The roles and responsibilities of a social worker are many and varied. What a social worker can expect from a day at work will depend on whether they are working within healthcare or at a hospital, are part of a child welfare and family social work team, specialize in helping the elderly, have a role within the criminal justice system, or are part of an administration and management team. Wherever a social worker is based, or whoever their client base is, a typical day will always involve working with people, whether they are clients, coworkers or individuals in government departments or non-profit organizations.
What is a social worker?
According to recent data, ‘the primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of all people, with a particular focus on those who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty’. Social workers look at both the person and their environment, dealing with the external factors that are impacting on an individual’s situation, attitudes and outlook. The role involves creating opportunities for assessment and intervention in order to help clients, and in some cases, communities as a whole, cope effectively with their challenges. Social workers will help their clients deal not only with their situation, but also how they feel about it.
There is a growing demand for social workers in the US. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the overall employment within the profession is projected to grow by 9% in the 10 years from 2021, which is faster than the average for all occupations. It is estimated that there will be approximately 74,700 openings each year, on average, over that decade. So, working as a social worker provides not only a rewarding career, but also one with the possibility for a range of employment opportunities and progression.
Types of social worker
The types of social work include:
- Direct practice social work: This requires a bachelor’s degree, and involves working directly with people and communities, children and families in fields such as child safety, healthcare and education.
- Clinical social work: Workers within this field need a master’s degree in social work as it involves more advanced knowledge and will enable practitioners to help whose with mental illnesses plus substance abuse and addiction issues, for instance.
- Macro social work: This does not normally involve working directly with vulnerable people. It typically involves collaborating with government departments and other public and private institutions to change policies and implement new programs.
Healthcare and hospital social workers
Those who are employed within hospital and healthcare settings help clients to manage a variety of issues and factors that affect their health and wellness, such as physical or medical stress. If someone has been diagnosed with a chronic or terminal medical condition, the emotional and financial burdens caused by their condition could be overwhelming, and healthcare social workers help them and their families over this period.
Specific duties include assessing each patient’s condition, using data from medical diagnoses and personal interviews, developing plans to help them adjust to their diagnoses and then the transition from the healthcare system to normal life. They also assess the client’s health status, strengths and weaknesses, emotional state and other factors in order to provide the right support. Knowledge of local groups and services that may help the patient is crucial. They then evaluate the services and resources available in order to decide which is right. They then follow up patients through their progression through diagnosis, treatment and recovery. A typical day involves a mix of duties depending on their workload and the team in which they are placed, as well as administration and paperwork.
Adult elderly social workers
Adult elderly social workers work in hospitals, charities and in other settings, supporting older people by providing with the help and resources they need to help them maintain their quality of life, connecting them with the relevant community and social service. They also advocate for their clients, provide mental health support, and guide them toward applying for any services and benefits they require.
Child welfare and family social workers
Child welfare and family social workers help vulnerable children and their families who are dealing with social or psychological issues at home, school or within their community. They will also provide support to carers and parents in order to improve their relationship with the children in their care, and in some instances may be required to intervene and place a child at risk in a safer environment.
Substance misuse social workers
Social workers within this field may work in residential treatment facilities, hospitals, government agencies or rehabilitation centers. They work with clients to provide intervention and support in order to help them deal with and overcome their addictions, connecting them with rehabilitation centers and providing support for their family members. They often collaborate with nurses, physicians and counselors.
Criminal justice social workers
Criminal justice social workers help and advocate for former prisoners, and those who are on probation and current inmates, offering them support, rehabilitation services and conflict mediation. Mainly working in courts and prisons, and for local authorities, they also provide guidance and help for clients in prison and prepare those who are soon to be released in their transition back into society.
Community social workers
Community social workers help communities to function effectively and will work with individuals to conduct needs assessments or refer people to community resources services. They tend to be involved in the planning and running of organizations focused on promoting community health and wellness and may, for example, work for non-profit organizations or grant writers.
Disability social workers
Working in settings such as schools, hospitals and mental health clinics of government departments, disability social workers deal with people who have a range of physical or mental disabilities or challenges, helping them understand their diagnoses and offering guidance and support in order to help them make adjustments to deal with their disabilities. Some clients may need help finding appropriate and safe housing, whereas others may require assistance in finding transportation to and from work or appointments. They also connect their clients with support groups. It is sometimes a requirement of the job to work evenings, holidays and weekends, depending on the needs of the person they are helping.
Developmental disability social workers work with people who have developmental issues, assessing their individual needs and strengths in order to assess the degree of help needed, and creating care plans. Learning disability social workers help children with individualized education programs, ensuring that they have the right support. They deal with the schools, and act as advocates for their clients.
