By: Liz Beddoe, Harry Ferguson, Lisa Warwick, Tom Disney, Jadwiga Leigh and Tarsem Singh Cooper

European Journal of Social Work

Review written by: Dr David Wilkins

What question does this study focus on? 

This paper describes part of a much larger ethnographic study of two child protection teams in England. It seeks to describe what supervision looks like, sounds like, and feels like. It asks to what extent the supervision in these two teams was emotional and reflective, and what supervisors and supervisees think about it. 

How did they study it?

Overall, the researchers spent 15-months observing the two social work teams. They audio-recorded fifty-four supervision meetings between managers and workers, while researchers also made extensive field notes of what they saw, heard and felt. 

What did they find?

In one of the teams, which used hot-desking, supervision was a “gruelling marathon”, taking for each worker eight or nine hours per month. Despite their length, there was often no time for the supervisor to ask about the worker’s well-being. Instead, they talked laboriously through every single case, which for one worker meant “all 28 cases, 40 minutes per case sometimes, 30 minutes where you’re just sat there regurgitating everything you already know and waiting for your manager to type it up”. These sessions were conducted in small, airless rooms, with no windows and bright, artificial lighting. Supervisors paid more attention to their computers than to the worker. Sessions were described variously as emotionally stifling, tedious, boring, procedural, and managerial.

When asked about reflective supervision, workers typically said they did not have it. One said, “I had it once!”, while another said, “I don’t know if I would recognise it”.

In the other team, which had a more traditional office-layout, supervision discussions happened both formally, within set meetings, but also more informally, as workers and managers talked over their desks. There was still a compliance-drive, audit culture, but at least for one worker it was “a relief [to have supervision], to get through it [even though] I don’t necessarily look forward to it”. In this team, supervision was part of an on-going conversation, starting “informally in the small team office and [flowing] into formal supervision meetings”.

What are the implications? 

This paper replicates and reinforces the findings from previous studies of supervision in this context – describing it as compliance-driven, and far too procedural. It clearly demonstrates the importance of space and place for enabling more reflective conversations. And it shows how some types of supervision are counter-productive, or even harmful, adding to the worker’s exhaustion and stress. Just as social work interventions with families can range from positive to negative outcomes, the same is true for supervision, depending on how, why and where it happens.

Review written by

Profile photo of Dr David Wilkins who wrote this article review

Dr David Wilkins