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.

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

Developing social work identity

The development of a professional identity based on social work values is important for NQSW and closely linked to job satisfaction. Supervision can also play an important part in supporting the development of values and professional identity.

Recognition of the need for protected time and space for focused reflection, particularly for supervisors, needs to be embedded in social services including both experiential training for supervisors as well as further recognition of the value of team and group supervision (Hawkins et al., 2020).

We include some ideas to think about professional identity here and some relevant links to reports and research in this area.

Maintaining your social work identity

As an NQSW you should be supported to maintain the contribution of your professional training, values and ethics even when practising in generic assessment or intervention roles in integrated multidisciplinary teams. This includes having access to professional supervision with a social work supervisor where the line manager is not a registered social worker.

As mentioned in the What is supervision? resource social work has been evolving for over a century and an important part of developing a professional identity is connecting with the development and wider state of the profession beyond individual localities and roles. This may include connections with local, national or global social work organisations and awareness of what their stance on supervision is.

The employer’s role

The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) highlights the responsibilities of employers which includes a framework for supporting good practise that takes account of ethical principles and ensures ‘effective induction, supervision, workload management and continuing professional development’.

The social work interest group of Unison Scotland developed a position statement for professional supervision in social work in 2006, which states that professional supervision involves:

  • quality assurance, including accountable and evidence-based practice
  • learning and development, including developing individuals personally and professionally and ensuring that the social worker and agency maintain up to date knowledge about research, evidence and practice
  • support, including identifying resources to respond to stressful situations and constructive challenge in the interests of client, worker and agency
  • shared decision making, including ensuring peer and management review of professional decisions and mutual learning and development.

The supervision policy of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) suggests these key needs of social workers: 

  • receiving regular, planned, 1:1 professional supervision from registered and appropriately experienced social workers.
  • having routine opportunities for peer learning and discussion in the workplace and through professional networks.
  • developing and maintaining relevant skills, knowledge and understanding to do their job through continuing professional development.

Reflective questions

  • Listen to the Helpful Social Work Podcast episode 8b on Supervision (20 min) and then think about the reflective questions shown below.
  • Think about the concepts in the podcast applied to NQSW
  • How you would feedback to your supervisor on what does or does not help you progress?
  • How you might have input into the agenda to use the time in the best way possible for you?
  • Write some of these ideas down so you can take them to your supervisor for further discussion.

Information and links

Professional identity and self-care

Find out about the sessions on professional identity and self-care that were run in our pilot work by Pearse McCusker and Martin Kettle. You can download the information below.

Go to NQSW supervision resource 5 – Learning from reviews of practice

Welcoming diversity

Welcoming diversity, creating a space for individual learning needs and development of new staff in a complex field of practice takes deliberate effort. Balancing this with the use of a supervisor’s professional and any line manager authority are some of the challenges of professional leadership.

Acknowledging protected characteristics, assumed cultural norms and values, with supervisees, supports the core values of anti-oppressive practice in social work.

It is important to ask about and understand subjective experience. Individual characteristics should be acknowledged even when they seem self-evident. For example, there is still a disproportionate number of male managers when 80% of social workers are women and either ignoring or overcompensating for such dynamics can impact confidence and trust.

Supervisors create a space that welcomes the use of self in our work with people using services. This might include the incorporation of LGBTQIA identities and any dynamics felt by the supervisee even if not observed by the supervisor.

Negotiation and contracting also helps when exercising multiple roles. For example, the need to offer restorative supervisory support around disability dynamics that arise in the role if raised by supervisees, while as a line manager needing to offer a clear process for any necessary employee adjustments.

“We have started using individual contracts and reflecting on supervision histories. That has allowed deeper conversations to talk about what people feel they need and the signs if they are not doing well but to the case-discussion focus is a difficult default to shift”.

Local Authority Manager

Issues such as gender, disability and sexuality that must be acknowledged in a helping relationship such as supervision. Another example of inclusion, because of excellent practice in challenging discrimination and removing barriers to training and professional roles, we are thankfully seeing more people in the workforce with lived experience of care services.