Military and veterans social workers
Working within this role involves supporting active servicemen and women, veterans, retired members of the military and their families, offering counseling and case management, and advocating for clients in the Veterans Health Administration system. They are specially trained to help clients face issues that may be affecting them due to their tours of duty. They will also assist those who have physical injuries to access benefits, including counseling, therapy and rehabilitation services. The federal government is the main employer of military and veterans social workers, though they can also be found in private practice, hospitals and clinics, veterans’ hospitals and nursing homes, and non-profit groups and charities.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed life across the world and meant altering protocols and how clients are dealt with as societies moved through it. Social workers had to rethink service delivery options to accommodate life in lockdown, and many services had to be done remotely or online. Public and private sector agencies became more flexible with their use of information technology, and it became the norm to use messaging services for check-ins and video appointments.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, some of the innovations and changes have remained in place or impacted the long-term delivery of services. The use of ICT is regarded as a benefit, leading to easier document sharing and communication between appointments, expanded access for those clients who would not seek in-person appointments, and a more varied selection of communication methods that are based on an individual client’s needs and preferences.
Essential social worker skills
Committing to a career as a social worker not only means embarking on a path that looks after the most vulnerable in society, but also means developing the skills and characteristics needed to ensure that clients get the best care and guidance possible.
Important skills to develop include:
- Interpersonal skills: Any role within social work requires the building of relationships, either with clients, or with colleagues and other stakeholders, in order to work collaboratively with them. It’s therefore crucial to develop ways of communicating and working with people from all walks of life.
- Communication skills: This covers verbal and written as well as nonverbal skills in order to get important messages across clearly.
- Advocacy skills: This means representing service users and advocating for them in order to empower them – this could mean using personal advocacy to help someone with a disability to be heard, or legal advocacy to help someone that needs support within the penal system.
- Critical reflection: This is defined as the ability to reflect on work, and while undertaking social work practice, doing it purposively under professional supervision.
- Resilience: The nature of the job means that resilience is absolutely vital in order to help clients, some of whom will not be easy to deal with and fight their corner in difficult situations.
- Inter-professional skills: This is the ability to work collaboratively and connect with others. These skills are important for social workers to do their job well.
- Robust intellect: It’s important to learn how to apply theory to practice, evaluate information, and use different perspectives and approaches to fit each problem and issue that needs to be dealt with.
Other skills include time management, prioritization, counseling and effective recording of information.
Getting the right qualifications and experience
Social workers not only have to gain the right initial qualifications and licensure, but they also have to commit to ongoing learning throughout their careers, keeping on top of clinical, legal and social developments via courses, training and general reading.
It takes between four and six years to become a social worker. It’s first necessary to gain a bachelor’s degree in social work, and then it’s necessary to spend two years studying for a master’s degree. Social workers who want to work in a clinical setting have to undergo a minimum of two years of supervised work experience before earning a license. The bachelor’s degree has to be from an accredited institution. Social workers can then specialize in certain areas, and some roles (such as those working in schools) in some states require a master’s degree in social work, a license, and a certification from the National Association of Social Workers.
Following on from gaining a master’s degree and licensure, some social workers study to gain additional credentials. Social worker certifications do not replace licensure, but rather enhance a social worker’s qualifications, providing a professional recognition of a social worker’s knowledge in a specific area, which sometimes leads to promotions and higher pay.
Keuka College’s Online Master of Social Work will help progress students’ social work career path with a 100% virtual program that offers both Traditional and Advanced tracks, which depend upon each student’s background. The Traditional MSW is designed for students who have a bachelor’s degree in a different field who are interested in advanced study in social work, and includes coursework on Human Behavior and the Social Environment, Social Work Ethics and Applications in Diversity, and Social Work Practice with Couples and Families. The Advanced MSW track is for those with bachelor’s degrees in social work, and includes modules on Advanced Theory for Social Work Practice, Assessment and Treatment of Trauma and Group Process. For more information on application procedures and what’s required, download the program guide.
Future challenges for social workers
The nature of social work means that there will always be challenges to help clients effectively. In the US, the population is aging, and an aging population creates specific challenges for social workers, such as financial instability post-retirement, mobility challenges, social isolation and increased risk of health issues that impact on the quality of life, including Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Rising housing costs, slow wage growth and economic inequality translate into a worsening poverty gap, and struggling clients will rely on social workers in order to find their way through what can feel like a complicated web of programs designed to assist them.
There is also a growing demand for mental health treatment, which in turn will engage social workers in order to help clients find the right help for them in order to move forward.
Committing to a career in social work not only means dealing with challenges, but also allows professionals to give something back to society. Other positives to take into consideration include the variety of settings and specializations within the sector. Depending on their experience, interests and personality, a social worker could be working with foster parents and children, within a hospital setting, based in a facility providing rehab programs, or out in the field.
The opportunities for growth within the profession are many and varied, and include moving toward leadership roles at the local, state and national level, and then upwards to management. All of these have specific requirements and skillsets, but with room for growth.
Choosing the right qualification, with a view to the future, will mean starting a career within the profession in the best way. Although a typical day in the life of the social worker will not be without its challenges, it will also be rewarding. The very nature of the job means advocating on behalf of individuals, even if it is simply helping them with their day-to-day needs, such as accessing basic resources such as food, housing and healthcare. These are small-scale actions, but it is also possible to take on a role that involves working to benefit entire communities as well as society as a whole.
Everything that a social worker does is with the aim of helping someone, whether it be a child having problems at school, an older person dealing with the impact of a diagnosis that affects their long-term health, or an individual leaving the criminal justice system. All of this work makes a difference.