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Almost a third of the UK’s social workers are not currently receiving any supervision, research by Community Care has revealed, and just over half said they would not class any of their current supervision as reflective.
Community Care’s survey of 601 students, newly qualified social workers, experienced practitioners and frontline team managers paints a worrying picture of the lack of support on offer to practitioners today.
Reasons given for the lack of formal supervision ranged from a failure to prioritise this type of support within the organisation to high turnover of line managers and staff shortages.
“The supervision I’ve received in my 10-year career has been patchy at best and stressful and intrusive of my personal life at worst,” said one respondent to the survey.
Others pointed out that caseload was an important factor. “My current supervisor seems to have more of a focus on reflective practice, however, we tend to run out of time as we have a high turnover of cases,” said another social worker, who reported having six different managers in the past year. “Case management is the priority.”
“I would love the opportunity to provide more reflective supervision, but, with increased referrals and waiting times of over four weeks, I have to focus on progressing cases,” said a supervisor who works in adult services.
The findings come two and a half years after the Social Work Reform Board (SWRB) published its proposals for a national supervision framework in England, which stipulated that all social workers should receive monthly, reflective supervision, ideally from another registered social worker.
However, only 9% of the respondents to our survey who are based in England said the framework was being used to improve supervision within their organisation. More than half had never heard of it.
Frequency and quality of supervision
Although many respondents are not currently receiving supervision, many said they had received regular supervision over the past year. Of those, 45% said supervision was held monthly, 18% every two months, 14% on an ad hoc basis and 9% every two to three months.
“I’m fortunate to have one full and one part-time manager in my team, so every team member receives weekly case supervision and monthly personal supervision,” said one social worker. “I find this level of supervision extremely helpful and it allows a few cases to be discussed in depth.”
However, 54% said none of their current supervision was reflective, while 28% said the reflective elements made up around a quarter of their supervision and 13% said it made up roughly half. The remaining 5% said it made up three-quarters, almost all or all of their supervision.
Many reported that the quality of their supervision had deteriorated over the past five years, with most (73%) complaining that it was too focused on monitoring performance targets and timescales.
Asked what would improve their supervision, the majority said spending more time discussing the best decisions for service users, followed by more time spent reflecting on how cases had affected them personally and having a more empathetic, less judgemental supervisor.
Some social workers commented on the damaging effect poor supervision has had on them and their practice. “My supervision time is spent discussing reasons I am unable to meet unrealistic targets,” said one social worker. “I often come out of supervision with a headache and in tears.”
Others spoke of “stressful and intrusive” or “punitive” supervision sessions, used as an opportunity to “bully and threaten” social workers.
“The supervision I received at [a local authority in London] was appalling, focusing on targets and workload and negative aspects, such as ‘oh, you’ve been off sick for two days’. I always came out feeling a failure and my confidence was knocked,” said one respondent.
Newly qualified social workers
Of the 57 respondents to our survey who described themselves as newly qualified, 34% received monthly supervision and 18% fortnightly. One in 10 said they receive supervision every three to six months and a similar amount said it happens on an ad hoc basis.
Half said none of their current supervision could be classed as “reflective”.
One newly qualified social worker said they found it “terrifying” that they had yet to receive any supervision, five months into the job.
Another added of the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE): “Since beginning my ASYE I have had two different supervisors. The team manager I currently have is an agency social worker and has no intention of staying. None of my supervision has allowed space to be reflective.”
Almost half (43%) of newly qualified social workers were not sure if their line manager was a registered social worker.
Half of the 168 social workers, assistant team managers and team managers who said they had supervisory responsibilities said they had received social work-specific training to prepare them for this role. However, a third (33%) said they had received no training at all. The rest were sent on a corporate course.
Only a quarter of supervisors said they received ongoing, regular training.
Of those social workers working in a multi-disciplinary team and/or supervised by non-social work staff, only 19% said there was a written statement in place to clarify the respective roles and responsibilities of those supervising them. Just under half said there wasn’t, while 34% did not know.
One social worker and approved mental health professional said: “I am now being supervised by a nurse who has little or no understanding of social work values, ethics or workings. My supervision sessions for a greater part of the time are based on ticking boxes and filling in NHS documentation.”
Graphs by Ben Hamilton