I took on the role of a supervisor 5 years into my social work journey. Back then ( read: 25 years ago), there was no formal training in supervision locally. Many of the lessons learnt were on-the-job. It started with the supervision of social work interns on field placement during my third year as a social worker, and every subsequent year. That experience helped prepare me for the formal, longer-term role of a supervisor in the organisation.
Since both supervisor and supervisee were both grappling with the idea of what supervision ought to be, my focus of supervision in the past was educational and administrative - making sure my supervisees were competent enough to carry out the tasks of social work and responsible enough to ensure the recordings were up-to-date, the documents properly filed, and the sessions tracked for accountability.
Even now, I have observed that supervisors are more likely to pay more attention to the educational and administrative functions of supervision. The bureaucracy of social work agencies requires adherence to policies and procedures, and supervision has conveniently become the monitoring tool. Similarly, funders' expectations of client outcomes and the professional requirement of social workers meeting the competency standards of practice, have reduced supervision sessions to becoming a platform for supervisors to identify and impart skills for their supervisees to improve efficacy.
However, supervisors also need to be mindful of the supportive function of supervision as well, because social workers, at times, grapple with the impact of cases on their selves as individuals.
The Impact of Casework on the Self of the Social Worker
Social workers are responsible for a spectrum of tasks for each case they have taken up. From the point of the initial assessment to the final discharge and closure of the case, social workers interface with the client, the client system, workers from other service providers, and other stakeholders involved in the case like the police, school and the social welfare department. Each of them adds to the dynamics of relationships that the social worker needs to manage.
And then, depending on the complications of the issues presented, there is also a frenzy of activities that the social workers need to juggle: like running after clients for documents, preparing reports, submitting applications for subsidies and financial assistance, coordinating services, rallying family members and the community to help, monitoring client's compliance and appeasing concerned stakeholders. While handling one such case can be physically, mentally and emotionally draining for a worker, the reality is, social workers are often burdened with a caseload that is deemed 'optimum' in relation to their number of years in the field and their level of competence.
Social workers may also encounter cases that trigger past trauma, surface their own vulnerabilities or resonate with their current personal challenges which add to the stress of managing the work.
Thus, there is value for supervisors to ask their supervisees about how each of their cases is impacting on their selves as individuals.
Providing a Holding Space for Supportive Supervision
The challenge for supervisors then is: how can they provide that holding space for their supervisees to feel safe to express personal struggles when dealing with cases? Social work supervisees may be open to seek and receive informational and instrumental support because these contribute to resolving the clients' issues. However, emotional support deals with the supervisees' own issues which are too personal.
Just like their clients, social workers also need to feel that their supervisors are genuinely concerned about them as individuals. Social workers would likely feel hesitant to expose their struggles for fear of their supervisors assessing them as incompetent in managing their emotional health. Social workers might also view seeking emotional support during supervision would require too much self-disclosure, further exposing their vulnerabilities.
Social workers need a safe space that allows them to express their struggles without fears of professional repercussions. Supervisors need to earn their supervisees' trust. Parallel to the trusting relationship between client and social worker, supervisors too need to develop a similar trusting relationship with their supervisees built upon the values of social work.
Tips on Providing Supportive Supervision
Do you need a few easy to remember tips on how you can offer a holding space for your social worker?
Here is my top 5 list:
1. Be genuinely interested in your supervisee's struggles. Ask how they are doing. Enquire if any of their cases are giving them challenges, both professionally and personally. Check-in daily. Show them you are really interested to offer support, where and when needed.
2. Exude compassion. Show you care. Could you review the worker's caseload to reduce the stress? Is there a colleague that could be roped in to help deal with the case? Could management step in to assist in opening pathways where the worker is encountering blocks? Does the worker need time or counselling to resolve his/her personal issues that are impacting the work? Arrange help. Offer support.
3. Acknowledge the positive work. Workers need to know if they are doing well. By acknowledging what worked, you could help them identify their strengths which could be tapped to overcome the challenges in their cases. Sometimes, supervisees may be too critical of their own work by comparing themselves with colleagues who have spent more years in the field. Allow them to see the value of accumulating experience through lessons learnt from mistakes as well.
4. Mind the time. Do not get caught up with performance monitoring during your supervision sessions such that you hardly have time to check-in on your supervisees emotional status. Plan your agenda for supervision so that you can still address any emotional issues that surfaced during the supervision. Otherwise, set aside an additional session with the supervisee where you can just focus on one or the other functions of supervision.
5. Be grounded. A good supervisor is a role model for the supervisees to emulate. Being well balanced and sensible means you can recognise stress, difficulties and challenges and respond accordingly. Your supervisees will observe how you handle your own stresses at work. They will likely be more open to approaching you with their struggles if they know they can depend on you to provide that holding space they need through your own ability to centre yourself.