Tips on managing risk in social work

Managing risk is at the heart of social work - here's how to do it effectively

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Mary Mustoe is a registered social worker and runs her own company, Callander Associates, which focuses on leadership and communication skills. Mustoe has developed Community Care Inform Children’s guide, for team managers, to managing risk in social work.

Below, we outline some of the top tips from Mustoe’s guide, last updated in March 2021. Community Care Inform subscribers can read the full article here.

Managing risk is one of the most important and complex areas of social work practice. When risk isn’t correctly handled and responded to, the consequences can be catastrophic. For team managers, being responsible for the risks your social workers are holding, and knowing how to support and challenge their practice, can be daunting.

  • Managing risk is at the heart of social work. But social workers can’t remove risk or prevent all harm from taking place. As a manager, it’s important that you accept this so that staff are free to practice positively and effectively. If staff live in fear of being scapegoated, they can practice in an overly risk averse way, which doesn’t focus on the best outcomes for service users. But at the same time, you need to be confident about holding staff to defensible decisions and challenging poor practice where necessary.
  • Supervise, don’t micro-manage. Your role as a supervisor is to maintain an overview of cases. Staff will be caught up in the detail of the work, whereas the distance you have should enable you to see changes and risk more clearly. Ask incisive questions of social workers to pinpoint what they’re most worried about, what has changed and what interventions are or are not working. This will help them develop their own skills of reflections and judgement.
  • Learn from serious case reviews. SCRs often highlight that social workers have lost sight of the child by becoming too focused on the parents, and being drawn into their vulnerabilities and problems. The oversight you have means you can ensure that social workers are remaining focused on the needs of the child/ren, and regularly seeing and talking to them.
  • Be aware of factors that can hamper risk management if they are not recognised or addressed. Social workers can start to minimise the risk of harm in their minds for reasons like burnout or compassion fatigue. For example, practitioners working with sex offenders can find that they have “brutalised” by reading court papers, and start to minimise offences. Supervisors need to understand this process and sensitively support staff to ensure they maintain an appropriate understanding of risk.
  • You can’t do everything. Team managers can do a lot to support social workers’ risk management. But there is a limit to what you can do without support from the organisation. Your role of being accountable for practitioners’ performance and for helping them develop and support is also tied to a meditation function. If frontline workers are facing issues and there are risks that can’t be effectively managed – due to high workloads, for example – it is part of your job to convey this to senior managers.

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