Do you enjoy helping others? Do you want to make a difference in the world? If the answer to these two questions is yes, a career in the social work field might be ideal for you. This article will provide you will all the information you will need to determine whether or not a job in social work is right for you.
Table of Contents
- 1. Defining social work
- 2. What do social workers do?
- 3. The ideal social worker
- 4. Types of social work
- 5. Work environment
- 6. The pros and cons of social work
- 7. Education requirements
- 8. Salaries and wages
- 9. Top employers
- 10. Future job outlook
- 11. Occupations similar to social work
1.Defining social work
Exactly what does social work mean? The term itself is broadly encompassing and somewhat vague in nature. In general, it is understood that the vast majority of occupations involved in social work are centered around the practice of working with clients for the purpose of assisting them with improving their social conditions. This involves everything from working with autistic children to providing support to recovering drug addicts. Social workers help those in need, across all social classes and ethnicities.
There are a multitude of various career paths available which fall underneath the umbrella term of social work. These will be discussed individually later on in this article. All of the various forms of social work fall into one of three categories.
- Macro social workers seek to improve the lives of those in need by working to create social change on a large-scale, societal level rather than concentrating on providing direct services to an individual. The philosophy behind the practice of macro social work is that the positive social changes which impact an entire society will eventually benefit all individual members within that society as well. They work with local, state or even federal governments to advocate for client needs, and also raise awareness of any social conditions that have an adverse effect on a general population.
- Mezzo social work is not concerned with society as a whole, nor does it concentrate on the struggles of the individual. Mezzo social work is instead about addressing the needs of a small group or specific community. This can include everything from assisting a city’s homeless population with finding shelter and/or employment to coordinating services for a particular student population. In times of a community crisis, such a neighborhood fire, school shooting or sudden increase in crime within a particular area, they ensure that the affected population has access to all necessary counseling and recovery services.
- Micro social workers provide services to their clients on a direct, one on one level. The majority of social workers practice on the micro level, typically as a case manager or service coordinator. Rather than focusing upon an entire society of people or a particular group that is in need, these workers are instead concerned with directly assisting the individual. Micro social workers are usually assigned a number of clients, and this is known thereafter as their caseload. They are responsible for individually assessing and coordinating the appropriate services to meet each client’s needs.
2.What do social workers do?
Social workers assist those in need by helping them to identify, address and overcome the challenges they face in their everyday lives. The occupation revolves around the practice of assisting clients by ensuring that they are aware of and have access to all of the appropriate services available to them, whether on a local, state or federal level.
Many social workers are employed full time, however, they may at also be required to work nights, weekends and/or holidays. Keeping odd hours is particularly prevalent in those occupations which require providing direct support to clients in crisis or dealing with other emergency situations. Some jobs also require individuals to periodically work additional on call hours, and in these times, they are expected to immediately respond to any client in need of help, regardless of the time of day.
Social workers tend to be based out of a primary office setting where paperwork is done and clients may be seen by individual appointment. A large number of workers are also required to regularly spend part of their time in the field assessing client services and providing one on one support for the individuals on their caseload.
The precise duties of the average social worker depend upon their particular area of expertise. For example, a case manager who works with developmentally disabled adults will certainly have a different set of responsibilities than someone who is employed by a school system to address behavioral issues within the student body.
Some social workers work with war veterans to help them assimilate back into civilian life as smoothly as possible, while others spend time in residential homes, providing supervision and support to a client who would otherwise be unable to live independently.
No matter what the individual employment path may be, the common thread connecting all forms of social work lies in the desire to help others by exploring and utilizing all available resources.
3.The ideal social worker
It can be argued that most social work professions require a certain kind of personality and character to do the job successfully. As we have discussed before, social work is first and foremost about helping others to lead the best life possible.
Therefore, those who are interested in a career within the field must possess a strong sense of empathy and a passion for improving the conditions of those less fortunate. Some other important qualities are as follows:
- The ability to effectively communicate with others: Social workers cannot hope to identify and address the needs of their clients unless they are also able to establish a method of relating to and understanding them. In many instances, clients may have experienced some previous form of trauma or neglect which makes it difficult for them to open up to others. Excellent communication skills are therefore one of the most valuable assets of a successful social worker. People relate to one another on nonverbal levels as well, so being aware of one’s body language and adjusting it accordingly to the situation also falls under the category of effective communication.
