What Do Social Workers Do?

Responsibilities of a Social Worker

Social workers are the glue that holds society together. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) there are 700,000 social workers throughout the nation. That means there are about as many social workers as there are police officers.

Social workers stand at the intersection of human behavior as it meets social, cultural, and economic institutions. Social workers do all of the following:

  • Provide counseling and psychotherapy
  • Help clients obtain services
  • Advocate for legislative action
  • Help communities improve their health and social services

That is according to the NASW, which defines the practice of this profession as being the application of social work principles, techniques, or values to any of those important services.

In addition to specialty practice areas like drug addiction, economic justice, the court system, mental health, and adolescents, the NASW breaks down the practice of social work into eight categories:

  • School social work
  • LGBTQ
  • Ethnicity and race
  • Clinical social work
  • Aging
  • Behavioral health
  • Child welfare
  • Health

Naturally the field in which a social worker specializes has a lot of influence on day-to-day activities. However there are some additional ways of breaking down a daily schedule that have more to do with approach than focus.

Learn more about each state’s licensure requirements by visiting state-by-state licensure guide here.

What do social workers do on a daily basis

There are a thousand answers to this question, but perhaps the most basic response begins by distinguishing clinical social workers from non-clinical social workers.

Clinical social workers have a master’s degree at minimum and have passed a national clinical social work examination. This high level of competence is necessary because clinical social workers hold a tremendous amount of responsibility. Throughout a variety of population focuses, clinical social workers diagnose and treat behavioral, mental, and emotional illnesses in their clients. They do this with clients at locales like prisons, hospitals, emergency hotlines, and social services agencies to name just a few.

Non-clinical social workers are grounded in social work principles and apply these in practice at anywhere from the entry-level to advanced. This includes everything from working at schools and conducting intake assessments to setting governmental policies, designing public outreach campaigns, and leading large social services organizations.

The concept of macro social work exists as an advanced level of practice. This branch of social work deals with big-picture issues of policy, leadership, and applied research. Here social workers do things like design proactive social work campaigns and society-level responses to widespread community challenges like addiction, violence, and poverty.

There’s also a large segment of social work that’s academically focused. This involves teaching at colleges and universities as well as conducting research and crunching data.

Who is the primary patient?

At the simplest level social workers help their fellow human beings. There’s the stereotype of a social worker helping a client in their office at a mental health agency. This is an important part of the field, but clients can also be individual students at a middle school, groups of people in a session learning about substance abuse, and communities organizing around important social and political issues.

Sometimes work can be challenging, like dealing with clients who are court-ordered to learn about domestic violence, or organizing against well-funded outside interests who don’t put the best interests of a local community first. It’s not easy to remove a child from an abusive home and put her in foster care.

But as hard as the challenges are, the benefits can be even more gratifying. Making the difference in the life of a single individual can be just as rewarding as seeing long-term progress in a community that collectively replaces a drug epidemic with better-paying jobs and people thinking locally.

Where do social workers primarily work?

The US Department of Labor (DOL) keeps tabs on social work employment both locally and throughout the nation. Its most recent figures detail that of the 328,120 child, family, and school social workers nationwide, 40 percent work for their state or local government. This is followed by just over a quarter who work in individual and family service agencies, and 14 percent who work in K-12 schools.

Of the nation’s 176,110 healthcare social workers, the DOL reports that 35 percent work at hospitals and outpatient care facilities, followed by 13 percent who work at individual and family service agencies, and 12 percent who work with home health care service agencies.

At the leadership level, the DOL reports that of the nation’s 155,800 social and community service mangers, 33 percent work at individual and family service agencies, followed by 19 percent who work for state and local government agencies.

Substance abuse and mental health social workers account for 116,780 professionals by the most recent DOL count. Of these, 24 percent work at outpatient care centers, 14 percent work at individual and family service agencies, and 12 percent work within their local government agencies.