What Is Social Work? (2022)

Social work is a practice-based profession that promotes social change, development, cohesion and the empowerment of people and communities. Social work practice involves the understanding of human development, behavior and the social, economic and cultural institutions and interactions. Social work professionals working with families and institutions have helped to provide and advance the following social impacts:

  • Civil Rights
  • Unemployment Insurance
  • Disability Pay
  • Workers’ Compensation
(Video) What Is Social Work?
  • Reduced Mental Health Stigma
  • Medicaid and Medicare
  • Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention

In the United States, social work has been around for over 100 years, with notable pioneers such as Jane Addams, Frances Perkins, Whitney M. Young, Jr., Harry Hopkins, Dorothy Height and Jeannette Rankin.

3 Levels of Social Work

Generally, there are three levels of social work practice: micro, mezzo and macro social work. At each level, social work professionals provide slightly different services to target populations.

  • Micro Social Work: At the micro level, social workers provide one-on-one, family and small-group services to individuals addressing a wide range of social issues. These may include housing support, substance abuse counseling and mental health therapy.
  • Mezzo Social Work: Social workers who operate at the mezzo level work with groups of people, such as in a school, prison, hospital or neighborhoods. They may help students struggling academically, address substance abuse recovery with prison inmates or help coordinate care for patients who are admitted to hospitals for long-term care.
  • Macro Social Work: Macro-level social work encompasses policy making, research and community based initiatives. Social workers at this level of practice are more likely to focus on and help address larger societal issues like homelessness, substance abuse, housing and more.

Social workers are professionals who aim to enhance overall well-being and help meet basic and complex needs of communities and people. Social workers work with many different populations and types of people, particularly focusing on those who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty.

Depending on their specialty, job title and place of employment, a social worker may be required to participate in legislative processes that often result in the formation of social policies. They lean on social work values and principles, as well as academic research to carry out their work.

Social workers are educated and trained to address social injustices and barriers to their client’s overall wellbeing. Some of these include poverty, unemployment, discrimination and lack of housing. They also support clients and communities who are living with disabilities, substance abuse problems or experience domestic conflicts.

Social workers often fine-tune their practice with a focus on a level of interventions and types of communities they wish to serve. A clinical social worker, for example, focuses on diagnoses, treatments and prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral issues. On the other hand, a social worker may focus on research and development for small or large-scale programs to help the community, like Medicaid.

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Is a career in social work worth it? For you, it could be. Before you settle on any profession, whether it is in social work or a related discipline, consider your personal interests, unique abilities and professional goals. Your career as a social worker should align with these three things. Consider asking yourself these questions to determine if a social work career is worth it for you:

  • Does diversity drive you or is your cultural competence what draws others to you?
  • Do you currently spend your spare time mentoring disadvantaged youth or support children and adolescents who have experienced trauma or abuse at the hands of family members?
  • Are you emotionally resilient, and do you seek out challenges in the workplace, always proposing new solutions?
  • Are you praised for your patience, professionalism and ability to read people?

The job of a social worker is often considered both rewarding and emotionally taxing. Having strong interpersonal skills, exercising empathy and being an effective communicator, listener and critical thinker may contribute to success in this career.

If you do decide to enter the field of social work, you’ll be joining a fast-growing workforce. Employment of social workers is projected to grow 12% from 2020 to 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). By contrast, all occupations are expected to grow 8% in the same decade.

  • You can become a social worker with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree, but independent and more research-oriented roles may require advanced education.
  • A Master of Social Work (MSW), for example, may lead to state licensure to practice independently. There are traditional, hybrid and online MSW programs available.
  • If you already have a BSW, you may apply to advanced standing MSW programs. This type of program can typically be completed in a shorter amount of time, as it assumes that you have already learned social work fundamentals during your BSW.
  • If clinical social work is the path you’re pursuing, you must know what it takes to become a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW). You may pursue a clinical MSW program to further support your LCSW goal. Some states require this pathway and others do not. Be sure to check with your state’s social work licensing requirements.
  • If you’re looking to become a leader in your workplace or the field, then a Doctor of Social Work (DSW) may be a viable option. The DSW holder looks to transition into positions that assess large-scale problems and address social work issues on a grand scale.

The roles of a social worker include many diverse specializations. Here are some common responsibilities of social workers organized by different specialty areas:

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 impairments/barriers.

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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 healthcare and public service systems that coordinate healthcare.

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 healthcare is another service that is offered. Mental health and substance abuse social workers may also participate in outreach and preventative programs that seek to address problems before they become exacerbated.

It isn’t a question of what does a social worker do daily, but rather what doesn’t a social worker do? Day in and day out, social workers can be found in a range of settings helping and supporting those around them.

Social workers can be found within a wide variety of employment settings. Specializations often determine where and how they work. Some spend time in an office, although visiting clients off-site is also common. Those working within the child, school and family positions may experience schedule changes and will generally need to travel more than their healthcare counterparts who tend to be more fixed in their roles.

The field of social work allows for a variety of focus areas dedicated to helping others. You can find dedicated social workers within hospitals, mental health clinics, prisons, military barracks, senior centers, corporations and public social agencies. Out of the public eye, licensed social workers can also set up private practices that specialize in relationship problems, personality disorders or mental illnesses.

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Learn more on how to become a social worker.

