Social worker reflection eclipsed by managers’ concerns in supervision, survey finds

Research into social workers’ experiences finds most supervision is used to monitor progress on cases but practitioners want more reflection in their sessions


Social workers want more opportunities to reflect on cases during their supervision sessions, research backed by Community Care has revealed.

The survey of 491 social workers found the proportion of respondents who felt their supervision helped them with reflection (24%) was far lower than those who felt the sessions helped managers monitor progress on cases (71%) and timescales (57%).

Only a third of social workers surveyed said their supervision gave them emotional support to help with the demands of the job.

Read more about the survey and findings
Click here to download a PDF report summarising the survey findings and messages about what makes for helpful supervision.

Asked what one thing they thought would most improve their supervision, the most commonly cited answer was increasing the amount of reflection, followed by increasing the length and frequency of sessions.

Areas for improvement

The research was carried out by the University of Bedfordshire and Community Care as part of a wider study investigating how supervision is being delivered and how this impacts on practice.

Dr David Wilkins, the researcher at the University of Bedfordshire’s Tilda Goldberg Centre who designed the survey, said the findings revealed areas of improvement for supervision.

“These results reinforce the impression we have from previous surveys and many practitioners and managers will know from their own experience that supervision, at least as far as local authorities are concerned, is often dominated by managerial concerns,” he said.

“However, the results also show that in areas often thought of as being important for good supervision, such as analysis, reflection and emotional support, social workers are getting the least support.”

The survey found 62% of children’s social workers and 54% of adults’ social workers received supervision at least once a month. When asked the thing that was best about their supervision, both groups most commonly cited having a good or supportive manager.

‘A good or supportive manager’

Wilkins said: “When social workers have a good and supportive manager, when they have enough time to discuss the families and service users they are working with, and in forums which allow for more analytical thinking, such as in groups, they rate the quality of supervision high in all areas.

Tips for supervisors on Community Care Inform
Community Care Inform Children’s supervision knowledge and practice hub includes tips for talking about emotions in supervision, using a more analytical approach to focus on practice dilemmas and tools and models to try. You can also watch videos of different approaches to supervision with commentary by David Wilkins. Community Care Inform Adults’ management knowledge and practice hub also includes guides to supervision.

“The challenge now is to find the evidence that these more helpful forms of supervision make a difference to the quality of practice and ultimately to outcomes for children, families and adults.”

The survey found no significant difference between how social workers in local authorities and those in other organisations rated the quality of their supervision. Adults’ social workers were more likely to say supervision helped with their professional development (56%), compared to 38% of children’s social workers.

Rachael Wardell, workforce lead for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said the findings contained important lessons for councils.

“Social workers carry exceptional responsibilities on behalf of society. As leaders of children’s services, we are committed to supporting this important profession by working to create an environment that enables good social work practice,” she said.

“This includes good quality supervision that affords time to be both task focused and reflective as required, and which supports social workers to do their job well.”

Benefits of group supervsion

Wardell added: “I would encourage all local authorities to heed the messages from this survey. Social workers deserve support and guidance in challenging situations and they value good supervision, particularly the opportunity to reflect on practice. The reported benefits of group supervision may be of particular interest.

“There might also be some messages for the DfE to consider in their work to shape the new sector regulator, Social Work England.”

You can read more about the study, what social workers said about their experiences of supervision and recommendations for providing helpful supervision in this report.

More from Community Care

19 Responses to Social worker reflection eclipsed by managers’ concerns in supervision, survey finds

  1. Carolyn Browning September 13, 2017 at 1:35 pm #

    It may be work splitting the emotional support from the professional/case management support?
    As a counsellor, if I feel I need some on-going emotional support, whether on a personal or professional basis I would seek out some sessions with a counsellor….leaving my counselling Supervision for my client caseload and other professional issues.
    I think that staff counsellors should be drafted in or monthly funding allowed for social workers to seek their own counsellor. It would make a tremendous difference to their own emotional resilience and support.
    I hope this suggestion helps?

    • Too old for this stuff September 14, 2017 at 1:43 pm #

      Reflective Supervision isn’t the same as emotional support – it’s about supporting the SW to understand what is going on for individuals or families. I try to think of it as analytical rather than reflective.

  2. Sue Williams September 13, 2017 at 2:04 pm #

    For my MBA Dissertation in 2011 – Titled ‘How Reflective Practices Influence the Learning within Fostering Service Providers’ – I found from my interviews of supervising social workers, that there was little reflective practice happening; and in fact critical reflective practice was really not understood by managers.
    Sadly, it seems this has not moved on.

  3. Kevin September 13, 2017 at 2:25 pm #

    Supervision was once seen as comprising three aspects : management, development and support.

    Sadly since the cult of performance management and the computer took over SW, the management component has dominated the other two.

    My last manager simply typed a case summary on each case to show compliance. The session was spent dictating that summary.

    It is a shame that with all the potential there is in IT now – tablets, smart phones, apps,- we are stuck in a groove using 1980s databases that are not fit for purpose.

  4. Blair McPherson September 13, 2017 at 3:52 pm #

    As a senior managed I managed people who were responsible for services I had no professional back ground in and no direct experience of. I still provided one to one monthly supervision. So supervision isn’t just about over seeing someone’s work based having done their job and thus being able to advise and guide them through any difficulties. It is however about supporting ,challenging and developing.