The Promise Scotland recognises that the workforce is also made up of survivors of trauma. Those with lived experience must be supported to be part of the workforce and nurture their instinct to give back, but there must be recognition of the pain that may accompany that involvement.  

Cultural issues are significant factors in supervisory relationships. Responsibility for working with that difference is shared by both parties, whether these are diversities of major cultural or faith communities, experiences of first generation Scots or workers from Scottish traveller backgrounds. Cultural diversity should be welcomed rather than subsumed by professional or role expectations.

Using our power in facilitating learning and development

The container for development is primarily the relationship rather than the content according to Lakey (2020). To facilitate rapport and trust he urges that we can make even obvious diversity issues explicit including gender, class, age and minority issues.

He suggests rather than assuming a shared understanding due to professional identity we must acknowledge organisational power and how, for different people, that may have a greater or lesser impact in their engagement. His approach applied to supervision and professional development suggests that unpacking the NQSW’s stance toward supervision and previous experiences along with emotional and learning styles ​are essential to build a strong container that allows for real development.

Acknowledging and working with those issues might give rise to resistance but going towards this can allow for real change rather than performing a role.

How do good leaders engage?

  • Value diversity
  • Validate importance of relationships
  • Are approachable and responsive
  • Model Good Practice
  • Support, Coach and mentor
  • Are Active and Purposeful

Enablers of leadership

  • People feel supported, valued and respected
  • Work and achievements are acknowledged
  • People have a voice and are treated fairly
  • There is a culture of reflection, learning and development

These ideas are drawn from the resource SSSC – Enabling Leadership

Personality styles are another factor of diversity pertinent to the learning and development task of supervision. Models often identify where we might be on a continuum informed by our ongoing trait, development, or even attachment styles.

Some traits sound like they would be more desirable however our relationships and organisations need variety. There are many models describing personality types including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. One of the most widely applied models of describing personality is the five-factor (Goldberg, 1990) or OCEAN model.     

  • Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
  • Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/callous)
  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)

Another model of understanding diversity particularly regarding learning and development is the Multiple Intelligences Theory of Howard Gardiner. This gave rise to the more popular book on Emotional Intelligence by science journalist Daniel Goleman (1995). These can be helpful for considering the strengths and differences between supervisors and NQSW learning styles.

In working with and leading others we become vulnerable and at times may feel de-skilled given our perceived experience or seniority. A social worker who has been has applied vulnerability research to leadership roles is Brene Brown. Her work became widely known following her 2010 TEDx Houston talk, The Power of Vulnerability.

In 2019 she filmed a longer talk for Netflix which you can search for titled ‘A Call to Courage’. Brown argues that we need to work with vulnerability in all our relationships using simple self-talk such as ‘the story I’m telling myself is’… This acknowledges the way we use explanatory stories to understand our relationships but these stories may trigger our threat-protection system. This can be highly relevant to issues for supervisors of feeling they must present as confident in order to reassure supervisees or have authority to lead teams. In Call to Courage Brown says without vulnerability and tolerance of failure it’s impossible to have creativity and innovation in an organisation.

Useful ideas

  • Imagine an ethical dilemma arise of an NQSW who is feeling stuck with a risk-averse mother of a young disabled man called Robert. Robert identifies as gay and wants to be supported to go to appropriate venues and activities to seek a relationship, his mum is worried and the support provider is also hesitant.
  • What types of intervention could be used to support the NQSW to unpick the mother’s fears, the provider’s hesitance and their own views about the standard of ethical values and rights-based practice and the ethics of self-determination?
  • How could you help them to plan interventions?
  • Developed from the British Institute of Human Rights case study of ‘Robert’.

Go to supervisor resource 11 – Good supervision (including virtual practices)

Social work in Scotland

Since the introduction of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968, the social work profession has been subject to transformations which have developed and enriched social work in Scotland. There are dynamic changes to the design and provision of universal health care, welfare and education services which are placing increasing demands on social work as a profession within the landscape of integrated services for children and adults.

