Supervision is essential – but bad sessions can leave lasting damage

A children's social worker discusses her good and bad experiences of supervision, and what can build 'emotional fortresses' between social workers and managers

Photo: Uber Images/Fotolia

by Sophie Ayers

Social workers encounter extremely complicated situations and finely balanced decisions. Careful analysis must always be applied and the ramifications for incorrect decision making can have dire consequences for services users.

The process of reflecting and examining facts can sometimes feel overwhelming, particularly when the answer cannot create the perfect solution, and somebody within the equation will be hurt.

Empathy is a key skill in social work, but the emotional cost can sometimes be overwhelming.

Carrying the burden

The worst times in my career have been when I have felt that I am carrying the burden on my own and the comprehension of the situation from management is absent. The best times in my career have been when others are there with an open door and case reflection is allowed in abundance.

I have recently had the privilege of joint-working a case with another social worker. The case’s complexities meant one worker was not enough. Within this worker I found a kind, compassionate soul with the same need as my own to reflect, check and discuss.

I have always benefitted from working within supportive teams. However, the bond and salvation I found in this ‘double act’ was extremely significant for me. As each twist and turn came to pass, a shared discussion about progression, our doubts and our feelings resolved the evolving pressures of the case.

In addition to the peer support I found from joint working, my manager also lessened the emotional load. In the first instance she quickly recognised that there was too much work for one person, but more than that, she provided the reassurance, space for discussion and practical support that was needed.


I have had mixed experiences of supervision throughout my professional career. I was blessed with a nurturing and patient manager at the beginning. She modelled best practice and demonstrated supervision skills at the highest level. This experience was both a blessing and a curse at the same time.

I found myself at times to be confused by some managers who did not stand up to my expectations and I became dismayed when the support that I had previously experienced was not delivered.

There have been times when I have questioned whether my expectations around supervision were too high and other times I could see that I was being failed by the authority I worked for.

My mixed experiences of supervision could be likened to a child whose parents provide inconsistent responses: never knowing how their day will progress. I found myself becoming closed and mistrusting of my ‘work guardians’. Sometimes the necessary safety required for full self-disclosure and discussion was not present.

When trust is not apparent and the holistic understanding of the working conditions is missing, I have found my ability to cope with the emotional impact of my work significantly impaired.

Little discussion

Every day as a social worker is a learning curve. Just as we are shaped as children by our background, our working life can have a profound impact upon the practitioners that we become.

The worst experience of supervision that I encountered was when I had to complete a written record 24 hours in advance of supervision, with the salient points identified. I found that there was little discussion within the supervision session, yet the box had been ticked. We were admonished if the records were not produced within timescales and within this format, eye contact was largely restricted and cases became stagnated.

Focus was about compliance regarding your written record, rather than producing a meaningful environment for social work discussion. The end result: Ofsted one, social worker’s nil.

It became apparent to me that even when local authorities have cohesive supervision files, meaningful interactions have not always taken place.

When supervision is dominated by written preparation, much of the reflection that has taken place is in isolation and the actual live session relies upon a cursory glance of your cases. This is generally because the list of your cases is so exhaustive, a genuine reflective session would take days. But, at least on paper your organisation has provided their duty to the workforce.

Emotional fortress

I am aware that my mixed experiences of supervision had led me to become cautious about the approach I took when being supervised. The day I learned that my personal discussion regarding the separation from my partner had been shared with not only my senior manager but also the case auditor in the office (with no apparent reason), I became more cautious about personal disclosures: an emotional fortress built around me.

It is only now, with the example of a fantastic supervisor that my fortress has started to evaporate.

Throughout my professional journey I believe that I continue to develop as a practitioner both within my interactions with managers and also in terms of own direct practice. You never stop learning, no matter how long you have been qualified. There will always be new situations that occur that test every brain cell you possess.

