New guidance provides an opportunity to tackle a lack of support, supervision and professional leadership of mental health social workers within the NHS, sector leaders say.
The guidance, commissioned by Health Education England’s (HEE) new roles in mental health social work group, provides a blueprint for supporting mental health practitioners for NHS, independent sector and other non-local authority employers, covering leadership, supervision, CPD, performance management, promoting wellbeing among staff and workforce planning.
It is designed to emphasise the value of social work to delivering on NHS mental health objectives, and responds to challenges in getting the most out of the profession, including:
- Partnership arrangements between the NHS and local authorities that are not fit for purpose, under-resourced, subject to considerable change or hampered by divergent IT, assessment and performance systems.
- The lack of a race equality framework to promote progression of social workers from Black and ethnic minority groups to senior leadership.
- Generic roles within teams that do not harness the strengths of different professionals, including social workers.
- A lack of support in some NHS trusts for social workers to train as approved mental health professionals (AMHPs) or best interests assessors and the need for better support and supervision for AMHPs.
- Barriers to social workers progressing into senior management roles within the NHS.
Social workers ‘left to get on with it’ in NHS
Steve Chamberlain, chair of the AMHP leads network, said that one of the most pressing issues raised in the guidance was the lack of support for mental health social workers in terms of supervision, CPD and opportunities for progression within NHS organisations.
“My experience and a lot of my colleagues’ experiences is the support hasn’t been there actually; whilst social workers are valued, the actual strategic support for social workers hasn’t been provided by NHS organisations by and large
He said practitioners have “essentially been left to get on with it”.
“There hasn’t been the professional management and supervision given to traditional NHS professions [like nursing and occupational therapy] and the understanding of the need for social work CPD, so I think that’s why [the guidance] is really important,” Chamberlain added.
The guidance advises trusts and other employers establish a social work workforce strategy, ensure professional supervision and appropriate CPD is available for practitioners, with specific supervision for AMHPs.
Stronger leadership needed
It also calls for organisations to have a senior social work professional lead, who should either be represented on the board or report to a board member, a proposal also supported by Chamberlain.
While NHS mental health trusts commonly have a medical director and nursing director on their boards, board-level directors of social care and social work have been rare.
Carla Fourie, director of social care at South London and Maudsley (SlaM) NHS Trust, said: “NHS employers of social workers need to ensure that they have the right balance and diversity of strategic and professional experience, skills, and leadership seniority to meet the increasing social care and mental health demand within our communities.”
In a statement responding to the guidance, the British Association of Social Workers said NHS employers could improve support for social workers by encouraging networking and contact with peers, creating opportunities to provide practice education and mentoring and developing leadership opportunities within the NHS structure.
Association chair Gerry Nosowska said: “This guidance will help employers better value and support them. BASW will continue to push for good working conditions so social workers can work ethically and sustainably.”
Practitioners ‘thrilled’ at recognition
Fourie said social workers she had spoken to, especially within the NHS and integrated services, were “thrilled” that the guidance recognised mental health social work as an essential part of the health and social care system.
“[They are] hopeful that it provides direction and advice to their employers on how to create a supportive environment in which they are valued, supported and encouraged to develop.”