Social work, stress and supervision : Keeping a balance of heart and brain

Liz Beddoe

Social workers everywhere face the most demanding conditions for many decades. Austerity politics demand service cuts and so-called efficiencies at a time when the same policies are causing terrible spikes in poverty, homelessness and insecurity with attendant increases in mental illness and severe social stress.

Alongside these awful socioeconomic conditions social work faces ever-increasing and unrealistic expectations, ratcheted up by self-serving politicians and a frequently hostile press.  Policies destructive of basic social security push many families into horrible grinding poverty and our policy makers show contemptible dishonesty in refusing to acknowledge the links between poverty and child abuse and neglect. Rather they play up blame, ‘poor lifestyle choices’ and constantly tell the public that social work ought to be able to prevent every child death or case of severe abuse.

Against this background is it any wonder that social workers themselves are stressed, retention is again a problem in many countries, especially in child welfare services. In his recent post Stress in Social Work: A Research review Martin Webber reports on some recent research and interesting initiatives.

Every article about stress in social work will mention supervision and worker support as important factors in play. Our recent research confirmed this (Beddoe, Adamson & Davys, 2014). Supervision is often held up to be a significant mitigating factor in well-being and indeed survival in social work. There is some evidence for this especially in relation to retention, though the overall evidence base for supervision requires attention. I’m part of a Delphi study of supervision which aims to find out more about international issues in supervision, read more on the project blog Social Work Supervision Agenda.  

In a small qualitative project on resilient practitioners in New Zealand (Adamson, Beddoe & Davys 2012) Carole Adamson, Allyson Davys and I found that self-defined resilient practitioners attributed their resilience to the following: personal qualities and behaviours, strong social work values and access to high quality supervision and peer-support.  We suggested that good practices could be developed during social work education and in the post qualifying period (Beddoe, Davys & Adamson, 2011).

While a good case can be made for supervision as a mechanism for the alleviation of work-related stress and practice safety, it is also important to remind ourselves that in this linkage “supervision is not politically innocent” (Adamson 2011).  There is a danger that we fall for an entirely instrumental view of supervision that is almost solely focused on risk reduction in practice and minimisation of harm to social workers. From a purely pragmatic point of view this harm reduction approach has worked well for supervision. It is easier to “sell” supervision as an activity that can be justified as reducing staff attrition and maintaining well-being.

My personal stance is that supervision must also be an intellectual activity:  challenging assumptions, posing critical questions, constantly returning to core issues of social justice, ethics and values. Participants in our research also noted the significance of social support for the maintenance of social work values and a strong professional identity beyond the employing organisation.  These elements are what motivate social workers to stay in the job in spite of what seems like an unrelentingly hostile climate.

We shouldn’t just do supervision to help retain staff but to ensure that practitioners have opportunities for communication that maintains their deep intellectual engagement in practice, which, no matter where it is carried out, is essentially grounded in politics. This approach of course is less palatable to employers and funders. What may be needed is research that examines links between supervision with a strong intellectual base, grounded in theory- informed practice frameworks and sustained successful practice. There’s a challenge.


Adamson, C. (2011). Supervision is not politically innocent. Australian Social Work, 65(2), 185-196. doi:10.1080/0312407x.2011.618544

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., Davys, A., & Adamson, C. (2011). Educating resilient practitioners. Social Work Education, 32(1), 100-117. doi:10.1080/02615479.2011.644532

Beddoe, L., Davys, A. M., & Adamson, C. (2014). ‘Never Trust Anybody Who Says “I Don’t Need Supervision”’: Practitioners’ Beliefs about Social Worker Resilience. Practice, 26(2), 113-130. doi:10.1080/09503153.2014.896888 Read free here.


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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One Response to Social work, stress and supervision : Keeping a balance of heart and brain

  1. Deb Stanfield says:

    Hi Liz, great to read this and have affirmed the essential role of supervision in practice but also to hear the challenge from you to keep up the research on this. I know social work practitioners who have a strong intellectual base and a deep commitment to principles, ethics and critical practice, and I think the people they work with are very fortunate. It would be interesting as you say to understand how these social workers experience stress as compared to those who don’t have the same opportunity to be as “intellectually engaged.” I guess if we found out that it’s less stressful these days to “forget the theories,” we’d have another challenge on our hands!

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