What Does a Social Worker Do?

socialSocial work is an often misunderstood profession. Some people will live their whole lives with little or no social worker contact. Others can not imagine their lives without consistent and frequent interaction with a social worker. This comes as little surprise since professionals in this field are called to serve the needy, the sick, the disabled and the troubled. They are also available to the grief-stricken and the incarcerated. Often performing thankless tasks, social workers nonetheless find satisfaction working in a variety of venues, including schools, hospitals, prisons, nursing homes and relief organizations. While they possess different levels of education—from bachelor’s degrees to doctorates, they all serve three basic functions: advocate, instructor and therapist.


Many social work clients require help in meeting basic responsibilities that so many take for granted. These encompass paying bills, registering automobiles, job searches and similar tasks that require interaction with government and business. As case managers for the developmentally disabled or the illiterate, social workers must sometimes speak on behalf of their clients and fill out necessary forms for the clients to sign. In this manner, they are intervening in the client’s interest as determined by their agencies. These services are also performed for older adults whose faculties are declining. In addition, social workers alert third parties of instances when their clients are victims of discrimination or abuse.


As professionals charged with helping individuals and families achieve fully functioning capacity in society, social workers not only act on their clients’ behalf, but also teach their clients how to act for themselves. The instruction may be as simple as getting the client to comprehend the local bus schedule and route map. On the other hand, it may involve conveying good hygiene habits to the mentally ill; teaching organization and priority-setting to a chronic hoarder; or sharing stress management tips with a recovering alcoholic. Whatever the setting, providing information is a key role for the social worker.


Every social worker, regardless of degree, receives training in human psychology. While every case will vary one from the other, many share a common thread of mental dysfunction. This may be mental illness rooted in brain chemistry or simply inability to follow through on responsibilities due to a lifetime of bad habits. Whatever the root cause, the social worker is called upon to identify and treat the client’s maladjusted thinking patterns. In some cases, this may require referral to a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed clinical social worker, the last of which is fully trained in psychotherapy. Whether assistance is required or not, the social worker must see to it that cognitive and emotional problems are being addressed.

Social work requires a strong emotional constitution. Much of the social worker’s time is spent with the isolated and the needy. A barrage of problems can sap the strength of even the sturdy among these professionals. Furthermore, it is not among the highest paying professions: the high-end salaries rarely exceed $50,000. Thus, commitment to helping those in physical, financial and emotional need is necessary to apprehend the rewards this vocation has to offer. One of the fastest growing careers in the United States, social work provides enormous rewards to many practitioners who gain satisfaction from improving the lot of the less fortunate.