balance themselves. I have become clearer in raising for discussion my style of practice and how I best communicate, to ensure that I am taking more ownership over ensuring that my supervision is productive and constructive. My own supervision sessions can be a useful forum for me to discuss not just the practical aspects and any workload issues relating to the person I supervise, but also how it is contributing to my sense of professionalism and career development.

Overall, I enjoy my supervisory experience and recently I have been reflecting on how I can continue to build on my learning. The outcome of this is that I am now on course to become a practice supervisor. I am looking forward to developing my mentoring and management skills and implementing them in practice. I suppose this new role will be another ‘hat’ to add to the collection.  At this rate, I’m going to need a bigger stand for them all!

*Elizabeth Rylan is a pseudonym for an adults’ social worker based in a local authority in the south of England

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