Revisiting how social workers learn in the workplace

We want to pause to consider what we are really talking about when we plan for supporting NQSWs to learn through the early career stage.

There are several things to reflect on: What do we mean by learning?; What do we value as individuals and organisations in terms of learning?;What is it really like to learn as a social worker and what does that actually involve?; How do we develop the best opportunities for social workers to learn through work?

What do we mean by learning?

There are many theories about how individuals learn, how organisations learn and how we facilitate learning. Social work as a profession strongly promotes reflective learning, self-awareness and reflexivity. We will be including some information about learning theories in the next stage of the website development. It is interesting to think about what we mean by learning, what we think social workers need to learn, and how they learn. In terms of workplace learning, there are rich and diverse opportunities for social workers to learn through the direct work that they do. Understanding more about the nature of how social workers learn in the workplace can help us think about how we maximise the potential and value of this aspect of professional learning.

What do we value as individuals and organisations in terms of learning?

If you can pause for a moment and think about one of the most important things you have learned as a social worker or as a professional in your career. Then make some notes.

Head icon with gears to indicate reflective thinking
  • How did you learn this?
  • What was it you learned?
  • Where did you learn this?
  • Who supported or influenced this learning?

Many different activities lead to learning. These include formal, informal and self-directed things that individuals, teams and organisations might do. Although guidance for continuing professional learning highlights the range of possibilities that count as learning, many social workers and managers focus on organised training sessions.

Our most significant learning experiences can be through so many different aspects of our work. We are drawing from some recent research in Scotland (Ferguson, 2021) that explored the lived experiences of social workers learning through work. The study highlights that learning in social workers’ workplaces can be incredibly potent in relation to the kind of work they are doing, yet it is not a primary focus in planning for continuing professional learning.

What is it really like to learn as a social worker and what does that actually involve?

The research was concerned with going back to explore the nature of learning in the workplace, for social workers. The study was located at the intersection of different fields of knowledge about individual learning; organisational learning; social work professional learning; and workplace learning. The central research question, “What are the lived experiences of social workers’ learning in the workplace?”, was at the core of the study, drawing from and contributing to these different areas of existing knowledge and offering new insights into how these fields connect.

Social workers learning in the workplace

The study found that learning to be, and learning as, a social worker in, through and at work is an intricate web of sensory and emotional experiences while negotiating and navigating places, spaces and tasks. The lived experiences of social workers can be understood as involving the seven superordinate themes for the group, Journey of the self; Navigating tasks; Navigating landscape and place; Learning through the body; Learning through others; Practices and conceptions of learning; and, Learning by chance. Striking metaphors helped social workers convey their experience of learning in the workplace that encompassed these themes.

Learning as a complex web

Learning as a complex web (Ferguson, 2021)

The themes of social workers’ learning in the workplace should not be considered merely on a surface or simplistic level. It is important to pause and consider what these different themes might mean for an individual social worker, then how these might combine. The threads of the relationship between these themes form a web that is unique to the individual social worker, deeply connected to their embodied experience of learning and the type of work opportunities that they undertake. Understanding the nature and complexity of individual social workers’ experiences can help us design more effective workplace continuing professional learning opportunities.

We will be linking to key ideas from this research and adding more information in the next stage of the website development.

You can find out more about the research and findings “When David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust” The Lived Experiences of Social Workers Learning Through Work (Ferguson, 2021).

How do we develop the best opportunities for social workers to learn through work?

Several important implications arise from Ferguson’s research for those involved in supporting social workers’ learning in the workplace.

  • We need to acknowledge the intensity of the emotional and embodied aspect of social workers’ learning.
  • Social workers are vital to each other’s learning.
  • Learning through direct work with real people who use services is absolutely vital.
  • Direct practice is essential to equip social workers with the kind of learning that they need.
  • We need to understand and value learning through work tasks and consider how we allocate tasks to social workers.
  • The personal value and commitment of social workers to their learning is of fundamental importance. We need to consider how frameworks and regulatory requirements dovetail with this.


Ferguson, G M. (2021). “When David Bowie created Ziggy Stardust” The Lived Experiences of Social Workers Learning Through Work. The Open University

Anti-racist social work

Social work has a key role to play in anti-oppressive practice, promoting social justice and fairness. This includes racism at the personal, social and structural levels.

