Liz blowing a dandelion

The what, why and how of supervision

If you asked everyone in social work, case work and other allied professions what supervision was called there would be many differing opinions; clinical supervision, professional supervision, peer supervision, external supervision,  group supervision or just plain old supervision to name a few.

What exactly is supervision?

The definition of supervision is complex and to those outside of the helping profession, supervision can be difficult to understand and is more focussed on the employees work, productivity and progress. But to those of us in social work, case work and allied health professions, supervision is important and we know it makes a difference to our practice , HOWEVER it can be difficult to define!

A barrier to quality supervision can actually be in the definition itself which is why it is important to have a clear definition of what supervision actually is and its function when embarking on a supervisory relationship. 

Supervision is a joint endeavour in which a practitioner with the help of a supervisor, attends to their clients, themselves as part of their client practitioner relationship and the wider systemic context, and by so doing improves the quality of their work, transforms their client relationships, continuously develops themselves, their practice and the wider profession. Hawker and Shohet, 2012

Why is good supervision important?

Not only does supervision cover work productivity and progress but it also encompases other important elements that are vital for making sound decisions about the people that we work with. Strong supervision supports us to develop and maintain relationships, make thorough assessments, analysis and decisions and to work through our self beliefs, biases and judgements that we may have and how this might impact on the decisions that we make about our clients.

Too often it is assumed that any supervision equals good supervision, however it is only strong and effective supervision that adds value to the practitioner, agency and to the people the practitioner is working with (Morrison, 2005).  

As the job of supporting others is complex and often comes with conflicting information, therefore critical reflection, professional growth and development, along with sound decision making within supervision  is crucial. 

Social Work reports (such as by Eileen Munroe in the UK), indicated that poor supervision is a barrier to effective child protection and social work practice.

How should supervision work?

As I started writing the how of supervision, I realised that this topic is huge, so I’m just going to focus on some theories of supervision and the types of categories within supervision that are important

So what should you be getting in supervision?  Kardushin (1976) outlined three interrelated functions of supervision and then later Richards, Payne and Sheppherd (1990) and then Morrison (2005) added a fourth. These functions are: 

  • Administrative/ Normative

The maintenance of good standards of work, including accountability and adhering to policies and procedures. Examples of this are checking that administrative tasks have been completed such as case noting, keeping up to date with assessments etc. 

  • Educational/ Formative

Supporting the development of the practitioner, providing new skills, reflective practice and integrating theory into practice.

  • Supportive / Restorative

This part of supervision should focus on practitioners looking after themselves, looking at morale in the workplace and identifying any symptoms of vicarious trauma and then providing support to address this. 

  • Mediation 

Ensuring that the practitioner is represented and linked with higher management and the other parts of the organisation 

These functions are all interrelated and therefore ideally would be best suited being provided by the same person, however often for a variety of reasons this isn’t able to be possible. Practitioners should be receiving all four functions to qualify as receiving ‘good’ supervision. 

I’d love to hear your comments about whether you think you are getting the supervision you need to be practicing at your best? Comment below!


Hawkins, P and Shohet, R 2012, Supervision in the helping professions, 4th Edn, Open University Press, Great Britain.

Morrison, T 2005,  Staff supervision in Social Care: Making a real difference for staff and service users, 5th Edn, Pavilion Publishing Ltd. 

Wonnacott, J 2012, Mastering Social Work Supervision, , Jessica Kingsley Publishers, United Kingdom.

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