People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others and Resolve Conflicts by Robert Bolton is a bestselling book available on Amazon.com which provides the reader with knowledge on verbal and non-verbal communication techniques, while also giving guidance on methods of de-escalating potential conflict situations.
- The ability to relate to others: Social workers are often required to work with a multitude of various populations, cultures and ethnicities. At times, they may be required to advocate for a particular client need, even when the fulfillment of that need runs contrary to their own beliefs. The ideal social worker must be able to demonstrate tolerance for other viewpoints, and a desire to understand the struggles of those in need, regardless of their standing in society as a whole.
The ability to empathize with clients who are afflicted with developmental, social and/or mental disabilities is an extremely important part of any occupation involving social work. One must be able to reserve judgement and look beyond any of their own personal prejudices by putting themselves in the shoes of those they serve in order to thoroughly comprehend the most effective ways to serve that client’s needs.
- The ability to be discreet: All social workers must conduct business in a manner which is in compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. HIPPA laws are in place to protect a client’s privacy and to ensure that their medical and treatment information are kept confidential. Social workers must be sure that they are obtaining the informed consent of their clients before sharing any of their personal data with an outside entity, such as a doctor’s office or place of employment.
The consent of a client to have their information shared is documented by a written and signed release, which is a piece of paper describing the exact nature of the material to be disclosed and the particular individual who is in the position of privilege.
- The ability to recognize and report dangerous situations: While all social workers must certainly adhere to HIPPA laws, it is also important to be able to recognize those instances in the which the safety of the client or others carries greater legal weight than the disclosure of their personal information. Social workers must be trained to identify clients who present a danger to themselves or others, and must likewise be educated in necessary protocol for ensuring intervention.
Almost all social workers are mandated reporters. This means that they are required by law to report any instances of suspected abuse involving vulnerable populations, such as children, the disabled and/or elderly.
- The ability to multi-task and effectively manage time: Most social workers are required to complete an ample amount of paperwork on the behalf of their clients. This can not only entail filling out forms for insurance or other applications for programs meant to assist the client, but also typically requires the worker to maintain a number of comprehensive, individualized files. These files contain documentation of the services and treatments which are being provided, as well as any notes cataloging client progression and/or any challenges encountered.
Most social workers are responsible for working with an entire caseload of clients rather than one or two individuals. They must therefore be able to stick to a schedule to ensure that they are devoting an adequate amount of time to each client.
- The ability to problem solve and think creatively: Each and every client presents with different needs and obstacles depending upon a multitude of variables, such as age, disability, social class, education level, etc. Social workers must therefore deal with clients on an individual, case by case basis, and this requires thinking outside of the box from time to time.
Particularly in an instance in which funding is being sought to address a specific client need, an original viewpoint may be needed in order to justify why it is necessary to give money to one program over another, or even to one client over another.
The goal of most social workers is not to solve their client’s problems for them, but rather, to provide them with the tools, skills and coping mechanisms which are necessary for overcoming challenges as independently as possible. It is important to be able to teach clients to think creatively about methods of self-improvement and strategies for success as well, as all clients on a caseload may have different ways of learning new information.
- The ability to set and maintain clear boundaries: The very nature of social work can create an emotionally charged environment at times. The importance of creating a definite distinction between one’s personal and professional life cannot be overstated. It is absolutely vital that the boundary separating the social worker from the client remains intact and defined at all points in time. Social workers have a duty to conduct themselves in a strictly professional manner in any situation involving a client. At all costs, they must avoid any kind of interaction with their clients on a personal and/or intimate level.
At Personal Risk: Boundary Violations in Professional-Client Relationships by Marilyn R. Peterson is a particularly valuable resource for all those involved in the social work field, as it helps to further demonstrate the reasons why maintaining professional boundaries is so vital.
- The ability to manage stressful situations: At one time or another, almost every social worker will find themselves in direct contact with a client in crisis. In these situations, it is important to possess a solid set of interpersonal skills which will help to de-escalate the situation rather than exacerbate it.
Clients who are reacting to some kind of external or internal trauma by definition behave unpredictably, and this increases the risk of personal injury to those attempting to intervene and diffuse the situation. This is why it is so vital that social workers are trained in some form of stress management, as they must be able to soothe the client in crisis rather than cause them to feel any increased agitation.