Practitioners need to work in a way that supports and protects people and challenges discrimination in all forms and is culturally sensitive.

The recently revised Standards in Social Work Education (SiSWE) strengthen the focus on the social context of practice and are underpinned by clear ethical principles. The characteristics of NQSW practice continue to hold these principles strongly.

The SSSC Codes of Practice clearly state that any form of discrimination is not acceptable and that workers or employers should not condone any discrimination.

All workers and employers support that people are respected, their rights are upheld and they work in a way that promotes diversity and respects different cultures and values.

Upholding public trust and confidence in social services relies on these values and behaviours.

Network of social workers

We will be continuing to enhance this resource through our national NQSW project over 2021-22. Please let us know if you have any recommendations for what is helpful for NQSWs and their managers.

Trauma is everybody’s business

The experience and impact of trauma and adversity in the lives of Scottish people is more pervasive than has previously been recognised. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. NQSWs have a key role in understanding the impact of trauma and working in a way that recognises this.

A vision for Scotland

“A trauma informed and responsive nation and workforce, that is capable of recognising where people are affected by trauma and adversity, that is able to respond in ways that prevent further harm and support recovery, and can address inequalities and improve life chances”

National trauma training programme Scotland 2021

The National Trauma Training Programme (NTTP) supports the shared ambition of the Scottish Government, COSLA and partners from across Scotland of a trauma-informed and responsive nation and workforce as seen in this vision.

A trauma-informed nation

  • Realises the prevalence of trauma
  • Recognises the impact of trauma especially in relation to barriers it can create to life chances
  • Responds with that recgnotion in mind
  • Does no harm, supports recovery, creates systems that remove potential trauma-related barriers
  • Recognises and supports resilience
  • Understands that relationships matter

National trauma training programme

Whatever your role as a social worker, it is important to develop skills and knowledge that understands how the impact of trauma might affect people’s responses to you and your organisation. Learning more can help you adapt your work approach. You may also have an explicit role as a social worker supporting children or adults affected by trauma to recover.

Please let us know if there are any learning resources that you would recommend to other NQSWs.

Find out about the workshops that Martin Kettle and Pearse McCusker ran as part of our pilot work in the west of Scotland that informed the approach to the NQSW supported year.

We are supporting the workforce to develop their capacity to embed personal outcomes approaches in their day-to-day practice and deliver better outcomes for people using services.

Find out about the work and the range of learning and development resources for you Personal outcomes – Scottish Social Services Council

Please note that these links will take you to external sources out of the SSSC NQSW website.

Find out more about this area of work and the resources that can support your learning and development Palliative and end of life care – Scottish Social Services Council

Developing your knowledge and skills for working with people who live with dementia

Do you work with people who live with dementia? SSSC have an online resource to help social workers and other professionals implement the Promoting Excellence learning framework and the Standards of Care for Dementia in Scotland within their practice.

This is a detailed and focused learning resource which is ideal if you want to develop more knowledge and skills for working with people who live with dementia.

You will find the link to the Enhanced dementia practice for social workers resource below.

Shared by NQSWs

  • NQSWs told us they liked to use Alzheimer Scotland resources
  • These cover many aspects of daily living for individuals and carers

References and links

Please remember that if you click on these links they will take you to information and resourcs that are external to the SSSC NQSW website.

This is a specific learning resource for social workers which you can access from SSSC Enhanced dementia practice for social workers

The resource is currently being updated so you can let us know if you find any broken links.

For general introductory information about dementia, you can find links to guides and strategy from Public Health Scotland Public health Scotland Dementia Information

We’d also recommend the Psychology of Dementia team at NES and the resource Promoting Psychological Wellbeing people with dementia

Our new online guide for Dementia Ambassadors and other supporting people living with dementia can be found here Information and advice for Dementia Ambassadors

Supervision and outcomes for people using services

The Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) found that supervision led to outcomes (measured by workers), including empowerment and participation of service users, fewer complaints, and increased positive feedback. However, they noted, that there is a lack of research on how supervision impacted the desired outcomes of those using services.

