What Is a Social Worker?

What Is a Social Worker?

Often, the only time we hear about social workers is through the media, which can lead to a biased and unbalanced view of what a social worker really does.

If you are considering a career in social work, you might be wondering what the role could potentially involve. This article considers the key responsibilities of social workers and the specialist help that they can provide to situations.

Definition of a Social Worker

In simple terms, a social worker helps vulnerable individuals when they find themselves in difficult situations.

To give it more context, a social worker is a specially trained individual who works within a specific sector, offering specialized help and support to those who need it most. This could be children, the elderly, vulnerable adults or recovering addicts.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

When social workers first become involved in a case, they start by meeting with the individual and completing an assessment.

An assessment will usually be completed over a period of time. It will include responses to questions, as well as insight that the social worker gains from the environment around the individual and non-verbal cues.

They may ask what support an individual has from those around them and whether they have participated in programs before. They will also want to know if someone has already had input from a social worker before and, if they have, what the situation was at that time.

This will give them valuable information as to how they are best able to help.

Once the assessment is complete, a social worker will put together a support plan that details the needs they have identified and how they intend to resolve the issues. This may also include information of other agencies that could be required.

At every target throughout the assessment and support process, social workers will be required to complete detailed records.

The reason for this is so that if an individual needs to be put on a different social worker's caseload for some reason, the new case worker will be fully informed of the progress and steps that have been taken. It also means social workers can look over their files before making support decisions to see whether or not specific strategies have been offered before.

It is also possible that social workers will need to attend meetings and tribunals about individuals on their caseload, as well as liaising with all the different agencies that can be involved with helping someone.

They may need to speak to law enforcement individuals and are occasionally required to testify in court for cases relating to their clients.

Different Types of Social Workers

Social workers are often specialized individuals. This enables them to work with a particular group of people who need their services.

When deciding how to specialize, it is a good idea to spend some time researching the different types of social workers. This will give you some insight into the areas they work in, the type of client they will often come across and the qualifications that may be required.

Children’s Social Worker

A children’s social worker is an individual who specifically works with children and families.

Children’s social workers will generally be the ones that most people have heard of. They can have a negative reputation as, when a situation requires it, they will place children with foster families. However, this is always a last resort.

Typically, children’s social workers work alongside children, families, schools and other professionals to deal with situations. When families are struggling to provide an adequate level of care for their children, children’s social workers offer support plans and will do everything they can to improve the situation.

As well as working directly with families, children’s social workers also work with schools and educational facilities to help children who are struggling with bullying, mental health issues or descrimination.

Older People’s Social Worker

As the name suggests, an older people’s social worker helps the elderly.

They provide a range of services in a variety of settings such as hospitals, health clinics, residential settings and outpatient facilities.

There are a number of reasons why an older person’s social worker might become involved in a situation. It could be that an individual needs support when they have been in hospital after a fall or injury.

Sometimes, a social worker will become involved in dementia cases to provide services that enable patients to remain in their own homes. They may also be called to help manage a situation where an elderly person doesn’t have family in the area and needs support.

Medical Social Workers

If you choose to become a medical social worker, you will be helping seriously ill people to find the care and services they need to gain a better quality of life.

This will involve assessing individuals to see what they need before deciding which services might be best for them. Medical social workers will communicate with a variety of agencies, such as healthcare professionals, public services and charities, alongside working with their client and the client’s family.

If nursing or residential care is required, they are sometimes able to put this into place, helping individuals to find the services which best meet their needs.

In the case of terminally ill individuals, medical social workers can communicate with hospices or respite centres to provide the best possible service at a time which is mentally and physically draining for all involved.

Mental Health and Disability Social Worker

Individuals with disabilities and mental health issues will often be unable to advocate on their own behalf. This is why mental health and disability social workers exist.

They work within communities to ensure that those in need have access to services that will make their quality of life better and, in some cases, aid recovery.

A mental health and disability social worker can work with medical professionals to decide which services would be of most benefit to their clients and arrange for places on suitable programs. This will often include considering therapy options that are affordable for the client or covered by insurance or Medicaid programs.

They can also help families to understand how to best help their loved ones, whether in practical ways or as emotional support. It is also possible that a social worker will communicate with families on their client’s behalf.

Substance Abuse Social Worker

Substance abuse is a very challenging area of social care to work in, so the individuals who work with recovering addicts are specialized.

When working with a recovering addict, there are a number of other areas to consider, such as family issues, if children are involved and mental health issues. A substance abuse social worker will need to identify the most important issues and know which outside agencies are required.

They may also need to ask for assistance from other social workers. For example, if an alcoholic has children, a children’s social worker may be involved so that the needs of the minors can be dealt with appropriately.

Substance abuse social workers can help individuals to find suitable rehabilitation programs and long-term mental healthcare options. They can also work within the community to provide outreach services, as well as educating individuals on the dangers of substance abuse. This is done with the intention of helping to avoid future addiction issues.

