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Webinar 8: Creating Supportive Environments for the Social Service Workforce

Webinar Summary and Recording

Click here to view the full webinar.

On February 5, 2013, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance hosted its 8th webinar on the topic of Creating Supportive Work Environments for the Social Service Workforce.

The session began with opening remarks from Amy Bess, Coordinator of the Alliance. She described the webinar as an opportunity to discuss ways to support the workforce, recognizing that the nature of the work environment influences worker performance and retention.  She posed several questions that the webinar would address, such as: Why is working within a supportive environment especially important to the social service workforce? At the systems and policy level, what can be done to help support workers to do the good work they want to do? How have some agencies operationalized supportive supervision as well as mentoring, coaching and peer group support?  What type of training has been effective in encouraging supervisors to provide workers space for reflection, critical thinking and psychosocial support?

The first presentation was given by Eileen Munro, Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics. Ms. Munro described the lessons learned from her review of the child protection system in England and emphasized that increasing managerial control of frontline workers does not always benefit children and families and often comes at the expense of developing the skills and expertise of service providers. For example, becoming overly focused on completion of paperwork and forms can result in staff spending more time at their desks than engaging with families and children. Highly rules-bound environments can lead staff to focus on protecting themselves and their organizations more than protecting children and families. Ms. Munro stressed that workers be viewed not as the problem when policies and programs do not produce desired results, but as the source of solutions. To motivate and retain workers, employers should place value on developing expertise in social service workers, which requires that time be allowed for workers to acquire experience in addition to formal knowledge, to engage in reflection and to receive regular feedback from a supervisor. Such supportive supervision is necessary to strengthen frontline workers' critical reasoning, relationship skills, and emotional wisdom; these aspects of expertise improve workers' performance overall but also contribute to greater satisfaction with their job and lessen the likelihood of burnout. Overall, organizational climate makes a big difference to how the workforce experiences their jobs and makes a big difference to the quality of help received by children and families.

In the second presentation, Rita Muyambo, Team Leader with the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, presented on the Thogomelo Project, providing a specific example of how programs can improve supportive supervision in the context of community caregiving in South Africa. Ms. Muyambo described the work performed by community caregivers who routinely visit 4-6 households a day and are the frontline of services to children due to shortages of social workers and related professions. However, community caregivers experience many stressors, such as high workloads, limited social support, stigma surrounding HIV response, unclear boundaries and lack of skills and knowledge. In response to these needs, the Thogomelo Project developed three accredited curricula focusing on psychosocial support for caregivers, child protection for supervisors of caregivers and supportive supervision for supervisors of caregivers. Of these topics, Ms. Muyambo focused on the how training supervisors is essential to enhancing the effectiveness and sustainability of work being done by community caregivers on the frontlines. Creating caring organizations, where supervisors set aside time to provide feedback to their staff, engage in reflection and self-care, as well as encourage boundary setting and mutual respect, has prompted very positive reactions from community caregivers and also advances opportunities for these previously unrecognized, unregulated category of frontline workers to pursue a career in the social services through supervisor training.

Each of the three presentations was followed by a brief question and answer session moderated by Jim McCaffery of CapacityPlus. Many questions centered on the advantages and disadvantages of a “results-oriented” versus “process-oriented” work environment and how standardization can be employed as a boost to worker capabilities in the form of tools and guidelines but can also inhibit worker flexibility and emotional wisdom if taken too far. Speakers responded positively to suggestions that supervisors be involved in on-site observation of frontline workers to provide feedback and mentoring on the quality of their assessments and interactions with children and families. Specific questions on the Thogomelo Project model, costs, training requirements and relation to other programs were fielded by Ms. Muyambo and discussed by participants within the contexts of their own countries.

Additional Resources:

Factsheet on the Thogomelo Project

Eileen Munro's review of the child protection system in England