What Does a Social Worker Do? [2024 Guide]

Ready to start your journey?

If you are considering a college major in social work, it’s common to ask, “What does a social worker do?”

What Does a Social Worker Do

The more you know about the responsibilities of a social worker, the better prepared you will be to decide if this is the career path for you. You may also be equipped to choose a particular type of social work on which you would like to focus.

Editorial Listing ShortCode:

Social workers are dedicated professionals who make a difference for others, and learning about social work roles can be the first step into entering this fulfilling career field.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

social worker comforting a child

Social workers help people function in society to the best of their ability. They work with groups or individuals who can benefit from support, whether during a particularly trying time or on an ongoing basis.

Social workers may help people in schools, prisons, hospitals, the court system, rehabilitation facilities, or group homes. They can also reach people through social service agencies, community organizations, and mental health practices.

Editorial Listing ShortCode:

Some social workers spend most of their time in office settings. Others travel between clients’ homes or various locations, such as schools or community sites.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a social worker’s responsibilities may include:

  • Advocating for funding and policies that can improve people’s lives
  • Conducting assessments
  • Connecting clients to local support services
  • Educating clients about health, safety, and wellbeing
  • Maintaining case records
  • Protecting children or others in unsafe situations
  • Providing therapy
  • Responding during personal crises or community-wide disasters

To work as a therapist, a social worker is typically required to hold a master’s degree and be licensed as a clinical social worker. Licensing regulations vary between states.

Social Worker Educational Pathways and Licensure

licensed social worker working on her laptop

According to the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), social work degrees are an important step toward becoming licensed as a social worker.

ASWB advocates for state licensure for anyone in the role of social worker. In practice, though, rules about social worker employment vary among states. Some states have credentialing options, such as licenses, for people with a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW).

Other states allow social workers at the BSW level to practice without official licensure. They may license only people with Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees in the field. Licensure is particularly important for employment as a clinical social worker.

To become licensed, it’s necessary to earn a degree in the field—which may be a BSW or an MSW, depending on the rules in your area. The ASWB says that you will also pass an exam and likely earn supervised work hours.

Micro, Mezzo, and Macro Social Work Practice

Micro Social Work

Social work is a broad field, so it’s often classified into three different levels of practice. As you consider a career in social work, you can think about whether you’d prefer to work with individuals, with large groups, or at the policy-making level.

Micro Social Work

Most social workers do their jobs at the micro level, working with individuals and small groups of people.

Caseworkers and counselors typically fall into this category. Whether they work in private practices, community agencies, or schools, they make a difference through their one-on-one work with people.

Mezzo Social Work

Social workers at the mezzo level are often supervisors who oversee a team of social workers, typically in organizational settings like hospitals or prisons. Others coordinate community programs, services, or initiatives.

Some mezzo social workers provide consultation services. College social work educators can also be classified in this group.

Macro Social Work

social worker researching online

Some people with a social work background focus on research or public policy. They are considered macro social workers because their goal is to make a difference at the societal level.

Editorial Listing ShortCode:

They may use their social work expertise to advocate for laws or funding. They might also analyze data, write grants, or lead advocacy organizations.

Different Types of Social Workers

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), there are many specialty areas within the field of social work. Here are some common ones:

  • Addiction. Social workers can provide assessments, therapy, and other interventions for people who are struggling with addiction or moving through recovery.
  • Clinical. According to the Clinical Social Work Association (CSWA), clinical social workers are licensed professionals who provide mental health therapy to clients.
  • Courts and criminal justice. Some social workers operate within the legal field to provide expert testimony, serve as mediators, or assess criminal offenders.
  • Gerontology. Social workers can help aging adults and their families go through this phase of life with comfort, dignity, and as much independence as possible.
  • Medical. There are many roles for social workers in healthcare, such as coordinating transition plans for hospital releases and offering support during seasons of rehabilitation.
  • Military. Some social workers specialize in helping active-duty military personnel or veterans with issues such as housing, healthcare, and mental health.
  • School. Providing support to students and staff, school social workers have a presence in educational settings to assist with counseling, accommodation plans, family communication, and crisis response.
  • Social justice. People in this branch of social work advocate for safety and equity for all people, whether at home or around the world.
  • Supervision. Experienced social workers may lead teams of social workers or serve as supervisors for people earning practice hours on their way to licensure.
  • Youth and family. Social workers who assist children and young adults may work as caseworkers, therapists, policy advocates, or program coordinators.