The most important lessons I have learned regarding supervision are:

  1. Demand supervision. We are all aware of our over-spilling diaries. However, if there is not enough space in your diary make your manager accountable and ensure they designate space.
  2. Produce an agenda in advance of your supervision so that your needs are clear and discussed alongside case discussions.
  3. Be aware of your strengths or personal limitations, ensure that you communicate your own skill set or any factors that may affect your practice.
  4. Utilise a range of supervision tools. Standardised formats can become stale and therefore do not challenge your perception or beliefs regarding a case.
  5. Always question your judgement or knowledge. Ask about and rethink situations again and again. Every family that we work with are individuals and it is important that we reframe, rebuff and question assumptions.
  6. Be honest about your workload. If managers cannot provide an adequate response, escalate the situation to their manager and then their manager until a satisfactory resolution is achieved. We are all responsible for our registration with the HCPC and ensuring that we can produce work that equates to their guidance of conduct is paramount. If our working environment is not compatible with HCPC guidelines, individuals must assert their views in written form.
  7. Make sure that your supervisor is aware of your situation. Expressing vulnerabilities is not a weakness but a strength. We are great advocates for other people’s rights but not always so accomplished at advocating our own rights.
  8. If you cannot manage your workload due to an individual case or due to the complexities in a variety of cases, make this explicit verbally and in writing to your supervisor.
  9. Find support within your team. Peer supervision is one of the most valuable assets that we have. However, always ensure that key decisions are discussed with your manager and recorded.
  10. Never allow systemic failures to be used as a reason to provide you with too much work.
  11. Record every informal case discussion with your manager as supervision. We often receive actions in an informal conversation but you must make sure that contemporaneous evidence of the decision making process exists.
  12. Do not sign supervision records that you do not agree with.

Sophie Ayers is a children’s social worker. She tweets @sophieayers1982.

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5 Responses to Supervision is essential – but bad sessions can leave lasting damage

  1. DC November 23, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    Diference between a warm bath or a cold shower !!

  2. Graham Park November 23, 2016 at 3:49 pm #

    This is really good. I can (now as a retired social worker) look back on a career both in the statutory and voluntary sector, both being supervised and as a supervisor, and this range roughly fits my experience.

    I am currently, as a volunteer, writing guidance on supervision for a voluntary agency, and will refer to this (my past experience, incidentally, is that many voluntary agencies, and housing agencies offering “care” do not understand the notion of casework supervision at all; have I just been unlucky?).

    Finally (partly for the same purpose), I find the recording of supervision very variable, as noted, again in both sectors. Anyone written this up, and the options for doing it well, briefly (like, for CC?). Anyone willing to have a go?

  3. Dawnie November 26, 2016 at 8:43 pm #

    I have been a social worker for 12 years and I cannot recall a time when it was good. It has been 5 minutes about how are you, have you booked any leave toil.or training and the next 2 – 4 hours case discussion where I have come out with numerous tasks to do. Reflection = zilch! I am ever hopeful that one day I will have a good supervisor

  4. Sandra November 27, 2016 at 7:06 pm #

    This article is very good. However for some of especially agency workers often most times supervision is not on the agenda your often going it alone no support or guidance from managers. I feel Local Authority and HCPC need to do more to support agency workers with being able to access the same quality of supervision and support on cases and in the workplace like permanent staff after all were doing the same work and often holding more complex cases.

  5. Stuart November 27, 2016 at 7:52 pm #

    Well done Sophie for this article and for surviving all the experiences you drew on to create it. There are whole books on the subject of supervision (sometimes too theoretical to meet the needs of many an actual practicing social worker in the modern world I feel) & this is a nicely condensed run through some very important points.

    I want to highlight one in particular that I’ve never previously seen written and it’s your parting shot, point 12: Do not sign supervision records that you do not agree with.

    I was once asked to sign a record of supervision discussion that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the points I’d made and questions I’d asked in the session and was subjected to some significant hassle from the manager in question for not meekly signing and for instead writing additional notes in the margin & at the foot before signing. Subsequent events reassured me I had done exactly the right thing, the manager in question is no longer in post but I am.. q.e.d.

    BUT I must add point 13 Sophie: Make sure you get and keep (safely & securely of course) your own copy of supervision records that Nobody else can mess with. You just never know…