Some social workers may have clients on their caseload who are categorized as being high risk. This means that the client has a documented history of engaging in dangerous behaviors, such as suicidal tendencies, violent outbursts, assaulting others, destroying property, etc. Those who work with high risk clients will almost certainly find training in stress management and de-escalation techniques vital, as they are required to maintain a professional, calm mindset in the midst of coping with crisis situations.
Crisis Intervention 101: De-escalation Steps for Law Enforcement, First Responders and Everyone Else by Linda Flanders is a book that focuses upon crisis’ in mental health clients. Available on Amazon.com, this manuscript emphasizes common sense in teaching the proper steps towards preventing and de-escalating client crisis situations.
4. Types of social workers
Social work is the practice of helping people address and overcome obstacles, whether on the personal, community or societal level. The field itself is very broad, offering a myriad of categories to explore. Each occupation within the social work field carries with it is own area of concentration and particular job responsibilities.
The majority of social workers fall into the categories discussed below. It is, however, important to note that different types of social workers must often work alongside one another for maximum results. Many clients require support from at least two different social work programs, such as substance abuse and mental health.
- Clinical social workers are licensed to directly diagnose and treat the clients on their caseloads. They specialize in mental, behavioral, developmental and/or emotional problems, working to ensure that their client’s needs are therapeutically addressed by formulating individualized treatment plans and documenting their progress.
- Academic social workers are concerned with the welfare of the students, faculty and staff of a particular school or university, though some may be responsible for meeting the needs of an entire district. Academic social workers assist students with emotional, behavioral and/or developmental disabilities in their academic progress. On a personal level, they may provide support to a child whose parents are getting a divorce or help them to integrate into a new academic setting. They also address social issues which arise within the general student population, such as bullying, substance abuse and/or the death of a fellow student.
These people provide access to necessary counseling in times of individual or school-wide crisis, and can also assist with acquiring access to secondary academic services, such as individual tutoring, career counseling or college program guidance.
- Child services social workers are primarily concerned with the well-being, safety and progress of infants, children and pregnant women. They work to identify any form of abuse, neglect or exploitation carried out against a child, and help to ensure that any victims are removed from dangerous environments. They do everything from facilitate adoptions to ensure that new parents are provided with the necessary tools to provide a safe environment for their child.
Many people automatically associate those involved in child social work with removing children from potentially unsafe homes, yet it is also important to bear in mind that this is only one aspect of the job. These workers also struggle mightily to reunite children with their families whenever it is safe to do so, and may even act in the role of a default guardian for those who are caught up within the foster care setting.
- Family social workers assist their clients with accessing and maintaining the necessary services to support their family, such as helping a single mother apply for food stamps and safe, affordable housing for herself and her children. They may work with women who are experiencing postpartum depression or provide an autistic child with an educational plan that is tailored to their needs. This form of social work deals with issues that affect an entire family, like divorce, unemployment, death or sudden illness.
- Healthcare social workers help clients who are dealing with some sort of medical situation. They may work with those who have been diagnosed with a terminal or serious illness, helping them to come to terms with treatment options and the possibility of their own mortality. Some healthcare social workers are employed by a hospice program, which is an organization that provides support to people who are in the process of dying.
Many clients who are experiencing a terminal illness worry about what will happen to their loved ones after they die. Healthcare social workers help to ease this distress for their client by ensuring that their families are provided with access to any necessary support groups or counseling services.
- Mental health social workers work with clients who have been diagnosed with some sort of mental disorder, such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia. They help the clients on their caseload manage their disease by making sure that they are provided with access to all appropriate programs and counseling.
Social workers within the mental health field help those who are living with mental disorders live as normally as possible by designing programs that help to integrate them into society rather than isolating them from the public. They do this by providing assistance with everything from obtaining employment and/or housing to providing transportation to and from appointments.
- Developmental services social workers help clients with a range of developmental disabilities to maximize their independence, including such services as facilitating and supervising employment as well as mediating between schools and parents. Those involved in developmental services design and monitor treatment plans for clients who are diagnosed with everything from autism to down’s syndrome.
In addition, they may also work alongside mental health social workers in the case of a dual diagnosis, meaning that a particular client has both a mental health disorder and a developmental disability.
- Substance abuse social workers work with clients who have an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. These people may be employed by an inpatient rehabilitation facility, where they help clients to help design a treatment plan for achieving recovery from their chemical dependence.
They continue to provide support to their clients long after the initial period of detox is over. Some individuals are highly susceptible to experiencing a relapse. In these cases, it is important for the social worker to ensure that their client is provided with access to all available support services to help them cope with their addictions.
