The main premise of the social work setting is support. This concerns that social workers provide clients with the means that they need to continue their lives in with as much autonomy as possible. The challenge that many social workers face today is obtaining sufficient support to accomplish their goals in a way that would benefit both the profession, the agency with which they are associated, and the individuals they serve. One way to meet this challenge is by means of supervision. Professional supervision means that social workers are monitored in their work with clients to ensure the quality and effectiveness of this work. One manifestation of supervision is its use in the educational setting, where final year students are provided with the opportunity to be supervised by experts in the field to help them perfect their art and work before entering the profession as graduated professionals. As a social work professional, I was provided with the opportunity to supervise a third-year student in her work with 18 elderly clients who suffered from mental health problems. In reflecting on these experiences, it is interesting to note the dynamic of the relationship between the older social worker and the student just entering the profession, as well as the student's relationship with the clients she served. The main purpose of supervision can therefore be said to focus on the client's well-being, as well as that of the agency, the profession as a whole, and the professional providing the service.
Accordign to Ray et al. (2008), social workers are generally valued for their ability not only to provide practical help to those who need it, but also for their advocacy on behalf of their clients, as well as emotional support. In the UK, the elderly specifically tend to be marginalized in terms of their mental health needs. Indeed, they are one of the social groups who are largely ignored when it comes to these needs. The social health profession can help in this, provided that sufficient supervision is in place to ensure excellence and quality of care.
In terms of the social work agency as a whole, the Professional Matrix (2005) suggests that there are several advantages supervision can hold for the agency. One of these is that supervision can act as a tool to achieve the objectives of an agency. When supervising my student, for example, I was able to make her aware that different agencies would have different objectives in terms of their work with clients. This is particularly the case with mental health clients. Some will have specific needs in terms of their contact with and support from family members, while others will rely solely on the agency for their emotional support needs.
The agency goals will also be affected by the goals, structure, policies and procedures, service settings, and climate within the agency. Although my supervised student was not exposed to all these, I was able to make her aware of this aspect of social work. Working with mental health clients in an agency environment means that the social worker needs to be sensitive not only to the client's needs or his or her own professional philosophy, but also with how these integrate to provide the client with the best possible service. Continued supervision can help mitigate any conflicts that arise as a result.
The supervision relationship in practice therefore concerns that the social worker has a superior to whom he or she can defer in terms of current practice and past practice. This both integrates the agency's practice with the specific way in which the professional's work is being conducted and provides the professional with specific guidelines regarding this work. Furthermore, the main advantage of this is that the social worker is not left to his or her own devices regarding the appropriate practice protocol. This is particularly the case with new social workers, like the student I was supervising. One additional advantage of supervising students in their final year of study before entering the profession is that they become used to the supervision process and its necessity in the process of social work.
In the case of mental health clients, this is particularly important in terms of the effect the type of work could have on the social worker. The sense of isolation when working with clients with varying emotional needs of a certain intensity could have very specific impacts on the social worker. A person who is relatively new to the profession could, for example, be adversely affected by the circumstances of the work. When supervised, this effect can be mitigated by specific support from a person who is experienced in the work.
This is something struck me as particularly important when working with an inexperienced person who was expected to work with elderly mental health clients. Particularly at the beginning, when she was very new to the work and was still becoming familiar with all the clients she would be working with, I was able to help her with the transition period. She was able to talk to me about her frustrations with the clients, as well as her personal philosophy and her view of her role in the profession as a whole. This enabled her to grow and become a better social worker faster than would have been the case without supervision.
Furthermore, I was also able to help her improve her objectives, performance and motivation when this was needed. This included her awareness of the ethics inherent in the profession. In my work with the student, I was therefore able to review her daily work and provide constructive feedback to help her improve and grow in her work. In the light of these assertions, one might therefore say that supervision is essential not only to ensure individual growth for the social worker being supervised, but also to ensure constructive and functional relationships within the profession, between the agency and its professionals, professionals with each other, and between professionals and their clients. On the other hand, there are also very specific dangers inherent in not supervising social workers in their work with clients, specifically when these social workers are new to the profession.
According to the British Association for Social Work (BASW, 2011), support for social workers in the country is vital to ensure that they engage in safe practices when providing clients with help. A recent report by the BASW (2011), however, notes that employers and agencies tend to turn a blind eye to the support needs of their social work professionals. According to a survey conducted for the report, only 40% of social workers receive supervision on a monthly basis, while 71% feel that they do not receive the support necessary to help them cope with the emotional issues they face in practice. This means that the quality of their work is severely affected.
On the other hand, employers and agencies are faced with concerns like complex case loads, overworked service providers, a lack of resources to mitigate this problem, which runs concomitantly with public spending cuts. The BASW, however, emphasizes that the necessity of supervision in practice cannot be denied or ignored, even in the face of the most dire financial constraints. Because they work with clients that face a number of emotional and mental issues, social workers must be absolutely stable in terms of their own inner resources. For this reason, supervision should be in place to help these workers maintain their morale and sense of commitment to the work.
The report therefore draws the conclusion that supervision should be prioritized by agencies who oversee the provision of social services in practice. In working with my supervisee, I could see the importance of supervision to ensure that she was able to cope with her workload as well as the emotional issues that tends to arise from working with mental health patients. The elderly with mental health problems have a very specific set of needs, particularly because they are largely ignored by the community and by society as a whole. Many such clients therefore find that contact with their family is practically non-existent, and therefore rely solely on the social worker to provide the support that they need. For this reason, it is vital that supervision be implemented to ensure the mental and emotional stability of the social worker. This is something that I found in working with my student. She found herself practically overwhelmed with the varying needs of 18 elderly clients with mental health issues. Hence, she needed a large amount of support from me as her supervisor, not only in the practical aspects of the work, but also in mitigating its emotional effects on her ability to continue doing the work.
Many researchers, such as Hughes (2010), recognize that supervision is an integral and crucial part of reflective practice. By becoming reflective, supervision is not only beneficial for the person being supervised or for the agency where the practice take place. It also provides…