  5. Mark September 13, 2017 at 4:11 pm #

    As a Social Worker trained thirty years ago, in which supervision was valued as the fundamental tool to practice good and safe social work – Unless it is regular (I would say twice a month for an hour and a half in a statutory setting for a full time staff member if there is no other form of reflective support), it is like asking a surgeon to perform an operation without instruments or a theatre. Social Work is fundamentally about relationships, both with those people we work with and their eco system. Social Workers have to be excellent communicators as well as experts in managing difficult relationships with people experiencing horrible situations; often with a background where trust hasn’t developed or been broken. Unless Social Workers can process that with someone who is caring for them (which includes challenging and questioning them) then we become dangerous (rules of optimism, rigid, obsessed with procedure etc). This is why reflection and management need to be in one relationship; if a social worker isn’t coping or becoming dangerous, you need someone with authority to direct and/or support them. Social Work managers who have not been inducted in to this belief system and who haven’t experienced the relationship will not be able to cope with providing ‘proper’ social work supervision. Managers who have grown up in care package services, scrutinised in a performance managed environment are like surgeons trained as road sweepers. They are not fit for purpose. This s a big problem in social work.

    • NQSW (prev very mature student) September 14, 2017 at 1:28 pm #

      Spot on Mark – I couldn’t have put it better myself.

    • John Burton September 14, 2017 at 9:44 pm #

      You put it perfectly, Mark. Thank you.

  6. David Jones September 13, 2017 at 5:26 pm #

    Do Ofsted rate Local Authorities according to whether social workers receive best quality supervision? No.
    Do Ofsted rate Local Authorities according to whether assessment timescales and other performance targets are being met? Yes.
    Reflect on that.

    • Too old for this stuff September 14, 2017 at 1:44 pm #

      Too true

  7. frustrated September 13, 2017 at 8:24 pm #

    It is difficult to use a counsellor because of confidentiality you cannot talk about the issues surrounding the case. Reflective supervision should give you space to be able to be inquisitive and consider what it may be like to be a child in that environment. A discussion such as are we being too optimistic etc etc.
    It should also be a safe space where you can honestly reflect what the impact is on you sometimes just simply having someone acknowledge your feelings is all that is needed.

    Supervision notes need to be honest accounts as to what was said even if management of cases.

    There are too many tick box managers trying to pretend that they are protecting children, because they have found them selves promoted too quickly because all the better SWs have left The latter possibly having reflected to themselves that they cannot collude with poor practice and no emotional support.

  8. NQSW (prev very mature student) September 14, 2017 at 11:18 am #

    Having worked within a very busy Adult Services team as a 3rd year student SW my experience of Supervision in practice was a meeting with the Practice Manager approx every 6 weeks. I really looked forward to my first one thinking it would be an opportunity to reflect, critically analyse cases and be supported, both with practice and emotional issues. However I found out very quickly this was not how it works.

    I held a large caseload including complex cases, and yes we did discuss them all in Supervision, but not once did we ever discuss models, methods or theories, or explore research/current thinking and how these link to cases.

    It was all about where your cases were up to and how quickly they can be progressed/closed – Welcome to Frontline Practice.

    There is such an enormous gap between how Social Work is taught in University/best practice, and the real world

    It is imperative this practice changes and SW’s get the support they deserve, before we have people leaving the profession in droves.

  9. dianne September 14, 2017 at 11:41 am #

    In psychotherapy it’s the same. And most workers, simply collude, collaborate and destroy vulnerable lives by doing so.

    When will you all stand against it? Speak up!!!

    Tick boxes, warped values ——–if ‘evil’ is a word you ever consider has meaning, this is EVIL.

    It’s all about saving money which means time which means the top executives and similarly advantaged individuals get to dominate and get rich.

    Every area of our rotten neo-liberal society, all across the UK, all across much or the world.

    We are all mere commodities, no time or place to be merely human.

  10. Elvie McMurtagh September 14, 2017 at 12:27 pm #

    As a manager I’d love to be in a position to offer reflective supervision but this isn’t possible given caseload size and the necessity to evidence compliance.
    I try to compensate by operating an open door policy and meeting with the team at the start of each day to ‘check the temperature’ and to ask if anyone would like to see me afterwards (I endeavour not to make appointments for the first hour each day).
    Not ideal but ………

    • NQSW (prev very mature student) September 14, 2017 at 1:53 pm #

      I’m sure many of your staff would like to ‘see you afterwards’ for support, however as you mention the size of caseloads mean most are struggling to cope, which means vital emotional support gets swept aside in favour of timescales/targets.

      Robust, supportive, challenging, reflective supervision is key to good Social Work practice, and an absolute priority. Without it SW’s can become complacent, burnt-out, or fail to see the wood for the trees underneath the mountain of bureaucracy.

      This ‘firefighting’ model is dangerous – not only for Social Workers and the profession, but for the vulnerable people in society we serve.

      • Elvie McMurtagh September 14, 2017 at 6:11 pm #

        We all know that NQSW – that’s the issue 😉

        • NQSW (prev very mature student) September 15, 2017 at 9:08 am #

          …I know we do – so we all have to stand firmly together as Robyn elequently says when reflective practice is under threat 🙂

  11. Diaz Sichinga September 14, 2017 at 1:58 pm #

    As social worker and holding senior position i do agree that its not possible to hold several sessions with a lot of counseling and report writing for the sessions conducted each and every day we do follow up meetings with clients to check the if they is change

  12. Robyn Kemp September 14, 2017 at 2:58 pm #

    This research mirrors the two evaluations of Brighton and Hove’s relationship based practice approach, one commissioned by us from the University of Winchester, the other commissioned by Brighton & Hove from the University of Sussex (

    Reflective, relationship based practice is a core component of effective social work practice, not an optional extra, as so many have already commented. Leaders and managers must create the conditions for reflective practice to thrive, and to stand firmly together in its support when the time spent in reflective learning is under pressure or attack.

    Stand up for, learn about and contribute to reflective, relationship based practice in social work by joining the Centre for Social Work Practice (its free!)