‘changes to the supervisory process are not informed by the perspectives of service users and carers and miss a crucial aspect of understanding how supervision impacts on practice’

Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE)

Supervision can support social workers’ resilience

The people who use our services may benefit from a more resilient and stable workforce. Effective supervision has a clear role in supporting worker resilience. Child protection workers were less likely to leave their roles and community workers got significant protection from stress and burnout when given supportive supervision within an organisational culture positive about good supervision practice (Hawkins & McMahon, 2020).

These concepts are discussed further in the wellbeing and resilience section. Views from people who use services are also discussed in later sections. In the seven-eyed model section, we consider feedback from user groups including care experienced young people and adults with disabilities on supervision issues.

Reflective questions

  • How do you bring the views of people who use services into your supervision striking a balance between positive and negative feedback about services including your work?
  • Write down what you will do differently in your next supervision session to ensure that the view of the person using services is central?

Information and links

Go to NQSW Supervision resource 3 – Learning about supervision from the NQSW pilots

What does research on resilience tell us?

Key findings from recent BASW research advocates that social workers need:

  • positive working conditions to provide good services
  • professional development time for reflective supervision
  • manageable caseloads and a consistent approach to allocation
  • support to reduce stress and improve wellbeing

Much helpful guidance including the IRISS Insight on Achieving Effective Supervision (Kettle, 2015) identifies that good supervision happens when part of a broader learning culture with the following features: 

  • regular reviews of problems provide learning opportunities 
  • an organisational commitment to continuing professional learning
  • space is made for professional autonomy and discretion
  • the emotional impact of social work practice is recognised 

There is increased awareness of the impact of secondary trauma from supporting people who use our services and the impact that this has on workers.

Supervision and resilience

Approaches need to ensure that supervision covers the spectrum of worker needs whether in the individual relationship or a mixture of approaches including mentoring and structured peer groups. In balance with this ‘compassion satisfaction’ (Alkema et al, 2008), is a complementary concept to that of compassion fatigue, which energises us in our role by seeing positive changes for people who use services.

The transition from university into practice may be empowering or challenging as you adjust to the additional workload. Managing this transition with feelings of growing capacity and competence requires building a good relationship with a supervisor and also being aware of wider relationships and resources you can access before any work stress inhibits managing your role.

Resilience resources

The IRISS website has a helpful set of resilience resources for social work and social care workers collected by IRISS, Social Work Scotland and SSSC with examples from practice.

Adamson et al (2014) argue that coping behaviours and work-life balance are essential parts of maintaining wellbeing in a profession where the use of self is our core resource.

Researchers identified several burnout factors in social workers including vicarious traumatisation and compassion fatigue (Alkema et al., 2008). However, the study supports the view that, despite working in adverse conditions, social workers also experience high levels of job satisfaction a phenomenon they term as ‘compassion satisfaction’.

To reduce the risk of burnout we need to have self-knowledge and be willing to challenge assumptions we have around having to cope and fearing that a supervisor may judge us when we are overwhelmed. Supervisors are unlikely to judge, as they will most probably have experienced times when they were less able to cope so it is useful to be honest about difficulties so a supervisor has a chance to respond to any support needs.

Knowing about local resources for workers including employee assistance schemes and access to de-briefing support, telephone and face to face counselling options can also be useful, ask your supervisor about this. Making sure you are ok and taking up offers of support is a strength, not a weakness.

Wider resilience resources include things like mindfulness practice which has become more accessible in recent years and can be a useful practice to support wellbeing. Many workers, even if familiar, may benefit from a reminder and links to free resources below given that apps are often subscription-based.

Following a few years of research, BASW has also produced a good practice toolkit for wellbeing and working conditions. This helpfully separates responsibilities for:

  • Social workers in direct practice
  • Social work supervisors and practice leaders
  • Teams, team leaders and managers
  • Senior managers and organisational leaders
  • Professional organisations & Trade unions

Information and links

Shared by other NQSWs

Reflective questions

  • Think about a time in previous roles, during study or SW placement when you were feeling overwhelmed and note down what internal and external resources you accessed to help manage
  • What else might have helped you?
  • Do you have a clear wellbeing plan of what you do to support yourself both inside and outside of work?
  • What are the indicators that you would need to ask for further support?
  • Given that we often struggle to think clearly in times of crisis, you might want to note things down to be aware of what would help you if you need it.

