Supervision after the MSW: Now what?

I love meeting other social workers in the wild. There’s a real benefit to belonging to a kind of community. I’m not sure how it is in other professions but when I meet another social worker outside of work there’s an instant camaraderie. We get each other. We may come from different agencies or work with different populations, but we will immediately have a strong bond because we have almost certainly had some shared experiences. I’m lucky to know a lot of other social workers and to count many of them as my real life friends as well.

 Photo by  Zoran Nayagam  on  Unsplash

Photo by Zoran Nayagam on Unsplash

Today’s blog post was inspired by one of those social worker/IRL friends. She’s been considering the lack of formal supervision in our profession after the Master’s program is over. As graduate students we are supervised intensely, with individual and group supervision, process recordings, class discussions etc.  We are constantly writing about and reviewing our clinical work as we learn how to do it. Then we go into the professional world and it just… stops. My friend made the excellent point that we’re required to have 30 hours of continuing education to renew our social work licenses but we’re not required to have any supervision hours once we obtain an LCSW. We don’t stop requiring supervision when we become LCSWs; and yet, for many of us, supervision stops being a priority after we reach that professional milestone.

This is not to say that there is no supervision in the real professional world for social workers. For instance, in my last job we had group supervision once every month or two, which was tremendously helpful. But that was pretty much it and it was definitely not enough. In fact, part of the reason I left that job was because there wasn’t a lot of support. I was mostly alone in my car, going from house to house, from sick person to sick person. The only contact from the office came in the form of emails throughout the day asking for consents to be signed or fires to be put out. Certainly my supervisor was available for questions and dire situations. But that didn’t replace an ongoing supervisory relationship. And ultimately I wasn't able to continue at that job.

So why don’t all agencies require clinical supervision? Why doesn’t our licensing body? I’ve been considering these questions and I’d venture a few guesses based on my own experience. One is that it costs both money and time; this is not a field that has a lot of extra of either. On the long list of things we’re required to do, supervision can seem like a lowly priority. Then there's a question of what kind of supervision is available in our agencies. Agency supervisors have their own agenda as representatives of the agency. They can’t be truly impartial because they have a stake in the game. So supervision may exist but it fulfills a different goal: namely that the agency’s standards are being met and not necessarily that the clinician is growing professionally.

I think professional growth is actually another reason we tend to view supervision as less important post-Master’s: as we get more clinical experience, we tend to think we don’t need formal supervision anymore. I spent five years at my last job; I felt like an expert most of the time. Sure, things came up, but not the way they did when I was a new social worker. So although I felt unsupported at times, I didn’t seek out additional supervision because I felt like I had it pretty much under control. By the time I realized that I was burnt out, I was ready to move on. Maybe formal supervision could have helped me recognize the signs of burnout before it became overwhelming.

As social workers, we are advocates. But how often do we advocate for ourselves? Are we getting the supervision we need to keep us working in the field and working effectively? My fellow social worker/mom/friend brought up a good point when she gave me the topic for this post. The question I’m left with is, what should we be doing to change things?