They may work with clients on an individual level or within a group setting as well. At times, they may work in conjunction with child services or family social workers, such as in cases where a parent is attempting to overcome an addiction in order to regain custody of their child.
5. Work environment
Those considering a career in social work may be curious as to what to expect in regards to their future work environment. The precise details of a social worker’s surroundings depend upon which area of social work is chosen as a profession. For example, a person who is involved with academic social work will typically spend the majority of their time within some sort of school setting, while one employed by the criminal justice system will work with offenders and their families in court, in the field or within the jail itself. A substance abuse social worker may find themselves primarily located out of a rehabilitation facility or halfway house, just as an individual who works for children’s service will work within the client’s domestic setting as well as courts of law,
Regardless of the individual area of expertise, all social workers must provide at least some sort of written documentation that records the progress of the clients on their caseload. Some social workers, such as those involved in clinical fields, are also responsible for maintaining comprehensive client files, containing items which include, but are not limited to Medicaid waivers, court orders, medication logs, incident reports, emergency fact sheets and individual protocols.
Paperwork is an unavoidable reality of the job, and because of this, most social workers operate out of a central office or other sort of home base, whether it be located in a school, medical facility or professional building. They may or may not meet with their clients individually within this office setting. Most social workers, regardless of their field, are required to spend at least some of their time in the field, directly observing the progress of programs and addressing client needs.
6.The pros and cons of social work
In all of its forms, social work is a profession that is at once highly rewarding and incredibly stressful. The HRF website (Health Research Funding) website is an excellent source for anyone who wishes to gain a broad understanding into social work profession. This website makes the reader aware of the positive and negative realities which can impact one’s professional quality of life.
Some of the basic benefits of and possible drawbacks to look at when considering a career in the social work field are as follows:
- The very practice of social work itself satisfies a basic human need to help others and provide for those who are less fortunate.
- Social work can offer tremendous satisfaction and rewards in instances of a client success story.
- The practice of social work helps in developing a wider understanding of society in general. Clients and workers alike are provided with the opportunity to spend time with those outside of their comfort zone, which helps to develop tolerance.
- Many social work programs actively work towards providing validity to local, state and federal programs designed to assist clients with their various needs.
- Regardless of the individual area of expertise, social work is one of the few professions which can safely say that most of its employees are actively engaged in work that makes a tangible impact upon the individuals and community populations being served.
- Social workers are in constant demand for their services, and sometimes, there are just simply not enough of them to go around. In programs where understaffing is an issue, an overload of clients can cause stress for workers. Social workers may require training and support in developing stress management skills. Available on Amazon.com, the book Social Work Under Pressure: How to Overcome Stress, Fatigue and Burnout in the Workplace by Kate van Heugten helps readers to understand the nature and causes of stress, as well as its effect on the body. It also educates the reader in various coping mechanisms for stress management that can be used in practical, day to day settings.
- The hours are often unpredictable. The vast majority of social workers will, at times, find it necessary to work more hours than they are salaried for in order to ensure that each client on their caseload receives an equal amount of direct, one on one contact. Clients in crisis can also substantially increase the amount of work performed outside of normal business hours. This is particularly prevalent among those involved in clinical social work.
- Dependency upon federal, state and local funding can sometimes severely limit the services that a social worker is able to provide to a client. Some programs must constantly fight to raise awareness of client issues in order to prevent cuts to their budget. Particularly in times of a weak economy, workers may at times find that their hands are figuratively tied when it comes to accessing a particular service for a client, simply because the money isn’t there.
- Social work is a profession that often lends itself to ethical dilemmas and struggles. Caseworkers may find themselves having to make some very difficult decisions at times, and they must constantly remain vigilant in their ethical integrity. Most social workers are in direct contact with their clients at least some of the time, and the interpersonal nature of the profession can cause many “gray areas” in regards to professional practice.
Social Work Values and Ethics by Frederic G. Reamer is an excellent resource for any social worker seeking answers to ethical problems.
- The very nature of social work evokes strong emotions in clients, particularly in traumatic situations. As mentioned above, social workers are required to make some tough judgement calls, such as removing a child from an unsafe living situation or reporting an instance of domestic violence to the proper authorities. Due to the fact that the environment can become emotionally charged, some social workers can find themselves to be targeted by clients in crisis, or their families. For example, a caseworker who has reported suspicions of child abuse may be the catalyst for an investigation that results in the parent losing custody of the child.
