What is a Social Worker?

Are you a caring and empathetic person? Do you want to help others improve their lives? A career as a social worker could be the perfect fit for you.

Most people choose to be a social worker based on a belief that with good intentions and a love for helping people, clients will benefit and flourish. However, it's good to be realistic and know that not all clients want to change, or are able to, for a variety of reasons.

Some clients will be grateful, and some won't progress the way you would have hoped. Keep in mind, though, that every person's life will be touched by you in different ways.

What does a Social Worker do?

Social workers help people cope with challenges at various stages of their lives. They work with many populations, including children, people with disabilities or addictions, and the elderly.

There are two main types of social workers: direct-service social workers, who help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives, and clinical social workers, who diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.

A social worker with her arm around an elderly woman.

Direct-service social workers do the following:

  • Identify people who need help
  • Assess clients’ needs, situations, strengths, and support networks to determine their goals
  • Develop plans to improve their clients’ well-being
  • Help clients adjust to changes and challenges in their lives, such as illness, divorce, or unemployment
  • Research and refer clients to community resources, such as food stamps, child care, and healthcare
  • Help clients work with government agencies to apply for and receive benefits such as Medicare
  • Respond to crisis situations, such as natural disasters or child abuse
  • Advocate for and help clients get resources that would improve their well-being
  • Follow up with clients to ensure that their situations have improved
  • Evaluate services provided to ensure that they are effective

Clinical (Healthcare) social workers do the following:

  • Diagnose and treat mental, behavioural, and emotional disorders, including anxiety and depression
  • Provide individual, group, family, and couples therapy
  • Assess clients’ histories, backgrounds, and situations to understand their needs, as well as their strengths and weaknesses
  • Develop a treatment plan with the client, doctors, and other healthcare professionals
  • Encourage clients to discuss their emotions and experiences to develop a better understanding of themselves and their relationships
  • Help clients adjust to changes in their life, such as a divorce or being laid-off
  • Work with clients to develop strategies to change behaviour or cope with difficult situations
  • Refer clients to other resources or services, such as support groups or other mental health professionals
  • Evaluate their clients’ progress and, if necessary, adjust the treatment plan

The challenges presented by a constantly evolving society mean that social work is an ever-changing field. Over the years, several trends have had a far-reaching influence throughout society, and have exerted a demand for change in the services and delivery of social work, in particular.

The Impact of Trauma
In the last two decades in particular, citizens across the world have been exposed to trauma created by terrorist networks. Porous borders and interconnected international systems of finance, communications, and transit have allowed terrorist groups to reach every corner of the globe. While some of these networks remain focused on local or national political dynamics, others seek to affect global change.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita forever changed life along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Such natural disasters are, of course, an ongoing threat.

As veterans return from wars and conflicts abroad and struggle to reintegrate into their home life, awareness of the impact of posttraumatic stress disorder has also increased.

Social workers have always been involved in assisting victims of both manmade and natural disasters. What has changed, however, is that modern communication and relentless media coverage have brought the horror right into people’s living rooms. Therefore, the potential psychological wounds are now even greater.

Mental Health / Substance Abuse Parity
The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008: According to this law – which was fought for by advocacy groups and the social work community – insurance companies and group health plans must provide the same financial and treatment limit coverage for mental health or addiction as they do for physical ailments and conditions. This equality in coverage makes obtaining services mental health and addictions affordable and accessible to more individuals.

Evidence-Based Practice
Evidence-based practice in social work involves a partnership where professionals, clients, and organizations combine to coordinate resources and guide the best treatment options and interventions. The objective of the practice is to ensure that the best outcomes are made available to the greatest number of people.

Evidence-based practice is not a one-size-fits-all approach. In the words of Joan Levy Zlotnik, director of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Social Work Policy Institute, ‘You can’t just take something that someone else has developed for a different population or a different type of agency and just open up a manual and do it.’

An Aging Population
The population of the United States is aging. Between the years 2000 and 2010, the number of Americans over age 65 increased by five million. This increase in the aging population and the resultant greater number of elderly client caseloads was the impetus for the Geriatric Initiative.

The initiative addresses the need for programs that offer a degree in specialized social work focused on the elderly. It is designed to help social workers understand the needs of specific older populations, such as those with chronic health conditions, those dealing with mental disorders, and those needing end-of-life care.

It also responds to trends that include a shift in care away from the nuclear family to society at large, a move away from institutional care to community-based care, and a growing understanding of the importance of cultural competency in serving elderly immigrants.

School Violence and Bullying
Ron Avi Astor (Lenore Stein-Wood and William S. Wood Professor of School Behavioral Health at USC School of Social Work and USC Rossier School of Education), an expert in school violence and bullying across cultures, hopes that the role of social workers in ensuring school safety will evolve from trying to eliminate violence to making schools warm, caring, and loving environments. ‘That should be our real goal,’ he says. ‘I would like our profession to push the envelope and look at what the ideal school setting would be.’

One way that social workers have been trying to create compassionate school environments is in preventing bullying targeted at lesbian, gay, bisexual (LGBT) youth. The issue has gained attention worldwide in the wake of instances of gay teens driven to commit suicide. Studies continue to reveal links between violence and bullying against LGBT youths and the risk of depression, suicide, HIV, and sexually transmitted diseases.

Children’s Mental Health
Diagnoses of mental health problems in children, especially autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder, have become more common; as has the use of medication in treatment. There is considerable debate taking place around whether this trend marks a recognition of children’s mental health needs or an epidemic of over-diagnosis.

Without doubt, there is an increased awareness of how mental health conditions affect children, managed care policies, and parents’ need to explain and label their children’s behaviors. In view of this, it is vital for social workers to remain true to the profession’s focus on looking at the underlying issues that influence children’s behaviors. As articulated by Denise Duval of Child Therapy Chicago, ‘the biggest thing is not to forget to understand the people and the families and the nuances that form who the kids are.’

Economic Recession
The original impact of the economic recession that began in 2007 was on the finances of the American public. However, it was far from the only impact. Reduced incomes, loss of jobs, and home foreclosures started as a financial story; but it continued as one with serious behavioral and mental health implications, leading to hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

The stress and strain placed on individuals and on families by the financial crisis increased the number of cases social workers were expected to handle. But the recession also left many people without insurance or income to pay for services, resulting in some social services being cut back or discontinued entirely. Some social work jobs declined, while others increased to meet demands in mental health and substance abuse areas.

In response to the cutbacks in the field, many social workers and social work agencies are adopting social media and the internet as a means of marketing their services and connecting with those seeking assistance.

Web-based Social Work Education
The internet, of course, has grown to be a massive influence in every sector of business, communication, and education. Web-based social work education programs are also now common.

While there is some debate over the validity of an online social work degree in completing field assignments and building networks and relationships with peers and professors, the option has opened the field to individuals concerned with local access, affordability, and flexible schedules.

Social Media
In today’s world, social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are used by hundreds of millions people worldwide.

The phenomena of social networking has allowed diverse client populations, such as those battling addictions, to form online support groups with global reach. Many social workers and social service agencies have embraced social networking to market their services and educate clients and potential clients about mental health, substance abuse, family dynamics, and other topics.

But questions have been raised about the ethics of using social networking in social work. Although social networking can be a useful tool, social workers who choose to use it need to carefully consider how their activities could violate client boundaries, lead to unrealistic expectations from clients, and risk identity fraud.

Frederic G. Reamer, a professor at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work, believes that these questions will persist as the popularity of social networking continues to grow. ‘This is a train we’re not going to stop,’ says Reamer. ‘The onus of responsibility is on social workers to identify the issues, educate one another about the issues, and come up with the appropriate risk management strategies.’

Technology and communications continue to make the world an increasingly connected place. This means that global events are affecting many professions, including social work. Migration patterns mean that social workers are encountering greater numbers of clients who are immigrants or refugees, and the lives of these clients are naturally affected by global trends.

‘Social work has responded to these trends with a greater emphasis on international collaboration, a renewed focus on cultural competency, and the addition of international content to social work curricula. But there is much more work to be done if American social workers want to effectively address issues that are global in scope, such as aging and human trafficking. Social work educators need to incorporate more international content into foundation-level classes and increase the opportunities for students to do international-related field placements.’

‘All social workers need to be exposed to an international environment, whether they’re interested in careers in international social work or not. We have made some progress, but we have a long way to go.’

– M. C. ‘Terry’ Hokenstad, Jr., Ph.D., the Ralph S. and Dorothy P. Schmitt Professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland

Are you suited to be a social worker?

Social workers have distinct personalities. They tend to be artistic individuals, which means they’re creative, intuitive, sensitive, articulate, and expressive. They are unstructured, original, nonconforming, and innovative. Some of them are also social, meaning they’re kind, generous, cooperative, patient, caring, helpful, empathetic, tactful, and friendly.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if social worker is one of your top career matches.

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What is the workplace of a Social Worker like?

Social workers help people of all ages cope with various challenges. There are a few areas of social work, however, that are more popular than others. These areas are medical/public health, substance abuse, mental health, child welfare, and school social work.

You can find social workers in hospitals and clinics, nursing homes, community mental health clinics, private practices, state and local governments, schools, colleges and universities, substance abuse clinics, and military bases and hospitals.

As a social worker, you'll spend your days advocating for others and helping them wade through difficult situations. There are clients whose stories will be sad, and their words will trigger thoughts and feelings in you. It's important to keep up your own personal therapy (in fact, it's recommended), and to use your supervisor to process the feelings that clients trigger in you.

It's good to have the mindset of expecting the unexpected, as something could go wrong on any given day, considering how many people you'll be working with. One of the hardest parts of the job is not dealing with clients, but figuring out how to navigate the system, the culture, dealing with ethical challenges, and learning the best way to work with peers.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between a social worker and a psychologist?

A social worker acts as a client advocate, educator, coordinator of care, and an adviser. He or she will work as a liaison with the family, and will look at helping with finances, admissions, discharges, housing, follow-up appointments to outside services, and is sometimes the link to the courts and any legal procedures.

A psychologist works with individuals, couples, and families by identifying and diagnosing mental behavioural and emotional disorders. He or she will then develop a treatment plan, and if necessary, collaborate with doctors or social workers to help the patient carry through with the desired changes. In a nutshell, a social worker addresses problems within our society. A psychologist addresses problems due to our society.

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See Also

Do social workers ever regret entering social work because of the (relatively) low pay?

Social workers are dedicated people that provide valuable services to families and their communities. Unfortunately, the social work profession is known for its low pay. Many social workers regret getting into the profession for this reason.

What is interesting to note is that it depends on which branch of social work you will choose that will dictate your salary. Social workers will not be able to make a good salary if they work, for example, at a homeless shelter. It would be better to volunteer their time at a homeless shelter instead, and keep that as a charitable aspect of their life.

If one wants to make a respectable salary, then choosing a branch of social work that commands more money is necessary. For example: providing therapy for veterans via the VA, providing child assessments for divorce lawyers, providing medical discharge planning, supervising child abuse investigations, etc., are some options. It is very important to define the professional aspect of social work as something different from the charitable aspect of social work in order to avoid disappointment.

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What do practising social workers have to say about their jobs?

Experienced social workers will often share their feelings of pressure and high or complex caseloads. These characterizations of the profession permeate western culture, in particular. And while it is, of course, true that social work presents its share of challenges, it is also a gratifying and rewarding vocation. Below, we present both sides of the career equation, in the words of those who know the career best: its practitioners.

The work is never-ending. I work from home on a weekend constantly.

I want to know that the work that I do is having an impact on people’s lives. I don’t have to wonder if my efforts have made a difference. I get to see them every day in the lives of the people that I work with.

We are completely overworked, strict deadlines to meet with not enough time. We are unable to spend time on thoroughly getting to know children’s views and opinions or to even undertake direct work with children.

