How many times have you heard the phrase: “I could never do what you do”? Countless? Me too. Sometimes, the question extends to “how do you keep doing this work”? Although I had a vague idea around how I have remained resilient and (mostly) sane after 40 or so years as a nurse and over 25 years as a therapist (and yes, those years have been concurrent), it was not until I read the book The Resilient Practitioner (2016) by Skovholt and Trotter-Mathison, that I really understood what has sustained me.
I won’t elaborate on all these concepts here but in summary the key elements are: a high vitality index (a blog for another day), mastery of the cycle of caring (including professional supervision) and an intense will to learn and grow (also an inherent aspect of professional supervision).
These authors recommend their text for “the helping professions”. Not at all surprisingly to me, they say that “family law attorneys” belong in this cohort. And so it follows, family lawyers would benefit from professional supervision. Just as supervision was a foreign concept to nurses in the 80s, and is now far more accepted and valued, it seems it is high time family lawyers incorporated this preventative, restorative and uplifting practice into their professional lives.
What is professional supervision and other FAQs.
I have been a registered supervisor with the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) for over a decade now. I teach counselling supervision to Masters students at USQ and have been providing supervision to various people in the so-called helping professions for almost 20 years. Here are my answers to those FAQs.
Although there are undoubtedly several connotations of the word “supervision”, it has quite a specific meaning in the helping professions – despite its delivery being varied.
Supervision is or the supervisor is – ‘an overseer’ – a word that conveys a sense of taking a broader view. So a supervisor is perhaps a person who can cast a detached yet concerned and compassionate eye over the landscape of the workplace practices and, in doing so, can often pick out the detail that hovers at the supervisee’s peripheral vision and which is not always clearly seen.
And this one: Supervision is in effect the respectful interruption of our work to set up reflective dialogues through which we learn from the very work we do – we sit at the feet of our experience and we allow our work to become our teacher. It is also a working alliance between two or more professional members where the intention of the interaction is to enhance the knowledge, skills and attitudes of the worker or workers. “Supervision is the move from ‘reflection in action to reflection on action to reflection for action’ (Carrol, 2010).
- In the case of family law professionals, professional supervision is not operational or gate-keeping supervision. Of course, where ethical and/or mandatory issues arise, these are addressed appropriately.
- Typically, a supervisee engages with a supervisor (costs vary from $200 – $300/tax-deductable hour) on a monthly basis (again, this varies according to need or desire), in a formal setting (this is not a coffee/wine chitty-chat).
- Typically, supervisors will check in with the supervisee around their general well-being. Some supervisors have a fairly rigid agenda; I favour a more supervisee-focused approach whereby they set the agenda for the session. Discussions maybe about specific cases, a reaction/response to a specific case, blind-spots, a professional or ethical dilemma, an organisational issue, self-care, processing a traumatic event, or mental health concerns. If I feel the issue presented warrants personal counselling, I will advise the supervisee of this.
- As the supervisor, I am tasked with ensuring we establish a strong therapeutic relationship. Confidentiality, trust, sound boundaries, open and transparent communication and a penchant for humour are all critical components of the relationship.
Does professional supervision really help?
Where a strong supervisory alliance is formed, we know there is reduced burn-out, a greater sense of well-being and improved job satisfaction (Bernard & Goodyear,2019).
Unfortunately, there is little, if any, research around the outcomes of professional supervision for family lawyers. I hope to address this research gap in the future.
Australian data around burnout rates, stress levels and overall mental health of family law professionals is not readily available. What the LSJ (2019) tells us however is that (broadly) burnout costs almost $11billlion/year, 40% of lawyers are likely or very likely to leave their current workplace in the next year and 33% of Australian lawyers are suffering disability and distress related to depression.
Again, although not surprised, I was somewhat disheartened that even the Minds Count Foundation do not overtly acknowledge the benefits of professional supervision (external to the workplace). Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know and unless you have experienced the benefits of professional supervision (for example, because your profession mandates it), you cannot appreciate how useful it is.
As I might say when providing a reference for a highly valued colleague, I recommend professional supervision warmly and without reservation.