What’s happening in research about social work supervision?

Liz Beddoe

Supervision is a hot topic in social work at present: internationally many professional bodies require practitioners to access supervision on a regular basis. Supervision is seen as a vital activity for meeting many professional demands: the continuing development of professional skills, the safeguarding of competent and ethical practice and the oversight of casework. So, what is happening in the world of supervision research? If you would like to read a recent excellent research briefing on the topic, then I recommend you read the free report “Effective supervision in social work and social care” by Carpenter, Webb, Bostock and Comber (2012) which is available on the SCIE website. A key message from this project was that “overall, the empirical basis for supervision in social work and social care in the UK is weak. Most of the evidence is correlational and derives from child welfare services in the US” (p.1). This is a significant challenge to those of us who are committed to teaching and research about supervision.

Supervision practice has always struggled to deliver a reality to match the rhetoric. As a supervision educator I have watched hundreds of hours of real supervision on video. The quality stretches from the downright dreadful to extraordinary, insightful facilitation of professional growth and reflection. What makes the difference? Two things probably: the first is excellent practitioners becoming supervisors, rather than the job going to the next in line for promotion. The second is excellent education and training for the supervisory role.

Many commentators over decades have asked for more research. In a Twitter discussion recently I was asked is there evidence that supervision makes more difference than say a chat? In the age of evidence- based practice supervision can be found wanting. Fortunately supervision research is being conducted and there is a lively research agenda in Australasia and elsewhere. Four recent studies have been reported from Australia (Egan, 2012), Canada (Hair, 2012) and New Zealand (O’Donoghue, 2012) and in England (Manthorpe, Moriarty, Hussein, Stevens & Sharpe, 2013) each examining how supervision is being practiced in different jurisdictions. All four suggest that effective supervision requires good preparation, training and resourcing if it is to meet the needs of practitioners and the profession’s aspirations.

Over the last decade much research and scholarship has focused on the contribution supervision can make to support the wellbeing (and retention!) of the practitioner (Adamson, 2011; Chiller & Crisp, 2012; Harlow, 2012). Recent studies have examined the importance of reflective supervision on the wellbeing of practitioners in emotionally challenging fields of practice (Robinson, 2012; Joubert, Hocking & Hampson, 2013). In our study published in 2012 (Adamson, Beddoe & Davys, 2012) we reported that practitioners identified a set of interceding factors in their understanding of themselves as resilient practitioners , across two domains of the self and the workplace: work-life balance; developmental learning; coping behaviours and relational skills; supervision and peer support, professional identity, social work education and professional development. There was overall consensus of participants in this study that ‘good’ supervision was critical to resilient practice (Beddoe, Davys & Adamson, in review).

Major reports on child welfare are naming supervision as important in ensuring good social work practice ( the Laming and Munro reports in the UK, the New Zealand White Paper on Vulnerable Children; the recent inquiry into child protection in Queensland, Australia for example).

There has accordingly been an increased demand for trained and competent supervisors and better understanding of the best use of supervision. As the demand increases in many countries there is a perceived gap in availability of supervision and thus a call for more diversity in the modes of delivery of supervision, e.g. interprofessional (Beddoe & Howard, 2012), peer, group and consultation modes of supervision (Rankine, 2013) as well as the ‘out-sourcing’ to private practitioners (Beddoe, 2011). These alternative styles require greater sensitivity and awareness on the part of the supervisor as such modes of delivery carry their own unique challenges.
It is encouraging that there is evidence of increased interest in researching supervision. There is more to be done. What do you think needs research? Please leave a comment.


Adamson, C. (2011). Supervision is not politically innocent. Australian Social Work, 65(2), 185-196.
Adamson, C., Beddoe, L., & Davys, A. (2012). Building resilient practitioners: Definitions and practitioner understandings. British Journal of Social Work. DOI: 10.1093/bjsw/bcs142
Beddoe, L. (2011). External supervision in social work: Power, space, risk, and the search for safety. Australian Social Work, 65(2), 197-213.
Beddoe, L. & Howard, F. (2012). Interprofessional supervision in social work and psychology: Mandates and (inter) professional relationships. The Clinical Supervisor, 31(2), 178-202.
Beddoe, L. Davys, A & Adamson, C. (unpublished) “Never trust anybody who says ‘I don’t need supervision’”: The role of supervisory and peer support in promoting social worker resilience”. In review.
Carpenter, J., Webb, C. M., Bostock, L., & Coomber, C. (2012). Effective supervision in social work and social care. Research Briefing 43. London: Social Care Institute for Excellence.
Chiller, P., & Crisp, B. R. (2012). Professional supervision: A workforce retention strategy for social work? Australian Social Work, 65(2), 232-242.
Egan, R. (2012). Australian social work supervision practice in 2007. Australian Social Work, 65(2), 171-184.
Hair, H. J. (2012). The purpose and duration of supervision, and the training and discipline of supervisors: What social workers say they need to provide effective services. British Journal of Social Work.
Harlow, E. (2013). Coaching, supervision and the social work zeitgeist. Practice, 25(1), 61-70.
Joubert, L., Hocking, A., & Hampson, R. (2013). Social work in oncology—Managing vicarious trauma—the positive impact of professional supervision. Social Work in Health Care, 52(2-3), 296-310.
Manthorpe, J., Moriarty, J., Hussein, S., Stevens, M., & Sharpe, E. (2013). Content and purpose of supervision in social work practice in England: Views of newly qualified social workers, managers and directors. British Journal of Social Work.
O’Donoghue, K. (2012). Windows on the supervisee experience: An exploration of supervisees’ supervision histories. Australian Social Work, 65(2), 214-231.
Rankine, M. (2013). Getting a different perspective: Piloting the ‘group consult’ model for supervision in a community-based setting. Practice, 25(2), 105-120.
Robinson, K. (2013). Supervision found wanting: Experiences of health and social workers in non-government organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers. Practice, 25(2), 87-103.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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3 Responses to What’s happening in research about social work supervision?

  1. Deb Stanfield says:

    Hi Liz, thanks for such a useful summary of all the new writing about supervision and some encouragement that excitement still exists about the potential of this essential service to practitioners. My humble experience is similar – there is no shortage of belief in my world that supervision is any less than vital to good practice and the well being of people we serve as social workers; the challenge seems to be in the lack of structural support supervision receives in some of our larger organizations. Perhaps there is already good research that describes the barriers in this regard? I wonder if there is some research done on how social work students are prepared in their undergrad years for supervision, and how this preparation then influences their behavior and attitude towards it? Could we be doing a better job of this? I have great faith in the power of students!

    • socialworknz says:

      Hi Deb- there is research that confirms supervision as a practice that supports practitioners to manage their work roles and decision making. I agree with you about students and the need to prepare them to be strong advocates for sefl-care and supervision but I can’t think of any recent researchon this topic. I will search!

  2. Craig Moncho says:


    Thank you for the interesting article.

    I would like to see more research on two topics:

    1) Research supporting the hypothesis that client outcomes are better when Case Managers have regular supervision (please see http://thesocialworkpractitioner.com/2013/08/10/structuring-supervision/), and
    2) Research supporting the hypothesis that staff retention and client outcomes improve when case management is done by actual social workers as opposed to non-social workers (please see http://thesocialworkpractitioner.com/2013/07/15/a-response-to-helping-social-workers-help-people-by-nasw-ceo-dr-mcclain/)

    If reputable peer-reviewed research on these topics currently exists I’d appreciate it if you could point me in that direction.

    Thanks for the great work!

    Craig Moncho, LMSW

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