Social workers need adequate supervision in the form of continued training and professional guidance to provide effective and efficient services in challenging circumstances. Unfortunately, supervision remains an understudied topic when it comes to evidence-informed policies despite policymakers, practitioners, and managers emphasising its importance and value in social work.
“Although there's consensus among key role-players that supervision is crucial for effective service delivery and the retention of social workers, its implementation remains a challenge, especially in child welfare," says Dr Priscalia Khosa from the Department of Social Work at Stellenbosch University (SU). She recently obtained her doctorate in Social Work at SU on the implementation of the Supervision Framework for the Social Work Profession in South Africa (hereafter “the Supervision Framework") in a child protection organisation in the Western Cape.
Established in 2012, the Framework stipulates the functions and methods of supervision, as well as the roles of both supervisors and supervisees. Khosa points out that since 2012, no research has been conducted on its implementation in various welfare organisations.
As part of her study, Khosa interviewed social workers and supervisors in the child protection organisation to find out what their views were on the implementation of the Framework.
She says her findings show that issues such as the lack of adequate training and resources, structural support, and heavy workloads have a negative impact on the supervisor's ability to offer effective supervision.
“A lot of emphasis is placed on the administrative function of supervision with supervisors spending a lot of time on signing off reports, while neglecting the educational and supportive functions of supervision.
“The supervisor-supervisee ratio is also uneven due to a shortage of supervisors. Hence, they exercise an open-door policy instead of following the structured supervision process outlined in the Framework.
“The implementation of the Framework is hindered by structural causes that perpetuate managerialism, productivity, and the ticking of boxes, while ignoring the wellbeing of social workers and supervisors and how they cope with their workload. Social workers should be given the space to reflect on their practice and discuss stressful situations when they deal with clients. There's a need for reflective and clinical supervision."
Khosa says if these issues are not addressed, supervision will continue to focus on the quantity of cases and not the quality of work and, in doing so, play into the hands of a neoliberal discourse propagated by the Department for Social Development (DSD) who is the custodian of the Framework.
“Because of neoliberal policies, welfare organisations are forced to be target-driven and employ business management strategies if they want to be sustainable and receive funding from the government (the DSD in this instance). The downside of this is that they neglect the educational and supportive functions of supervision."
She adds that we shouldn't underestimate the value of adequate supervision.
“It empowers and encourages social workers to perform their duties effectively.
“Supervision does not only benefit practitioners and service users, but also welfare organisations employing social workers as well as the profession in its entirety. For instance, social work as a profession can maintain its standards of practice and enhance professional ethics amongst practitioners through supervision.
“For organisations, social work supervision ensures accountability in compliance with agency standards of service and policies. In a nutshell, the supervision of social workers is one of the key factors that contributes to job satisfaction as well as high-quality service delivery in social work practice."
Based on her findings, Khosa makes a few key recommendations that could help to improve the implementation of the Supervision Framework.
She says the focus should be more on clinical supervision and less on other organisational tasks to reduce the administrative load of supervisors which has been the primary hindrance to structured supervision, especially in child protection organisations.
“Adult education principles, supervision tools and techniques should be incorporated into the Framework so that the focus can be clinical supervision than merely ticking boxes.
“Clear guidelines on the linkages between the phases in the supervision process such as the personal development assessment, the personal development plan, the supervision contract, the actual supervision sessions, and the performance appraisals are needed.
“Online supervision should be thoroughly investigated to find out if this will make it easier for social worker and supervisor to reach each other. Best practices in supervision should be shared among supervisors and social workers as this may inform specific training opportunities for frontline social workers and supervisors."
A peer supervision model can also be expanded in the Framework, adds Khosa.