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The Contexts of Social Work Supervision During the Pandemic

I am in the midst of re-reading Ming-sum Tsui's book on social work supervision (referenced below). Its is a concise (149-pages of content) discussion on the theories and practice of supervision; written in 2004 and still as relevant today.

Chapter 4 discusses the importance of context in social work supervision - something which I found useful for supervisors to keep in mind when conducting sessions with their social workers. With the spread of COVID19, it would be timely for us to review how the pandemic also impacts on the context of social work supervision.

Tsui laid down four contexts of the social work environment - physical, psychological, interpersonal and cultural.

The Physical Context

While Tsui referred the physical context to 'the venue, seating arrangement, and atmosphere of the place where supervision is held', that context had focused more on physical face-to-face encounters - within a formal office setting or an informal but protected setting outside the office. However, with the use of online platforms as a preferred option for current safe-distancing practice, what impact would this have on supervision? For example, while confidentiality can be safeguarded by both parties, the onus of maintaining privacy and confidentiality falls unto the individual worker in the separate physical setting. In this instance, the risk of household members hearing what is being discussed is highly probable.

Supervisors will need to consciously address this at the beginning of every session as a reminder to self and the supervisees. When group supervision is conducted online, the risk of exposure to non-staff is multiplied.

The Psychological Context

The psychological context of social work supervision refers to the attitudes, emotions and perceptions that supervisors and supervisees bring to the session. These depend on their background, personality and past experience; including the worker's experience of supervision. But, with the COVID19 pandemic, there is an added dimension with regard to dealing with the uncertainties of the present. Both supervisors and supervisees would be grappling with the anxiety of dealing with a variable that has been impacting on practice at micro, messo (mezzo) and macro levels.

Supervisors need to acknowledge that they possibly may not know how to address social workers' concerns about the new norm. How then, can supervisors guide their social workers when they too are facing the challenges of the impact of a new phenomenon? Still, supervisors can respond with the optimism of co-constructing new knowledge and skills with their supervisees. This is an opportunity for both to share and document their experiences that could contribute to the overall wisdom of the profession.

The Interpersonal Context

The interpersonal context refers to the dynamics between the supervisor and supervisee. The supervisory relationship addresses the roles of both parties as unique individuals, as professionals and as employees of the same organisation. Within this context, the relationship requires the supervisor to balance the treatment of the supervisee as a subordinate requiring performance monitoring, a professional peer in need of guidance to develop and grow, and as a colleague that looks for support and empathy.

The supervisor will need to pay attention to how the COVID19 pandemic is impacting on all the three functions ( administrative, educational and supportive ). For example, a reduction in client interaction may affect outputs and outcomes. How could supervisors work with their social workers to ensure meaningful work is still captured, albeit in different engagement platforms like video calls or online chats? Additionally, the social worker will need guidance to develop new ways to engage and plan intervention for clients amidst the limitations of safe practices and the economic repercussions of the pandemic. The support that supervisors can offer to their supervisees could also be built upon a shared experience of dealing with anxieties and frustrations of navigating organisational systems and new protocols that arose due to the changing circumstances.

The Cultural Context

Finally, the cultural context highlights how social work supervision functions within the guidelines of the social behaviour of members of society. Our culture determines the way we see the world, the interactions we have with others and the decisions we made. Within the context of a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society like Singapore, supervisors need to be mindful of how these formed an invisible background to the supervision process. To illustrate, how disagreements are expressed ( or most likely not expressed ) during supervision could very much be due to a culture of respect for the authority embedded in the social worker's upbringing. There is also the added dimension of our social work education and training, our professional values and the agency expectations that form part of the organisational culture that impacts on supervision.

In light of COVID19, supervisors might want to explore with the supervisees on how they personally view the pandemic - as a test of human endurance, a calamity, a result of nature's wrath, or God's punishment to mankind? How then should mankind, in general, respond? How are we doing as a society in responding to this situation? How does this belief impact on the social worker's role? These are important questions to allow the supervisor to understand the context in which the social worker is working and the personal struggles that might impact on the work with the client. Amidst the professionalism of social work, we are also individuals impacted at a personal level.

Supervisors can be the mirror for social workers to review their practice. By understanding and weaving the contexts within which supervision takes place, supervisors can offer a wider field of vision for their supervisees to grow and develop in this profession.

Key Summary for Supervisors

  • Address privacy, confidentiality and security at the start of each online supervision session.

  • Co-construct new skills and knowledge with your supervisees to deal with micro, messo and macro-level changes to work practices.

  • Pay attention to the changes to the administrative, educational and supportive functions of supervision and how these are impacted presently.

  • Acknowledge that you, as an individual, are impacted as well. Work through your own issues with a trusted colleague.

  • Be the mirror for social workers to review their practice.


Tsui, M. (2004).Social work supervision: Contexts and concepts. SAGE.

Get the book here

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