The process of how to become a social worker will depend on what type of social worker you plan to be. For example, clinical social workers usually need a master’s degree before they can become licensed.

Social Worker Careers & Salaries

Social Worker Careers & Salaries

Social workers may work in schools, hospitals, substance abuse treatment facilities, mental health practices, or other settings.

In a social services agency, a social worker could be an assistant, a caseworker, a specialist, a program coordinator, a manager, or a director. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median social worker salary is $55,350 per year, and the median for community and social service jobs in general is $49,380.

Careers Annual Median Salaries
Social and Community Service Managers $74,240
Social Workers (All Other) $61,420
Healthcare Social Workers $60,280
Health Education Specialists $59,990
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists $59,860
Marriage and Family Therapists $56,570
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers $51,240
Child, Family, and School Social Workers $50,820
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $49,710
Social and Human Service Assistants $38,520

Some social workers do jobs with “social work” in the title, and others hold jobs in adjacent areas. For instance, some people with a background in social work can also serve as correctional counselors, marriage therapists, or health educators. For some roles, additional formal or on-the-job training may be required.

What Is Social Work?

volunteers doing social work

Social work is a field that is dedicated to supporting people in need and bettering communities. People face all sorts of challenges in their lives, including poverty, addiction, mental health conditions, disabilities, and grief. Social workers can help make a difference in all of those situations as well as others.

Social work is committed to social welfare—the good of individuals and communities. People in this field may work one-on-one with people facing challenges, or they may lead groups or advocate for more just policies. Through any of these approaches, they strive to make a difference for others.

Where Do Social Workers Work?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the top employers of social workers are individual and family service organizations, ambulatory healthcare services, hospitals, and government agencies. Within government, there is a need for social workers at the local, state, and federal levels—such as in prisons and social service agencies. Some social workers are employed by K-12 schools or universities.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, school social workers help students succeed both academically and personally. They can help develop accommodation plans, visit families at home, coordinate school programs, and meet with students in need of support or counseling.

What Does a Social Worker Do in a Hospital?

hospital social worker assisting a patient

Medical procedures and hospital stays can be stressful, so hospital social workers help patients navigate their time in the healthcare system. The goal of providing this type of support is to help improve people’s overall wellbeing.

Hospital social workers often connect patients to beneficial services, whether within the hospital or in the larger community. For example, patients may need financial assistance, home healthcare services, or a stay in a rehab facility.

Hospital social workers also have conversations with patients and family members. They can serve as a listening ear or offer a layman’s explanation of doctors’ diagnoses or treatment plans.

Is Social Work a Good Career?

social worker visiting a woman

Yes, social work is a good career for many professionals. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that social workers earn a median annual salary of $55,350. Individual earnings vary, but most people in this field earn between $36,600 and $87,300 per year.

Social work is also a growing field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs in social work will increase by 7% over the next decade, which is faster than average. Particularly in-demand areas will include school, healthcare, addiction, and mental health social work.

While social work can be challenging at times, it can also be very rewarding to help people through difficult situations.

Becoming a Social Worker

student getting a degree in social work

Now that you’ve explored answers to the question “What do social workers do?” you might be ready to get started in this line of work.

First, it’s essential to earn a college degree in this field. In a social work program, you can learn about working with people and providing helpful support. You’ll also learn about policies and organizations that aim to assist others.

You can earn your social work credentials from an accredited college either online or on campus. Today is the day to start your search for a school where you can receive a quality education in social work.

Ready to start your journey?
Joy is pursuing her Ph.D. in Public Policy & Foreign Policy at Liberty University and holds a Master of Business Administration in Strategic Management from Amberton University, as well as a Bachelor's in Business Administration from Columbia College. With over 20 years of experience navigating online degrees and courses, Joy's focus is helping non-traditional students find accelerated degree options and credit for prior learning opportunities.