What is Social Work?

Social work is a profession oriented towards helping people in need. Social work practice includes helping people obtain tangible services, undertaking counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families or groups, supporting communities to provide or improve social and health services, and participating in the formation or change of social policy.

The International Federation of Social Workers defines social work as “a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people.”

Social workers are unique in that they approach a problem from many different angles, including the individual and the societal, the psychological and the political. Common services offered to clients include counseling, therapy, education, as well as connecting clients with appropriate public or private resources.

Types of Social Workers

The profession of social work includes many diverse specializations. Three of the most common types of social workers include:

  1. Child, family and school social workers help children, school staff and family members resolve problems. In some instances, this may mean placing children in foster care. Child, family and school social workers may also connect struggling parents with resources to help better care for and raise their children. They work alongside students and teachers to address bullying, learning disabilities and other problems. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, child, family and school social workers are the most common kind of social worker.
  1. Medical and public health social workers help the seriously ill and those with chronic health problems to find adequate care, access public resources like Medicare and Medicaid, or locate services such as in-home nursing care. They often play a critical role in supporting clients as they navigate the numerous health care and public service systems that coordinate healthcare. Medical and public health social workers also offer counseling to clients and their families who are coping with chronic or terminal illness. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be a rapidly growing demand for healthcare social workers in coming years.
  1. Mental health and substance abuse social workers support people with mental health or substance abuse problems. Therapy is one common intervention used by social workers to help clients address these problems. Assisting people to find financially accessible rehabilitative programs or long-term mental health care represents another service that is offered. Mental health and substance abuse social workers may also participate in outreach and preventative programs, which seek to address problems before they become exacerbated. Mental health and substance abuse is also a fast growing social work specialization.
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Where Do Social Workers Work?

Social workers can be found in a wide range of employment settings. The specialization of a social worker will determine where and how they work. Child, school and family social workers will experience schedule changes more often and generally need to drive more than healthcare social workers, who tend to be more fixed in their roles.

Many social workers spend time in an office, although visiting clients off-site is also common. Schools, hospitals, mental health clinics, prisons, military barracks, senior centers, corporations and public social agencies are all settings where social workers may be found.

Licensed social workers can also set up their own private practices and operate independently. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States is home to more than 700,000 social workers and the demand for social workers is on the increase. Read more about how to become a social worker.

Further Reading