What a social worker does each day depends on where he or she works and his or her level of education. The services they provide vary widely. Direct-service social workers generally help address everyday problems from finding work or applying for government aid, whereas clinical social workers (licensed clinical social workers) generally help address mental health problems. Because their services are rather wide-ranging, they may be employed in a variety of settings including government agencies, nonprofits, schools, and hospitals.
Direct-Service and Clinical Social Workers
The different types of social workers often do very different things each day. Although all work to help people improve their lives in some way, the services they can provide often differ. The title held by a social worker can vary in different countries and even among states in the US, but two of the most common types are direct-service social workers and licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs).
Direct-service social workers help people deal with the challenges in their day-to-day lives. The exact services that they provide depends on where they work, but this professional often works to find a client's strengths and weaknesses and develop a plan to achieve his or her goals. This can involve helping someone deal with a financial crisis, a housing emergency, or an expected medical diagnosis. They often work with people in crisis situations, and then follow up with them to make sure that the situation has improved.
Licensed clinical social workers are specially trained to provide mental health services to clients. They work with clients to diagnose and treat mental or emotional problems, and often provide one-on-one, family, and group therapy. An LCSW may provide referrals for other services, such as counselors who specialize in particular types of treatment or social programs that can help the client in other parts of his or her life. This professional must usually have a master's degree and several years of clinical experience before he or she can be licensed.
Helping People Find and Apply for Social Services
Some social workers are employed to help people navigate the social services available to them. They do this both by giving advice and by helping people find resources to improve their lives. This type of social worker has access to information about job training programs, job counseling services, and daycare opportunities, all of which can help a client get and keep a job. He or she can also help the client get access to personal counseling or drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs if needed. People who are having trouble making ends meet may be directed to reduced price or low income housing and food assistance programs.
These workers often work as a motivating force to help people become emotionally and financially stable so they can support themselves. They may tell their clients what programs they are eligible for, guide them through the application process, and keep them moving forward to improve their lives. A social worker might work with an unemployed single parent to apply for food assistance, for example, then set up job training so that he or she has a better chance of finding a job, and help the parent find subsidize child care while he or she is at work.
Protecting and Helping Children
In other settings, a social worker might work for an organization that protects children, often through a school or a government agency like Child Protective Services in the US. He or she may be required to observe children in their home setting and regularly monitor those who are facing difficult family situations. This could lead to a recommendation for family counseling or, in dangerous or abusive homes, that children be removed. The social worker may need to find foster care placement for children removed from their homes. Social workers can also help reunify families once the dangerous conditions have been addressed.
Social workers may also give testimony in court about their work. They may be required to testify about dangerous or unsafe conditions that would allow for the removal of children, for example, or that a parent who has lost his or her children due to abuse or neglect has now made sufficient progress to be reunified with a child.
Often, at least one social worker is employed in a school district. He or she may counsel children, assess the needs of impoverished families, help bridge the gap between parents who are non-native speakers of English and the school system, or make suggestions regarding individualized education plans (IEPs) for children with disabilities. The social worker may also conduct preliminarily investigations into allegations of parental abuse, as well as any claims of teacher or administrative abuse of children.
Health Care Assistance
A social worker can also be a valuable part of a patient's health care team; hospital social workers work directly with patients or families to help them address certain needs. For instance, if a child is born with a severe and disabling illness, a social worker can find temporary housing so parents can stay with the child, and work with the family to make sure they understand the nature of care required when the child comes home. He or she can help the parents apply for any programs that may help them to care for the child, such as special insurance or Social Security in the US. They take some of the burden off the parents in a situation like this, so parents can focus on care of their child. Similarly, social workers who work with the elderly in hospital settings may counsel patients or their children on resources available for long-term care as needed.
Social workers can also be a valuable part of creating social policy and laws. They participate in think tanks to help find solutions to societal problems, including issues with the homeless, poverty, child abuse, or sexual abuse. They can help create or lobby for new laws, and advise governments on ways to better the lives of all people.
Most social workers have at least a bachelor's degree, and many have master's degrees in social work and have gone through additional training to become licensed. There are a variety of certifications and licenses that a social worker may earn, and these often depend on where the person is living; in the US, most states require a license or other certification. A licensed clinical social worker, for example, must be trained in mental health therapy and crisis intervention, among other treatments, and may perform one-on-one counseling with clients. A direct-service social worker, on the other hand, is not trained to provide mental health therapy.
Finding a Social Worker
People who need assistance can usually find a social worker by asking at a government social services department or an organization that specializes in the particular problem the person is having. If a person needs help deciding on the next steps for an aging parent, for example, most hospitals have a social work department that can help. Many communities have nonprofit organizations dedicated to specific causes, and one of these groups may have a social worker on staff or be able to direct a person in need to the right place. These organizations often have websites as well, where they may list LCSWs and other resources in a local area.
In some cases, a social worker may contact a person directly, particularly for issues related to children. If a child is having behavioral problems at school, for example, the school's social worker may contact the child's parent or guardian so that they can work together to help the student. In a hospital, someone from the social work department may approach a patient or his family to help them deal with a difficult diagnosis.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Many jobs are available to a social worker, depending on the areas in which he or she is trained. It is important to understand that this work can be very demanding and emotionally challenging, however. Many social workers complain of caseloads that are impossible to handle appropriately, a lack of resources for people in need of them, and fairly low pay. This is especially true for those employed by government agencies, where need for these employees often exceeds funding.
The most successful social workers often have a true desire to help others; otherwise, the pressures of the job may be too much to handle. Social work can be a difficult and stressful career field, as it usually means working with people who are struggling in some part of their lives. Many people do find it to be a rewarding career, however, especially those who have a genuine longing to do good in their communities, who have a strong work ethic, and who are willing to stay up to date on laws, trends, and research in the field.