Supervision now: why supervision in a post lockdown world has to focus on self-care.
The COVID 19 pandemic is global and has affected everybody living in the UK. Everyone has been locked down, and yet for each person that has produced a unique experience. Some people have been part of families shielding someone at high risk of dying should they catch the virus, others will have witnessed or been the exhausted, stressed and anxious parents trying to work (or worrying about not having work /income) and home schooling and others will have been bereaved. There will be a huge range of variables. The universality of the pandemic will produce shared challenges – what does the ‘new normal’ mean now? How will social connections be made at a safe distance by managing to keep everyone apart? How will those social connections ensure the emotional responsiveness we all need to remain functioning humanely? How will the underlying anxiety about the uncertainty of who is at risk, how will the virus be managed and what impact will it have, be managed in such a way staff feel safe enough to continue their work, especially if that work puts them in high risk situations?
We have been thinking about this in particular for staff in educational settings. As schools prepare for more children and young people to return to their educational settings, whenever this may be, they will now face these new challenges. Schools will be considering the health and safety of their students, staff and their families. They may be considering whether they need to have PPE (personal protection equipment). They will be thinking about creative ways to ensure safe physical distance whilst maintaining social contact. They will be thinking about how to transition children back into their school settings and meeting their emotional and mental health needs whilst developing their social interaction and communication skills all while maintaining a safe distance and possibly wearing a mask. There may be increased anxiety from students, staff and their families. And, there may be experience of bereavement for the children and young people, their families, school staff members and colleagues. How can school staff manage all these challenges and maintain their own well-being?
If people are exposed to high levels of anxiety and traumatic events without the opportunities to process and make sense of their experiences we know there is a risk of secondary trauma (sometimes known as vicarious trauma or burn out). Staff may become unwell or react unexpectedly. For some people they fear that catching COVID-19 may be life threatening to them or a household member and living with this anxiety could severely inhibit their usual functioning. It is because of the universality of the lockdown and the unpredictability of who may be worst affected that staff will require a greater focus on their self-care within supervision. Some people will have new experiences that may put them into a state of shocked response, for others their experience of lockdown could well have reminded and triggered earlier experiences of feeling disempowered and vulnerable that they may require specific interventions to help them deal with. They may be dealing with people needing their services in very different ways than they were accustomed to. Learning to do new things when your anxieties are heightened is very challenging. Supervisors will need to contain and calm before staff will learn the new skills they need.
There are many ideas to support emotional and mental health needs in your personal life. Our particular favourites are: daily exercise, we enjoy a walk, being kind to others, a gratitude practice and being mindful. However, the focus of this blog is to consider what support you can receive in your professional life. Our collaboration began around understanding the benefits of supervision for ourselves in our individual careers as an Educational Psychologist and a Social Worker and noticing its significant omission in education.
Supervision that we have received, and offer to others, formalises an expectation of being supported to do the best job we are capable of. It facilitates discussion about anything that worries us, to draw on other’s experiences, knowledge and skills to brainstorm ideas. It allows us to ask for help when we need it. Supervision provides emotional support in an emotionally demanding and exhausting job. Supervision is a professional conversation. It is a method of offering managerial input, emotional support and enhancing professional development to staff. We have long advocated supervision in schools for those involved in safeguarding and promoting pastoral care of students. What we recognise about the present situation is a need to ensure that the emotional wellbeing of staff is at the centre of the supervision agenda for all front facing public services. Interestingly it is the big business that have identified this quickest in allocating specific resources for employees in the adjustments being asked of them by the worldwide responses to this pandemic. My friends in banks have had offers of extra days off, meditation apps and online yoga classes.
As schools and other public services move into the next phase perhaps it is useful to introduce the language of recovery to supervision. What are the self care adjustments all employees need as a result of how they work changing so dramatically and what other responsibilities are they now finding need to be done alongside work (e.g. homeschooling, shopping and caring for vulnerable family members). There will be individual needs expressed by staff for reasonable adjustment to facilitate their participation and for some their ability to reconnect and work as they once did may require specialist attention. Each member of staff in a team will require creative, compassionate spaces to explore and process these experiences and find solutions that work. It is our belief that supervision is that space and alongside the ongoing expectations of managerial oversight and professional development there will need to be a greater awareness of and responsiveness to the emotional wellbeing of supervisees.
The strength of supervision done well is that it formalises the informal supportive discussions that go on every day in workplaces, clarifies accountability, stimulates creativity and encourages professional curiosity and development. One of the biggest findings when we ran a pilot in schools was that offering supervision to your staff, shows your staff you care about them. Now as they emerge from a pandemic all staff need to know they are cared about and that looking after themselves is essential so they can look after those they provide services to. Looking after staff and developing self-care cultures in teams is an essential tool in recovering.
Sturt P. and Rowe J. (2018) Using Supervision in schools Brighton: Pavilion Publishing & Media Ltd
About the authors
Penny Sturt is an independent trainer, consultant and registered social worker. Following her advanced social work training, which developed her interest in supervision, Penny has been delivering supervision training as an associate with In-Trac Training and Consultancy Ltd/ Research in Practice. Penny ran the pilot for schools having followed up requests for supervision training in schools. Penny has a long-standing interest in safeguarding and supervision across multi-agency settings. She has run training courses and consulted with health, social care and educational settings around supervision. Penny Sturt tweets @practicematters
Jo Rowe is an Educational Psychologist working for a Local Authority. Jo currently provides group supervision in a range of settings, and participates in group supervision with her team members in the Educational Psychology Service. Jo has 20 years experience as an Educational Psychologist, with familiarity of working in a range of school settings, and supporting children and young people with additional needs and school staff in these settings. Jo is keen to apply her knowledge and experience of group supervision to the wider school community. She recently extended this interest by researching the impact of supervision for school staff with a safeguarding role. Jo Rowe tweets @JoRowe