Today I’m in a local authority providing supervision training for social work managers. It’s a very committed group of practitioners but they are also tired and depleted.
They are the squeezed middle. They know the importance of providing support for their hard-working social workers, yet are also under significant pressure from the senior managers above them.
The impact of Ofsted weighs heavily on the conversations and mood. There is a lot of change in the organisation and this means that the managers doing my training are getting very little supervision themselves. This is very problematic when we look at things systemically. There needs to be a culture of supervision in the organisation; everyone needs support and challenge to be effective in their jobs.
There is a limit to how long these excellent staff can give out to others without being replenished themselves. I quote the American social work academic and popular writer Brené Brown who says, ‘You can’t give what you haven’t got.’
‘But what else can we do?’ a group member replies.
I’m back for the second day of the course. It’s always inspiring to be with practitioners but as in most local authorities I visit I am increasingly concerned about what is happening in the profession. Although leaders know the importance of reflective supervision, and indeed Ofsted is also looking for analysis and reflective practice, managers are also often required to discuss every case in their supervision so that enough management oversight can be demonstrated.
I understand why this feels safer but discussing fifteen to twenty cases in each supervision does not allow time for in-depth reflection. As most recent research on the subject indicates, the management function of supervision is overwhelmingly dominant. I wonder about the costs of this. Good supervision provides connection for people. Reflection helps remind us of the meaning of what we do. We rediscover the purpose and heart of our work which inevitably gets lost in the busyness and stress of day to day practice.
I recently heard the philosopher Roman Krznaric talk about what humans need to thrive. He said we need three things: autonmy; connection/relationships; and meaning. I think about this in relation to social work. This profession, for all its challenges, has the potential to meet these important needs and is why it can be such a satisfying career. Relationships are at the heart of social work whether it is with our service users, or our colleagues and managers. Connections helps us find meaning and purpose in what we do.
Yet, these foundations are being eroded. Managerialism means social workers have less autonmy and agency. Hot desking threatens the centrality of colleague/team relationships. The challenges in providing reflective supervision mean that people will find it more difficult to properly experience the meaning in their work. I wonder what the cost of these changes are in terms of burn out and retention. The current direction of travel is likely to be a costly one.
I’m back at University today and have an appointment with one of my third year BA students. She’s a very promising student who is nearly at the end of her course. The student describes the financial pressure she is under. It’s not only the worry of paying back the student loans, her day-to-day life is hugely affected by not having enough money to live on. Completing the 100-day placement and the pressure of the academic assignments has meant that she is no longer able to work part time. She describes how she has so little money left that she cannot afford food for the week and is planning to ask for help from a food bank. These financial pressures are not uncommon especially for students from poorer backgrounds who are less likely to have family members who can loan them money in an emergency.
This student will be starting work soon. She’s very able and has already got a job but can’t afford to take any time off between finishing university and starting work. I worry about the affects of this very stressful period and whether she will be depleted in energy by the time she starts her social work career. I’m struck again by Brené Brown’s words:
‘You can’t give what you haven’t got.’