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Social work supervision

Supporting effective practice, job satisfaction and retention of social work staff through professional supervision

Headline points
  • Based on very low strength evidence, supervision tends to have a positive effect on some outcomes for workers and for organisations
  • The type of evidence in this review can only show that supervision is associated with certain outcomes, not that it caused them
  • The evidence from this review is all from the USA, so findings may not be generalisable to the UK
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Outcomes for workers

Overall effectiveness: 1 (maximum 2)

Strength of evidence: 0 (maximum 3)

Outcomes for organisations

Overall effectiveness: 1 (maximum 2)

Strength of evidence: 0 (maximum 3)

What is this?

The Department for Education reported that there were 31,720 children and family social workers practicing in England in September 2018. Surveys in England (e.g. by the British Association of Social Workers and the Social Care Workforce Research Unit) suggest that social workers would like to have regular supervision. Government policy identifies practice supervision as a crucial foundation for effective child and family social work.

Supervision is thought to play a role in managing case work, reflecting on social work practice, supporting professional development, providing workers with emotional support and mediating between the social worker and the organisation they work within.

In the UK, supervision would usually be provided by a line manager on a one-to-one basis, although group supervision is also sometimes offered. It might also be provided by senior practitioners or external consultants.

How is it meant to work?

The review identified several theoretical perspectives on the purpose of supervision:

  • Ensuring that children and families receive the best support according to Children’s Services’ responsibilities and professional standards
  • Ensuring workers have the knowledge and skills they need, a clearly defined role and professional support
  • Meeting a duty of care toward workers to support their well-being and job satisfaction.

What are the evaluated outcomes?

  • Outcomes for workers
  • Outcomes for organisations

How effective is it?

Outcomes for workers

Overall, supervision tends to show a positive effect on outcomes for workers. However, this is based on very low strength evidence.

  • Worker job satisfaction: Five studies demonstrated an association between supervision and workers’ job satisfaction in relation to the structure, focus and frequency of supervision;  assistance with tasks; and support in accessing resources for service users.
  • Intention to leave: Three studies explored how supervision related to workers’ intention to leave. Findings were mixed: one study suggested that the workers’ perception of supervisor support predicted their intention to leave. Two studies found no association.

Outcomes for organisations

Overall, supervision tends to show a positive effect on outcomes for organisations. However, this is based on very low strength evidence.

  • Staff retention: Nine studies examined how supervision relates to staff retention. Overall, good supervision tended to be related to improved staff retention.
  • Critical thinking skills: One study, which assessed a group supervision model, provided tentative support for an increase in workers’ critical thinking skills and a relationship between quality of the supervision relationship and the level of workers’ participation.
  • Workers’ perceptions of organisational support: Five studies researched how supervision relates to workers’ perceptions of organisational support. The extent to which workers felt supported by their supervisors was found to influence their perceptions of the organisation and the extent to which they felt valued. One study found that effective supervision contributed to workers’ perceptions that the organisation promoted evidence-based practice.

Outcomes for service users

The review did not identify any studies reporting on outcomes for service users that met its quality requirements.

Strength of evidence

The low strength of evidence rating for this review reflects the design of the 22 studies that were included. One qualitative study was included, 18 studies had a cross-sectional design and three studies were longitudinal. These studies can show an association between supervision and an outcome but they cannot show a causal relationship demonstrating that supervision produces a particular outcome. The review did not identify any studies with an experimental design.

Where has it been studied?

There were 22 research studies included in the review, all of which were carried out in the USA. It is therefore unclear to what extent these research findings are applicable to the UK.

Who does it work for?

The review included studies that looked at the outcomes of supervision for social workers and other practitioners in child welfare services. Studies’ participants included social workers, children’s welfare caseworkers, child protection workers, care managers, child welfare workers and family support workers. The review did not report demographic information for these workers.

When, where and how does it work?

