What Is Social Work?

What Is Social Work?

Social work is a diverse field and encompasses many things. However, social work isn’t actually complicated: it’s work that helps marginalized individuals deal with any problems they might be facing.

A clinical social worker will have additional skills and educational standards to diagnose and treat various issues, including mental illness, behavioral problems, and emotional distress.

Much of early social work was handled by private organizations, formed to help with poverty and immigration. These individuals were untrained but tried to improve both child welfare and tenement housing.


It wasn’t until the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal that the government truly began to invest in social work, slowly making it what we know it as today. Now, social work is regulated by the government to ensure certain standards are met.

What Is a Social Worker?

A social worker is a person in social work whose goal is to help those individuals who need help the most. However, there are different kinds of social workers, and each type will specialize in another field.

Even social workers in the same field but who work for different organizations may have various daily tasks. Some may try to improve social work policies through active involvement in the legislature, while others may work solely with individuals who face injustice or need professional help.

No matter what field they are in, each social worker will have specific training to help them in their niche. For example, some social workers specifically assist anyone who needs to find social housing. They’ll need a unique knowledge base of local and national laws that other social workers may not have.

Others may specifically work with people suffering from substance abuse, and they too will have their unique skill set to best aid their clients.

Even within a field, social workers may have unique niches, such as focusing on specific substance abuse. Some might help find social housing for people in need or newly arrived immigrants.

What Does a Social Worker Do? 

Generally speaking, social workers aim to help vulnerable or marginalized people with whatever challenges they may be facing. The most common field for social workers is in child protective services, but that’s not the only social work niche. For example, clinical social workers work in a medical capacity where they can legally diagnose and treat different disorders or issues.

Some specific tasks a social worker may have, depending on their experience and role, might be:

  • Identifying their clients’ most pressing needs
  • Determining a support network for their client
  • Assist clients in facing any difficulties they have
  • Develop ways to meet clients’ needs
  • Handle emergencies and crises
  • Ensure clients’ lives have improved
  • Address any mental health issues


Each day may look different for a social worker. Monday may be spent meeting with new clients to determine what their needs are. Tuesday may involve a home visit to a client to determine if there is any abuse in their household.

A social worker’s job is dynamic, but it boils down to helping people as best they can with the tools they have. Sometimes, that may mean creating new tools, programs, or legislation to address clients’ issues.

Where Do Social Workers Work?

Because social workers have such a diverse field, you can find them in many different employment settings. However, most social workers will spend the bulk of their time in an office-like setting.


That office may be in a government building, a school, a hospital, or a typical office. Social workers may also make trips to a client’s home, or they might have to work in multiple office locations, such as each campus across an entire school district.

Of course, a social worker may also be assigned to a hospital, prison, mental health clinic, a military base, a senior community center, a specific corporation, or even to a family situation. It boils down to their particular experience, studies, and personal preference.

This doesn’t take private social workers into account. They may have their own practice to help clients overcome personal issues, from mental illness to relationship counseling.

Social workers also will be expected to work long hours. Often, they will have to be on-call or work through weekends, holidays, or late evenings to ensure their clients’ wellness. 

Should You Become a Social Worker?

Being a social worker can be a challenging but rewarding career path. If you think this may be the right vocation for you, you first need to understand what it takes to become a social worker.

You need to determine if you have a strong drive to help people, coupled with plenty of patience and compassion. If you feel you do, then it’s time to look into the schooling involved.

A typical social worker only needs a bachelor’s degree in social work. However, if you want to become a clinical social worker, you will need a master’s degree and at least two years of supervised clinical experience. Afterward, you’ll need to get a license from the state you plan to work in.

Fortunately, there are scholarships and grants available to those who need financial assistance but want to enter the social work field. 

Different Career Paths in Social Work 

As mentioned, there are different types of social workers who have various specialties. 


The social worker programs that are at the forefront of the field are:

  • School Social Workers: A school social worker may work with teachers, staff, parents, and students, but their focus will be on the well-being of students.
  • Community Social Workers: These social workers work with an entire community to develop programs to improve the lives of everyone.
  • Senior Care Social Workers: These are social workers who may work at a senior center to monitor the mental health of the seniors.
  • Military Social Workers: A military social worker assists both military personnel and their families in overcoming any difficulties they may encounter.
  • Mental Health Social Workers: A social worker who specializes in mental health may work out of a hospital, private practice, or individually at a client’s home to help them overcome any emotional difficulties they face.

Skills Every Social Worker Needs

Social work is a sensitive and complex pathway that requires a range of skills. Anyone in the field of social work will have to leverage these qualities to effectively deliver goals and fulfill responsibilities. In particular, social workers can benefit from the following attributes:


  • Active listening: Having this ability is essential since it can help a social worker to identify and process the needs of a client. 
  • Communication: This skill encompasses both verbal and non-verbal communication. Through strong communication, a social worker can overcome barriers or misunderstandings and be a capable advocate for their client.
  • Critical thinking: Being able to analyze a situation is key for a social worker. They are often faced with the need to evaluate and problem-solve an issue using observation and evidence.
  • Empathy: Having empathy can better allow a social worker to relate to and understand their clients’ emotional state and experiences from their points-of-view. 
  • Patience: Social workers often deal with a wide range of circumstances and contexts. Patience can be a valuable ally for social workers as they navigate complex cases that could be undermined by a hasty decision.

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