Social work continues to adapt and respond to societal need and the voices of lived experience, economic trends and policy direction to ensure it is effective and future focused in its contribution to and impact on the integrated and multidisciplinary landscape. The statement for advanced practice is founded on the international definition of social work and reaffirms the profession’s identity, underpinning values and key strengths. 

‘Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.’
International Federation of Social Workers (2014)

Head icon with gears to indicate reflective thinking

Reflective questions

  • How do I see my role as a social worker?
  • Why did I become a social worker?
  • What kind of social worker do I think I am?
  • What values do I believe I have? And how do I demonstrate them?

Policy context

Social workers operate in an increasingly complex policy and legal context. The drive towards public sector reform aims to create more joined up local services based within communities and supported by regional and national initiatives and arrangements. Social work can play a vital role in tackling some of the most important and pressing challenges facing our society in the 21st century as well as contributing towards ongoing sustainable development. 

Key challenges include:

  • persistent and often cross-generational poverty and disadvantage
  • delivering the promise of the independent care review, adult social care reform and other system-wide transformational policy agendas
  • an increasingly ageing population with people living longer with more complex needs and a reduced population of working aged adults
  • increasing number of drug related deaths, with Scotland being among the highest prevalence in Europe
  • 30,000 children a year affected by parental imprisonment
  • the climate emergency, human consequences, environmental justice and disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable people
  • constrained budgets affecting thresholds for social work and social care, as well as universal services (education and health)
  • reshaped organisational structures including diminished resources for social work specific learning, workforce development and support 

Social work role 

Social workers bring ethics, values and rights-based approaches to an increasingly complex continuum of practice from early intervention to securing people’s safety. Social workers build effective therapeutic relationships and collaborate with others, moving beyond the purely transactional intervention. Relationship-based practice and partnership working are vital to providing effective and sustainable support which recognises the complex and difficult backgrounds of people and communities and the need to seek approaches that empower and build on strengths. 

Social workers are operating in an arena that can at times be complex, ambiguous and unpredictable. They hold a range of knowledge of both theory and legislation as well as the skills and confidence to be able to manage the competing demands and expectations of their professional role. 

Social workers work increasingly in diverse and multidisciplinary services and settings across the public, third and independent sector. While roles may vary according to specific services, they are underpinned by a core set of knowledge and skills. Developing in your career as an NQSW sets the foundations for undertaking this role.

Reserved function of the social worker

There are a range of clear and reserved functions social workers are accountable for. These functions are integral to formal statutory interventions relating to care and protection, criminal justice, mental health and adults with incapacity, and the professional leadership role of a chief social work officer (CSWO). In undertaking these functions social workers are required to balance competing needs, rights and risks. The decisions they make in exercising these functions need to draw on a range of appropriate sources of knowledge and evidence and be person-centred; considering the views of multi-agency partners and communicated effectively to a range of stakeholders.

However, these functions alone do not reflect every aspect of social work practice and the contribution social workers make in different services and practice settings. Social workers ensure robust safeguarding by offering advice and support underpinned by their understanding of statutory frameworks. They support colleagues by championing strengths-based and person-centred planning and care. They challenge deficit-based practice while recognising the wider family and systemic context. 

Being a social worker

Social workers work in complex social situations to support and protect individuals and groups and promote their well-being.  Social workers must be aware of their responsibility to promote the well-being, support and protection of vulnerable children or adults at risk of harm or abuse irrespective of role, setting and situation.

Social workers need to be able to act effectively in these demanding circumstances and, to achieve this, social workers must be able to critically reflect on, and take responsibility for, their actions.  Social workers should demonstrate engagement with their on-going learning and professional development and should inform practice through critical analysis and reflection, using research and evidence appropriately to support professional decision making.

Since the nature, scope and purpose of social work services themselves are often fiercely debated, social workers should also be able to understand these debates fully and to analyse, adapt to, manage and promote change. 

Social workers should be aware of personal and professional wellbeing and resilience, seeking appropriate support to maintain a positive work/life balance.

Head icon with gears to indicate reflective thinking

Reflective questions

  • What have you learned about yourself going through the process from student to NQSW?
  • What are your feelings about being a registered social worker and on a professional register?
  • What difference do you think it will make to your practice?