What Is a Social Worker? Definition, Types and Environments
What Is a Social Worker? Definition, Types and Environments

Settings for Social Work

Depending on the specialization you choose, your work can take place in a wide variety of locations.


Most schools will employ a social worker who is there to act as a voice for the students. This offers a safe space for students to be able to talk freely and feel heard.

Social workers in schools will listen to the children's concerns and needs, and help students with issues such as bullying, problems at home and mental health concerns. Where necessary, they will pass on cases for further investigation from outside agencies.

Nursing Homes

Many elderly people will need input from a social worker at some time or another, so it isn't unusual for social workers to work within nursing homes.

It is possible for a social worker to be associated with just one facility, working there full-time. Alternatively, a social worker may provide services to a number of facilities, spending a set amount of time in each one.

By working within these facilities, they are on hand to offer advice, observe their clients and speak to concerned families about steps which may be needed in the future. They can also oversee the programs that are put in place to ensure they are providing the required level of support.

Government Family Department

A large number of children’s social workers will be associated with the family department of their local government office. This will act as their base, where they manage their caseload and write action plans for the families in their care.

As the local government is concerned with the community as a whole, they may also provide offices for social workers who have other specializations. For example, it would not be unusual for a substance abuse social worker or an older person’s social worker to also be connected with local government.

When people consider contacting a social worker, they will often do so through their local government’s social work department.

Healthcare Settings

Social workers often work within healthcare settings to provide services to individuals before they leave hospital or as part of regular appointments.

If an individual requires additional support as a result of a health issue, a social worker can liaise with them and medical professionals to decide on the best course of action.

This could include further treatment, specialized equipment being installed at home or mental health services for those who are struggling. They will also communicate with families, if required, to explain what is needed and how they can help.

The advantage of working within a healthcare setting is that the social worker is on hand when a situation arises. This can reduce waiting times, provide reassurance to patients and may even enable a patient to go home more quickly once a plan has been put into action.

Frequently Asked Questions

Social workers provide a range of services to individuals in all areas of society. They work to help individuals to better their personal situations and provide support to those who need it most.

In some cases, they can be responsible for assisting individuals out of abusive or damaging situations, giving them the chance of a better life and a fresh start.

For others, it will mean the difference between having to stay in hospital after an injury or being able to go home.

For those with mental health issues or a history of substance abuse, social workers provide a vital lifeline between them and the person they want to be in the future.

The exact amount you could earn as a social worker will vary depending on your level of experience and qualifications. It is also possible that your salary will be different if you are working in a rural area compared to a city due to differences in workload and responsibilities.

In 2019, the average salary for a social worker in the United States was $60,000.

In most cases, a social worker will be required to hold a bachelor's degree in social work. This will need to be from a recognized and accredited college or program. Many will then go on to complete a master’s in social work.

Alternatively, you could complete a bachelor’s in a subject such as psychology, political science or early childhood development before moving on to a master’s degree which must be in social work.

Once you have completed the educational requirements, you will need to become licensed in the state where you intend to work.

The licensing requirements can vary from state-to-state, but it will usually include completing a set number of fieldwork hours and successfully passing a licensing test.

Most people will be referred to a social worker by their school, doctor or another professional. Alternatively, you can contact them yourself if you feel you would benefit from their support.

There are many ways you can access support from social workers, such as:

  • Ask your doctor to refer you. They will know the appropriate department to speak to.
  • Use websites such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration to find details of social workers in your area.
  • State home-care programs can also help to connect you with social workers.
  • Your local food bank or shelter may have details of social workers.
  • Some insurance programs are able to offer appointments with social workers. Check whether this is something your insurance can provide.

If you are someone who enjoys helping others, social work could be a good career for you. You are likely to find a wide variety of situations and no two cases will be the same, even if they look similar on paper.

However, that doesn’t mean it will all be plain sailing. As we see at times in the media, there will be difficult cases to deal with. Being able to maintain a professional outlook while also doing the best you can for your clients is essential.

It is also important to be able to mentally distance yourself from any difficult situations you may encounter to protect your own mental health.

Overall, as long as you are aware of the potential downsides, working as a social worker can offer an incredibly rewarding career. You will be providing a service that enables individuals to better their situation and make progress in their lives.

Final Thoughts

Social work is an incredibly broad career path that offers opportunities for continued learning and career progression while actively helping those within your community.

Whatever specialization you choose to follow, you will be working to provide people with opportunities and a better quality of life.

Although social workers can sometimes have a bad reputation – mostly due to media bias – it is undeserved. Social workers are dedicated to providing care, support and help to those who are most vulnerable.

No two cases will ever be exactly the same, and for some people you will be the turning point they need to make a difference in their lives.

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