Go to NQSW supervision resource 8 – Making best use of supervision

Negotiating supervision

It is important to negotiate the time, frequency, location, structure and content of supervision. Sometimes this is known as contracting, as social workers would often have had an individualised contract around supervision that meets their specific needs.

We have included more information and templates in the resources for supervisors on this website.

This has increasingly given way to organisational policies which have important functions about minimum standards and accountability to employees and the public. However, negotiating your own agreement about what you want to focus on within this wider policy can still be tremendously useful and will likely be seen as a sign of your interest and personal responsibility about your learning and development.

What supervision involves

There are some areas you could include and personalise to your needs, whether or not covered by an overarching policy. You might want to make them more relevant to your learning style, your locality or in case they were written for multi-professional departments, to your role as a social worker.

These headings are adapted for NQSWs from the Supervision Learning Resource (SSSC, 2016).

  • Arrangements for planned, frequent 1:1 supervision

There is no substitute for this and it is key to the wellbeing of NQSWs and the people who use our services. It should be a joint responsibility and major priority for both parties despite work pressures and technical hurdles that may be increased due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Arrangements for complementary supervision

This may be with a registered social worker if your line manager does not have this role and for group supervision and peer reflection which we have included on the website.

  • The link between supervision and other management processes

This might include any probationary employment period, any annual appraisal cycles, case allocation policies and any specific team or departmental goals or performance expectations.

  • Link with your expectations, support and CPL as an NQSW

If you are feeling comfortable with your supervisor this may include sharing your last individual learning plan you worked with at your final placement and adapting it for your new role, to show where you have developed and what you are still working on.

  • The purpose and content of sessions

This might include models used and how time might be divided between the normative, formative and restorative functions discussed further below in supervision models.

  • The role of standards and ethics specific to the NQSW role

This might include how you think about these in any model of supervision that you both agree to use eg see the section on the seven-eyed model which may help with this.

  • Administration issues

This might include issues such as an agenda and any cases identified for deeper analysis and reflection. This gives a supervisor time to read case notes and avoids spending most of the time in sessions describing case backgrounds. It also allows more focus on your assessment, interventions and support needs.   

Using supervision effectively

Contracting or negotiation for each supervision relationship sometimes gives way to carefully developed organisational policies to which staff must adhere. However, if that does not cover negotiation around responsibilities and roles, session formats, regulatory and accountability issues and the supervisory relationship those things still require individual attention.

Even with all those things in place supervision could still be somewhat  compliance-based unless both parties invest in the relationship including taking some risks. For you, it might be taking risks on talking about things you may worry that would impact on any assessment of your confidence or competence in your new identity as a qualified worker.

It is usually safer to take the risk of talking about difficult issues. Examples of this are:

  • Difficult issues with colleagues, managers and the organisation
  • Themes arising across multiple cases eg engagement issues  
  • Strong feelings eg anger or embarrassment in your work
  • Self-care, stress levels, time management, workload
  • Personal issues that impact work or vice versa
  • Feeling awkward about a case or potential ethical dilemmas

In a scenario where you may receive some feedback that leads to you feeling less confident, try to have a conversation about exactly that issue with your supervisor as they may be unaware of the impact on you.

When we are on a new learning curve early in a career, we may be more alert to criticism or we may need to help our supervisor understand our communication style, what we want more of and what we find more challenging. Conversely, it might be difficult for a supervisor to firmly challenge any concerns with new team members in case this is perceived as strong criticism.

It’s best to deliberately discuss how to manage constructive criticism ahead of time and say what approaches may work best for you.

Your supervisor may be highly experienced and you may well find supervision very useful. It is still worth having a discussion about your individual styles and approaches and how you might negotiate the relationship to work best for you, so you feel like you are taking an active role in your own development. Doing this consciously can help avoid solely describing casework activities and enable more reflective, meaningful and challenging conversations.

Reflective questions

  • Read your organisational policy around supervision. You may have to search on your organisation’s intranet or ask your manager for it.
  • Perhaps it was discussed during induction activities when you were taking in lots of new information and now would be a good time to revisit it.

Go to NQSW supervision resource 9 – Virtual supervision