18 September 2023

Professional Supervision: A necessity, not a luxury

The Human Services Sector is a very challenging arena in which to work. Often underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed, the sector seems to survive and function via the efforts and commitment of an extraordinary workforce, persons dedicated to attempting to improve the lives of disadvantaged others. This is typically the case in the practice area of child protection. Whether in government departments or non-government organisations, it is more often the case than not that the dogged commitment of devoted staff supplements the shortfalls in funding, effective infrastructures and practice frameworks.

Both recently and over the last three decades, I have had the privilege of supporting, supervising and providing de-briefing sessions to child protection staff in many departments, agencies and organisations throughout Australia. Sometimes, these consultations occur during a particularly trying time for a practitioner or a service team. Often, they occur after the issue has been “resolved”, and de-briefing is called for as the distressed staff attempt to deal with their recent demanding and protracted experiences.

To be frank, most practitioners who have worked in this area for a significant time are all too aware of the gaps in service. They are aware of the alarming dilemmas faced when young persons do not quite fit into comfortable categories and are suspended somewhere between child protection, justice systems, education, mental health, alcohol and drug services, residential care and health systems (to name a few). Young persons in these dilemmas are often referred to as having complex needs, being a part of a complex system or as being traumatised. All of those descriptions have some validity.

Unfortunately, those phrases- sanitised, sector-sanctioned and almost sacrosanct- can obfuscate the reality being encountered by staff. The truth is often very distressed, highly chaotic, non-attached, disruptive, often suicidal and self-damaging, provocatively aggressive and hurt young persons are being looked after by overwhelmed and regularly undertrained staff. It is not uncommon for a dedicated child protection practitioner or care team to look after such a distressed young person for months on end with little mental health support and for residential care teams to essentially be providing psychiatric nursing around the clock without training to equip them for the tasks and without any deep support.

And yet, this is the experience of many child protection and residential care practitioners. Their dedication to the demands of the situation sees them meeting the young person’s needs, dealing with protracted risk and negotiating with other overwhelmed systems to gain assistance for the young person. The end of each of such journeys often sees exhausted, burnt-out staff, who are genuinely traumatised by the efforts required to keep the young person alive and functioning. Sadly, some practitioners feel deskilled and demoralised – lost even- after one, more or several of these practice situations.

What I find completely disturbing is when I ask staff who are in the midst of such a practice crisis or who have survived such a practice crisis, “did you have regular professional supervision throughout this process?” the answer is “No”. I wish I could write “more often than not ‘no’” or “usually ‘no’”. But no, it is “No”. At best, it can be “I had line supervision checking on details but not professional supervision”.

Professional Supervision is not just for students or junior, inexperienced staff. It is not a luxury; it is a necessity. As so much of the work in the Human Services sector is conducted by interpersonal and emotional engagement, systemically, what is required to keep practitioners fit to the tasks asked of them is a process of interpersonal and emotional engagement that supports them.

Regular professional supervision sessions, preferably once a fortnight for an hour or at least once every three weeks for 45 minutes, are exceptionally helpful in developing staff skills, acknowledging initiative, discussing emotional and ethical dilemmas, providing containment and reducing the possibility of burnout. If the supervisor is unskilled in the area of supervision (again, alarmingly, a regular occurrence), this simple format should be helpful:

  • How have you been since we last talked?
  • What do you think has been going well?
  • What has been challenging?
  • What would be useful to discuss today? 

The supervisor doesn’t need to know all the answers. She or he needs to have the courage, commitment and decency to turn up, be helpful, be interested in the supervisee’s emotional and professional processes, and conduct regular sessions. Frequency, reliability, and presence are the cornerstones of attachment and safety. In a sector where practitioners and leaders often refer to attachment and trauma, it is a sad irony that they seem to miss that the very same processes are valid for professional staff. Reliable attachment reduces the impact of trauma.

Dedicated child protection and residential care staff do an extraordinary job without appropriate compensation or recognition. We need to “look after each other”. As professionals, we need to embrace professional supervision as a necessity, not as a luxury, as a way of caring for staff and increasing their capacity to continue effectively caring for and increasing the capacity of disadvantaged others.


Paul conducts professional supervision training in both in-person and blended formats. Use the contact form below to request more information: