What Do Social Workers Do?

Brooke Phillips, CWCMS
Editor | Shield HealthCare
01/16/24  4:51 PM PST
social work month

Social workers are people advocates. They work directly with, and on behalf of, a wide variety of populations, helping those in need address the personal, family, and social problems that affect their lives. For social workers in the medical field, this advocacy includes helping patients and their families with their medical care and health needs.

While social workers practice in a diverse array of settings, they all pursue the same goals:

  • Promoting social welfare.
  • Helping people from all backgrounds overcome the individual challenges they are facing.
  • Advocating for social and economic justice for members of diverse communities.

Whom Do Social Workers Help?

Social workers may help individuals who face a disability, a life-threatening disease or a social problem such as inadequate housing, unemployment or substance abuse. Social workers also assist families that have serious domestic conflicts, sometimes involving child or spousal abuse. Some social workers conduct research, advocate for improved services, or are involved in planning or policy development, while others specialize in serving people and families in specific situations.

Social workers serve a wide range of populations, including:

  • Children and adolescents
  • Individuals with disabilities
  • Individuals who are experiencing poverty or homelessness
  • Patients with medical needs, including complex, life-altering, or life-threatening diagnoses
  • LGBTQ+ individuals
  • Individuals suffering from addiction
  • Students
  • Individuals with mental health concerns
  • Refugees and immigrants
  • Aging individuals
  • Couples and families
  • Victims of violence or trauma
  • Individuals who are incarcerated or in the criminal justice system
  • Veterans

Social workers are found in every facet of community life — in schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, senior centers, elected office, private practices, prisons, military, corporations, and in numerous public and private agencies that serve individuals and families in need.

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers are uniquely positioned to help members of society who are vulnerable, oppressed, or marginalized. They help people overcome some of life’s most difficult challenges: poverty, discrimination, abuse, addiction, physical illness, divorce, loss, unemployment, educational problems, disability, and mental illness. They help prevent crises, and they counsel individuals, families, and communities to cope more effectively with the stresses of everyday life.

Many social workers choose an area of focused responsibility, such as criminal justice issues, gerontological services, people with disabilities, or healthcare. In the medical field, social workers will advocate for their patients in the health care system. They identify and address barriers to medical care, including lack of health insurance or limited medical coverage, costs of care, geographic barriers to care, transportation issues, and social determinants of health (including racial discrimination and implicit bias, education, unemployment and job insecurity, food insecurity, housing etc.)

In an inpatient setting, social workers will assess a patient’s risks and needs and provide an evaluation of each patient’s post-discharge needs. They communicate and collaborate their assessments with the medical team to develop a plan of care that addresses both healthcare and psychosocial needs.

Social workers also:

  • Provide crisis intervention.
  • Provide brief and supportive counseling.
  • Identify and provide referrals to appropriate community resources.
  • Provide assessment and support to victims of abuse or neglect, including child abuse, elder abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, and institutional abuse or neglect.

Social workers, around half of whom work for local and federal governments, must be familiar with the assistance programs and services available for those in need. This requires continuing education to keep abreast of programs, their funding, and their efficacy.

Educational Requirements

Social workers face significant educational requirements. Most initial positions are clerical and require a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work (B.S.W.) or a related field, such as psychology or sociology. For positions involving psychological recommendations or assessments, or for positions with more responsibility, a Master’s in Social Work (M.S.W.) is required. Those who wish to advance to policy or director positions are asked to complete a Ph.D. in social work. Nearly all programs require extensive field work and client contact, in addition to coursework that covers social welfare policies, political science, human behavior, research methodology, and abnormal psychology. All states have strict licensing requirements for social workers, and additional professional certifications are available from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

Why Choose Social Work?

Social workers pursue this career because of their love of people and their drive to help others. While it is an emotionally rewarding career path, a significant percentage are drained by its emotional intensity. Some become frustrated at their inability to help their clients and exhausted by anxiety over their clients’ situations and leave the profession. The attrition rate for social workers is 15% in the first year. Most who struggle with the emotional intensity leave within the first two years. Those who make past this point tend to remain in the profession long-term.

Deeper into their careers, social workers may find themselves gravitating towards a particular population of people needing help. Many choose an area of specialization, such as individuals with disabilities, gerontology, victims of trauma, or healthcare. Their case loads can be overwhelming; on average, a social worker five years into their career is in charge of over two hundred client cases at any given time. Ongoing continuing education is also a requirement, and social workers spend considerable free time reading publications about their area of specialty or attending conferences. Despite this, the average pay for social workers is comparatively low. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for social workers in 2022 was $55,350, despite the fact that many social workers must earn a master’s degree and go through the expensive process to gain licensure. Social work continues to be a career driven by an individual’s passion to help others and their commitment to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable.

To learn more about social workers, visit www.socialworkers.org.


Sources include:

Recent Caregivers

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