A social worker’s professional decisions often reflect in a tangible result, and these results can cause extreme emotional reactions in clients. They must therefore be mindful of posting any personal details about themselves on social media, and may take special precautions to ensure that their clients are not able to gain access to them outside of established business hours.
The first step for someone who wants to pursue a career in social work is to research and select an area of concentration. Some may find themselves inclined to work with children, while others may be strongly drawn to helping those with developmental disabilities.
Once this has been decided, the exact education requirements for a particular social work discipline vary depending upon whether one wishes to practice on the clinical or non-clinical level.
Most entry level positions in non-clinical social work require a BSW or bachelors of social work, though a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as sociology, human services or psychology as also widely accepted. Those who wish to practice clinical social work typically go on to obtain a MSW, or master’s degree in social work, a program which usually takes about two years to complete. Afterwards, clinical social workers may be required to spend another two years gaining hands-on experience in a supervised setting before they are able to obtain a license to practice independently.
While clinical social workers are by definition licensed and regulated, some states also have mandatory regulations for those practicing non-clinical social work as well. For detailed information regarding individual state requirements for social workers, visit The Association of Social Work Boards.
8.Salaries and wages
According to data retrieved from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) website, the average wage for a social worker in 2015 was $45,900. Healthcare social workers earn the most with a median yearly income of $52,380, while those involved in individual and family services have the lowest salary at $38,760.
Social workers are employed in a wide variety of community settings. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) website , one of the largest employers for professional social workers, is the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. These individuals work alongside past and present members of the military as well as their families to ensure that their needs are met. Since the year 2011, the NASW has partnered with a program called Joining Forces, which was developed by Joe Biden in conjunction with Michelle Obama. This partnership has helped to create new training guidelines for professional social workers who work with veterans and other military personnel.
The American Red Cross is an organization that helps ease the suffering of individuals caught in emergency situations. They respond to all forms of disaster, such as a house fire, flood, earthquake or wildfire. The American Red Cross is made up of a large number of volunteers who are trained to offer mental health support in crisis situations, and of these volunteers, over forty percent are social workers.
10.Future job outlook
According to the BLS website, the overall profession of social work is currently growing by an annual average of twelve percent. This is much faster than the average growth rate of other professions. Opportunities for employment within the social work field are opening up most rapidly within healthcare settings, while mental health and substance abuse workers are also finding that their services are growing in demand.
It is relatively safe to say that social workers will always have enough work to go around, due to the very nature of the work itself. As the human population continues to expand and evolve, so do their needs, both as an individual and a society.
Social workers provide a valuable service to those they serve. In many instances, the services they provide and/or facilitate have a marked positive impact on improving the quality of life of their clients.
11.Occupations similar to social work
- Sociologist: Sociologists study the structure of society in context of its group, culture and/or organization. They may work as professors, instructors and/or researchers within an academic setting. Some engage in direct research within a field setting. Sociologists average approximately $73,760 per year. Most positions require a minimum of a master’s degree for employment.
- Human services worker: Also known as community integration specialists and/or direct service providers, these people provide hands on support to clients in a variety of settings. For example, they may assist a client with developing employment skills by helping them to prepare for a job interview. They work in conjunction with the client as well as with the client’s caseworker, family and other team members to maximize the effectiveness of the services being provided. Entry level positions within the human services field usually require a high school diploma or the equivalent. The average annual salary is $30,830.
- Social services case manager: A case manager within the social services industry seeks out, advocates for, coordinates and monitors the services that are available to a particular clientele. They ensure that their clients are provided with access to all of the appropriate and necessary services available to them, and may also supervise those who are in direct field contact with the client. A bachelor’s degree in human services, social work, social science or another related field is usually required. They average an approximate annual salary of $63,530.
- Probation officer: A probation officer works with and supervises those who are on probation with the purpose of helping to prevent them from committing any future criminal acts. A bachelor’s degree is some kind of social science field is customary for entry level employment. Most probation officers have a median annual income of $49,360.
- Rehabilitation counselor: Rehabilitation counselors help individuals with cognitive, developmental, physical and/or behavioral disabilities become self-sufficient. They provide support in order to enable their clients to live as independently as possible. They typically have a master’s degree in social work or a related field, an average an annual income of $34,390.