The review identified a series of factors that were associated with the relationship between supervision and the outcomes explored:

  • One study found that workers with a positive rapport with their supervisor had higher job satisfaction, while those with poor rapport were more likely to experience emotional exhaustion
  • One study found that workers who had supervision more frequently had higher levels of job satisfaction
  • Another study found that more frequent supervision was associated with emotional exhaustion. Analysis suggested this was likely to be because the workers received more supervision while they were involved in complex child protection cases.
  • A study of group supervision suggested that the quality of the supervision was more important in predicting critical thinking than the number of hours spent in supervision
  • Workers’ intentions to stay with their organisation were associated with the supervisor’s willingness to support them with their job and help in stressful situations, and whether they felt emotionally supported
  • The association between supervision and staff retention may depend on the type of supervision provided and the quality of the relationship between the worker and their supervisor
  • Where workers do not feel supported by the supervisor, organisational support becomes more important. One study found that while workers need support, it wasn’t important if this was provided by the supervisor or the organisation.

What are the costs and benefits?

There were no studies that reported on the cost-effectiveness of supervision models. Future research should include economic evaluation.

How is it implemented?

The authors of the review highlight that there was generally a lack of detail in the studies about the models of supervision that were studied. The majority of studies appeared to involve one-to-one supervision. It was not clear whether supervision was delivered by the line manager or another professional.  Studies tended to be observational e.g. identifying whether various features or qualities were present in supervision and seeing how this was associated with outcomes. The review authors note that this lack of specificity about the type of supervision provided limits the usefulness of the studies.

Only one study included in the review attempted to implement a particular model of supervision practice. This study assessed a group supervision model, where supervisors received five training sessions and provided supervision for groups of between five and seven workers. These either took place every two weeks and lasted for 90 minutes or were monthly for between two and four hours. The sessions were focused on group problem solving and reflection and were intended to increase critical thinking skills.

One other study sought to improve the quality of supervision practice by implementing enhanced basic supervisor and clinical supervision training and introducing the use of a supervisory case review tool.

There was not sufficient evidence available for this review to say whether any particular model or approach to supervision is more effective than any other. The authors of the review suggest that the correlational evidence available indicates that supervision might work best if it involves:

  • Assistance with tasks
  • Social and emotional support
  • A positive relationship between the supervisor and supervisee.

Case study

Hertfordshire County Council implemented its Family Safeguarding Hertfordshire model was in 2015 and its evaluation was published in 2017. This whole-system change involved:

  • Creating social work teams that included specialist workers with expertise in domestic abuse, substance misuse and mental health
  • Training staff to use Motivational Interviewing as their practice framework
  • Providing staff with group supervision
  • Providing tools to support direct work.

Group supervision was provided to all workers who were involved with a family, to enable shared case discussions. The 2017 evaluation of Family Safeguarding Hertfordshire found that “the introduction of multidisciplinary teams and group supervision were experienced overwhelmingly positively”. The group supervision was thought to provide a forum for better communication between agencies and supporting multidisciplinary working. Participants felt that having the perspective of a range of professionals, including adult workers, improved their understanding of risk factors. These benefits were felt by both adult workers and children’s social workers. However, the evaluation also picked up some challenges with diary management and ensuring that group supervision sessions happened on a regular basis.

Surveys of staff undertaken for the evaluation found that 80% of workers thought group supervision improved understanding of risk in families. A majority (60%) also thought it led to a sense of shared responsibility for a case. 70% of those who responded also thought group supervision supported more reflective practice. However, there were also concerns that group supervision was overly time-consuming.

This evaluation captured practitioners’ experiences of group supervision but did not seek to evaluate whether group supervision specifically improved outcomes for staff or children and families.

In summary...

  • This review found that supervision tends to have a positive effect on some outcomes for workers and outcomes for organisations, but this is based on very low strength evidence.
  • The type of evidence included in this review can only show that supervision is associated with certain outcomes, not that it caused them.
  • The evidence included in this review is all from the USA, therefore the findings may not be generalisable to the UK.
  • More research is needed on the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of supervision and in particular its effect on outcomes for children and families.

Further resources

This summary comes from an original systematic review called: The surprisingly weak evidence base for supervision: Findings from a systematic review of research in child welfare practice (2000–2012). (Carpenter, J., Web, C., and Bostock, L.) Published 2013.