The social work profession gives me the opportunity to work in a variety of settings and work towards multidimensional collaborative change. By working in this field I am able to empower, advocate, motivate, connect, and encourage resilience. To challenge stereotypes and avoid fallacies. As well as fight discrimination, oppression and injustice, no matter the form. In this field, I get to be a voice for all who cannot advocate for themselves. Making this world a better place one person at a time, is worth it.

It is impossible to do an effective job and ensure you can spend all the time with these families that they need to make significant change to their life. There is not enough time in a day to manage this amount and it is severely impacting on our health and compromising our own personal lives. There is no work life balance.

I am in Social Work because the profession gives me the opportunity to help people from all walks of life in a multitude of settings. Social work teaches me to respect the vulnerability, the relationship, the person's right to choose, their suffering, the resources, and the responsibility we have in providing quality care.

If I only worked the hours I’m contracted there would be no way I could maintain statutory requirements on 32 children.

I had a rough childhood, and wanted to assist children so they wouldn't have to go through the pain and anguish I had to go through by myself.

I feel as though I spend my day apologizing for canceling appointments and not being able to return calls.

I am able to work with clients individually and yet again impact changes on the legislature and policy that may affect their services. It feels like the full circle, a holistic approach to individuals' needs.

Due to the high case load, most of my visits have to be quick to ‘tick the boxes’ – it’s not a good practice.

Social work seemed like the best career path for me for many reasons. Growing up with a sister who has autism gave me a different perspective on the world. I always knew I wanted to go into a field where I could help others and build upon the knowledge and experience I gained within my own household.

I feel that my caseload results in not all the children I work with really being supported or indeed safe.

My ultimate dream is to cultivate awareness of social justice issues by continuing to equip and empower the vulnerable and underrepresented populations of our society. Whether it was my personal challenges growing up Black in a predominantly white society, struggling with a biased educational system, providing encouragement to women, or working with people who face barriers to independence, every phase of my life reflects my advocacy for those who have been marginalized by mainstream culture.

I will be leaving soon, as the stress and pressure are too much.

’Choose a job you love and you never have to work a day in your life.’ – Confucius. A career in social work is a gift in that you are allowed into the intimate life’s of wonderful people in your efforts to assist them in their journey of recovery, where victims become survivors, and systems bend to meet the needs of the most vulnerable individuals in our society.

I’m a newly qualified social worker and work 50 hours a week and still don’t get everything done.

I chose Social Work because I have always believed in fighting for human rights. I believe our profession can change the world on so many levels: for each person we have the opportunity to serve, for entire family systems, and the communities where we live. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of a profession that reaches out to our most vulnerable populations and strives to make a difference in so many lives.

My caseload is totally unmanageable. I don’t ever feel like I give a good service to the children and families I work with. I am constantly stressed and worried that I am leaving vulnerable children at risk simply because I don’t have the time and resources to do the basics to protect them. I’m currently in my first year, but am very sadly unsure how much longer I will last in this profession.

High School graduation was in 1969, and I was immersed in progress and social change. I went to college to be a sociology teacher, but, I discovered Social Work, where we learn to make a difference for people, systems, and communities. Social Work ethics and values appealed to my life principles of fairness, justice, and social change. Social Work is a profession that moves me to be a social change agent.

Complexity is not taken into account, just numbers.

Felt it was a natural calling for me. Social work is applicable in all areas; including business, policy, and education.

I only manage if I work significantly more hours than I get paid for.

I wanted a profession where I am able to help empower individuals and families to find solutions, advance changes in social policy, promote social justice, and pull communities together in a way that fosters both human and global well-being. To truly make a difference and to be the change I want to see in the world, I must embrace it with my career. That is why I choose to be a Social Worker.

It’s so hard to fit everything in for a caseload this high. Competing priorities leaves me feeling as though I am always letting someone down.

I chose social work because I have a passion for working with and helping others. I grew up in a home with generous and loving parents, but as I got older, I realized not everyone was as lucky to have such an experience. I want to provide that for children, families, and adults. I want to have a positive impact on someone who needs help and I want to be the one to give them that help.

