In social work the opportunity to reflect on your practice is often neglected. The supervisory element of the job is, for a number of reasons, often focussed just on operational matters and case loads.

  • Was this person seen?
  • Did you follow the correct procedures?
  • Have you written up your visit?
  • Have you contacted other agencies?
  • Have you properly completed the initial or core assessment and entered the information?

These and a multitude of practical demands rest on social workers shoulders, sometimes with a great weight. The sad result of higher case loads and staff vacancies in some departments is that the emotional well being of the worker is often considered second best. This is not necessarily deliberate but when there are competing requirements it is often the practical tasks and statutory obligations that over rule finding time to deal with the emotional health of the worker.

An example of the real value of making time for reflection for the worker occurred with a member of staff I became aware of called Alan (not his real name) had been working with a family who were known to social services but not considered particularly at risk or difficult to manage. However the young mother died suddenly leaving the father with two young children under 5. Following the bereavement his care for the children, his own health and hygiene deteriorated. The children were more and more difficult for him to manage and so he developed a substance misuse problem as well as being on prescribed medication for depression . In other words in a short space of time from him coping well the situation became highly risky for the welfare of the children, even with considerable support going in to the house.

Alan himself had just separated from his partner and was showing all signs of bereavement in his own right. He began to display a lack of energy and awareness, his analytical skills became blunted and he began to function on a formulaic basis and it later transpired that he too was on anti depressive medication. It wasn’t that he didn’t recognise the weakening of his professional ability, in fact he did but was unable to ask for help. ┬áThere was a strengthening of his feelings of sporadic anger and impatience towards his clients and increasing feelings of failure as a professional.

All through this his manager didn’t recognise the depth of trauma Alan was experiencing and beyond superficial enquiries did not instigate proper reflective practice. The core issue is that although it may be an extreme case it illustrates how important it is to maintain the emotional health of workers whose own state of mind is crucial to providing the best service.

It may be that their immediate manager, for whatever reason, perhaps a gender issue, is not the best person to offer the best reflective supervision. I accept it’s very difficult in an incredibly busy team environment to strictly ring fence time, but other professions are much more rigid about the opportunity to engage with a trusted person and examine their own emotional health. I’m not therefore surprised that the level of ‘burn out’ is high in social services, especially on what’s called the front line services dealing with the most vulnerable and sometimes damaged people. This is just another reason to increase resources to a level where the workers are healthy and stress is recognised as a real issue to be dealt with and not just something that occasions, tea, sympathy and the derision of tabloid newspapers.

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