There are numerous possibilities for social work careers at the macro, micro and mezzo levels. Some opportunities include:

  • Military Social Worker. A military social worker educates and works with members of the armed forces and their families to help them with the unique challenges they face in their line of work. Through counseling and support, military social workers can navigate the complexity of working with both active-duty and civilian clients who are part of the military.
  • Community Social Worker. Instead of working with individual clients, a community social worker assesses a group as a whole and implements measures and changes for the betterment of everyone. Community social workers plan for and administer new programs, or work on allocating resources to the community.
  • Mental Health Social Worker. Mental illness can present many challenges for people and families. Those living with mental health disorders often need additional support and attention that social workers can provide. A mental health social worker spends their time assessing and treating people with mental health issues and providing feedback and assistance to address these behavioral and emotional issues.
  • School Social Worker. Most primary and secondary schools have a social worker who is the voice and advocate for their students. A school social worker works directly with the school, teachers, parents and staff to make sure students can thrive inside and outside of the classroom setting. These social workers develop relationships with families, recommend community resources and extend support for mental health services and crisis management.

Each social worker employs a diverse set of skills to do their work. But as we discussed earlier, there are certain skills that can be particularly useful to those in the field. Below are some examples:

  • Empathy. This skill enables the social worker to put themselves in their client’s shoes. Having empathy can offer a social worker a deeper understanding of their client’s problems.
  • Organization. With the many daily responsibilities they have, social workers need to be extremely organized. The amount of paperwork and caseloads can add up from networking, calls, billing and organizing services for everyone.
  • Communication. Social workers should be clear, concise and transparent with clients and their families or care providers, as well as with their colleagues. Strong communication can help to mitigate misunderstandings and break down other communication barriers.
  • Problem-Solving. No case is the same and a social worker is often working hard to find the best solution in a difficult situation. A good problem solver can help clients obtain the best services and support needed.
  • Patience. As a social worker, you will work with diverse clients. Maintaining patience and understanding clients from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds is a core component of social work practice.


Becoming a social worker is a financial commitment. Luckily, there are social work scholarships available to help students with the cost of earning a degree. Aside from scholarships, there are also student loans or grants available to help cover the cost.

The salary of a social worker can range depending on the field, tenure, and education achieved. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for a social worker in 2020 was $51,760, with the highest 10% of social workers making more than $85,820.

You can reach out to healthcare providers, your health insurance company or search a referral service/national professional organization like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) or the American Board of Examiners in Clinical Social Work (ABCSW).

As of 2020, the employment of social workers data from the BLS estimates that there are 715,600 social workers employed in the United States. The most recent BLS data suggests that by 2030, there could be more than 800,000 social workers.

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A social worker assists people within a wide range of settings, from mental health clinics to schools and hospitals. Social workers can work with individuals or within large communities or organizations and assist with a variety of ailments from addiction treatment to chronic illness and child support services.

The impact of a social worker goes beyond just helping people in need. From promoting core values of compassion and service to others, to framing research within the field, to informing policy, social workers actively address and stand up for human rights and social injustices. They strengthen individual people and communities and try to give voice to the unheard.

Information on this page was last retrieved in February 2022.


What do you mean by social work? ›

Social work is a profession in which trained professionals are devoted to helping vulnerable people and communities work through challenges they face in everyday life.

What is the main role of social worker? ›

Social workers serve individuals, groups, and communities by helping people address the problems they face in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers, who must earn a master of social work degree and pursue state licensure, can diagnose and treat mental illness, behavior issues, and emotional problems.

What is social functioning and why is it important in social work? ›

Social functioning defines an individual's interactions with their environment and the ability to fulfill their role within such environments as work, social activities, and relationships with partners and family.

Who is father of social work? ›

1. Jane Addams (1860 – 1935) Considered by many to be the founder (or a co-founder) of modern social work itself, Jane Addam's name is permanently cemented in the history of social work.

What is introduction to social work? ›

It examines the historical development of the profession of social work; introduces the profession's values, ethics, and practice principles; examines the major interventive methods of social work practice; identifies the generalist base of social work practice; and explores the social service delivery networks which ...

What are 5 duties of a social worker? ›

For each client, the tasks you'll complete in the course of your work with them will fall into most, if not all, of the five categories — assessment, treatment, securing resources, monitoring improvement, and being an advocate — though their experience within those tasks, and yours, will be completely individualized.

What is an example of a social worker? ›

A few examples include child welfare social workers, school social workers, and probation officers. These professionals may also work in healthcare settings like clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes. Social workers who work for colleges or universities often provide emotional counseling, therapy, or career counseling.

What tools do social workers use? ›

10 Tools for Your Career as a Social Work Professional
  • Communication. ...
  • Organizational Skills. ...
  • Boundaries. ...
  • A Code of Ethics. ...
  • Personal and Professional Support. ...
  • Persuasion and Coordination. ...
  • Patience. ...
  • Professionalism.
Mar 26, 2019

What are the four purposes of social work? ›

The purpose of social work is to enable children, adults, families, groups and communities to function, participate and develop in society.

What are the two main types of social workers? ›

  • Child and Family Social Worker. Do you have a heart for children and families? ...
  • Community Social Worker. ...
  • Criminal Justice Social Worker. ...
  • Disability Social Worker. ...
  • Environmental Social Worker. ...
  • Gerontological Social Worker. ...
  • International Social Worker. ...
  • Medical Social Worker.

What is social work PDF? ›

Abstract. Social work is a field of study in social sciences. It is mainly concerned with the study of social problems and social interventions. Social work sets to study individuals, groups, community and institutions and these remains as the academic boundary of the subject.

Why is social work important essay? ›

Social work helps people to deal with personal and social problems so that people can overcome or adjust to any personal difficulties. Social work is a combination of social stability and social change. Social stability promotes individual and social welfare and social change seek to change negative aspects of society.

What is social work course? ›

It helps students understand the different units of society, such as families and communities, the problems and issues that surround them and the possible solutions that can empower and improve their way of living.


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