It is seen as acceptable practice that Child in Need cases can be left months without contact due to the demands of high caseloads and court work.

I was bound to spend my life in the helping professions and when I discovered that Social Work and I shared the same values of social justice, integrity, dignity and worth of all people, and service, it was love at first sight! I love being part of a community with these ethical principles and with the shared perspective of person-in-environment. We’re all interconnected and also a product of our environments.

In social work I think the hardest thing is trying to figure out resources for families when they don't exist. You know, trying to find a family housing when housing is a struggle or mental health services when they don't have insurance. Those are frustrating. When we know this is what this family is going to need to be able to move them forward or be safe with their children, and accessing that type of support is difficult to find for whatever reasons.

I chose social work because the principles and code of ethics are directly in line with my world view. The principles of self-determination, cultural competency, social justice, and advocacy describe my own values. Social work gives me a way to put these values into practice and allows me to have a job that I truly believe in. As social workers we believe that we should be the change, big or small, and have the privilege of working towards this every day.

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Are Social Workers happy?

Social workers rank in the 30th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.

A passion for helping people can make social work an inviting field of work. There are very few jobs where one has the ability to make a difference and help others. Those that work as social workers get to advocate for the rights of others for a living. This type of work can often be rewarding and offers a different type of compensation and motivation than other professions.

However, the emotional toll that this profession takes is unmatched. It can be very frustrating and disappointing to see clients being held down by the legal system, or see resources that they need not readily available to them. Social workers sometimes find it difficult to maintain their level of hope and ability to make a difference when they are constantly dealing with these challenges.

Should I become a Social Worker?

There are hundreds of careers out there that will offer more money, more recognition, and more thanks than that of a social worker. It takes a very special type of person to consider a career in social work — the type of person that has a combination of organizational skills, sensitive communication skills, and emotional resilience. Also needed is an intense motivation to make a difference in other people’s lives.

If you are thinking that social work might be a field you may be interested in, here are a few pros and cons to consider before committing yourself:


Connecting With the Community
Social workers interact with their community by providing their clients access to resources, referring them to other professionals, and by connecting to individuals and families through counseling.

Making a Difference in Someone’s Life
Social workers can dramatically change someone’s living conditions, whether it be with housing, food, education, or literacy training. This is done through the resources they are able to provide.

Pursuing a Passion for Advocacy and Social Justice
Becoming a social worker is an effective way to help those who have not been born with the privilege that others have. Social work allows one to advocate for the needs of people who struggle for rights and resources, from the poor and homeless to the LGBT community, to immigrants.

Work Variety
Social workers are able to work in government departments, correctional facilities, family courts, social housing organizations, schools, community health centres, advocacy organizations, mental health clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, social service agencies, family service agencies, child welfare settings, the military, or in private counseling.

Job Security
There will always be communities that need resources and advocates, and social work degrees and licenses can be transferred from state to state within the United States.


Heavy Workloads and Odd Hours
Heavy workloads often add to the stress of the job, and with all the paperwork and difficult cases, many social workers are overworked. Some social workers work unsocial hours (for example, in the area of residential care), and those in other areas may need to be flexible about their hours in emergency situations.

Emotional Exhaustion
Being a social worker is not easy, especially when dealing with difficult circumstances. At times it is difficult to separate one's own personal life from the job, and can be emotionally draining. Maintaining boundaries between work and home life is crucial, as is building positive relationships with one's team and supervisor and seeking professional support from them when needed.

Social workers are in this career for the love of making a difference in people's lives, not for the money. Social work is not one of the top earning careers, however it is a secure income, and many social workers can have an average financial life. The wages for social workers vary, making some positions more attractive than others when it comes to a paycheque. For example, social workers that work in hospitals or schools earn more than those working in community health centres and family services.

Deciding on whether or not a career in social work is for you takes a lot of thoughtful consideration. If, however, a passion for social justice and an interest in both your community and job security appeal to you, then social work may be exactly the career you’ve been looking for.

Social Workers are also known as:
Direct Service Social Worker