What does a social worker do, exactly? There are hundreds of web pages that detail, in very official-sounding language, the job descriptions of social workers. But most of them don’t really give you a clear idea of what it is a social worker does all day. Many of them will use vague phrases like “service delivery” and “clinical intervention” and “strengths-based perspective.” But what do those words mean? What is that a social worker actually does every day?
To clear things up, here are some activities that a social worker will actually do.
Social Workers Spend Time with their “Population”
We’ve mentioned elsewhere on the site that social workers usually focus on a specific “population,” or a group of people who have a similar problem. Populations can be pretty distinct: some social workers are employed to help children who are in abusive families; some social workers help homeless people find employment and housing; some social workers help people addicted to drugs gain sobriety. Different populations have different needs, so a social worker’s day will be very different depending on the population s/he works with.
Here are a few examples of how a social worker may spend time with his or her population:
- A social worker at a child protective services agency may spend time with the kids in their caseload, and speak with them about school, or their parents, or the other kids in their neighborhood. Depending on the function of the agency, they may play board games or participate in some kind of play therapy.
- A social worker in a psychiatric facility may “make the rounds” and make sure that patients are taking their medication, or getting along with other patients. S/he will spend time with patients in the hospital and get to know them, and offer emotional support in a group therapy session or a group activity.
- A prison social worker may meet with clients for a catch-up session, and to make sure they are attending classes, or going to therapy sessions, or complying with their work-release guidelines.
- Sometimes the social worker will stay at his or her agency and meet with her clients; sometimes s/he’ll go “in the field” and meet clients at their homes, or wherever they’re found. If a social worker is working with homeless adults, he or she may go to local parks or places where homeless people congregate; if the social worker is in charge of helping people when they’re admitted to emergency rooms, s/he may be called to different hospitals throughout the day. Travel can be a big part of a social worker’s job, and very often the agency will pay for gasoline and other expenses.
Social Workers Spend Time with Their Colleagues
It may seem obvious, but it is worth mentioning: interaction with others are a very big part of a social worker’s day. During any given day, a social worker will have dozens of interactions with clients–and, a social worker will have tons of interactions with other social workers.
Social work can be incredibly stressful. It can be emotionally taxing to hear about the injustices and tragedies that occur to people every day. And while a lot of the people who a social worker interacts with are very grateful for the social worker’s assistance, some other people are downright mean. It can be very stressful to work with people who are aggressive, or angry, or dismissive. Interacting with other social workers who understand the stresses of the job and who can offer support is a really important part of the profession. Many social workers report that they make life-long friends at their agencies, and while there are always some people at an agency who aren’t going to get along, the “team spirit” and support that social workers offer each other is a big part of the career.
Social Workers Do a LOT of Paperwork
It ain’t romantic, but it’s the truth. Social workers do a lot of paperwork. It isn’t the main part of their job, but it’s a big, big factor. People new to the field are always a little surprised by that. But if you think about it, it makes sense—social workers usually work in teams, and everyone on the team needs to know what’s going on.
Here’s a hypothetical example: Let’s say you are a social worker in a long-term psychiatric unit. On Monday morning, you get to work, and your boss tells you that a man named Len Burnham was admitted to the hospital on Saturday. You’ve met him before—Len suffers from schizophrenia, and has been homeless for the last few months, so he ends up in the hospital every now and then. Your boss tells you that he needs a place to stay, but that he’s been kicked out of some of the local shelters for getting into arguments with some of the other residents. Len is being discharged from the hospital in a few hours, and you’re short on time–how do you figure out the best place for him to go?
You could ask Len which shelters he’s been kicked out of, but, due to his illness, he’s not always able to understand others or express himself. So what do you do?
This is where paperwork comes in. Len has been to your hospital before, and so you know that another social worker has recorded the details of his stay. You go the file cabinet or use the hospital’s software to look up “Burnham, Len.” You see that over the last five years, he has been kicked out of five of the seven shelters in town. He’s been to a local Orange County Treatment Center. You also find out from Len’s paperwork that he was in the military and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and sometimes gets aggressive when is put into enclosed spaces. You know that of the two remaining shelters left in town, one has private rooms, and the other has rooms that sleep four people. Knowing the Len might not do well in the cramped room, you call the shelter with private rooms, and see if you can get Len a place to stay.
A social worker is kind of like a detective, in that way: you gather information, and then figure out the best course of action. So, paperwork: it’s a big part of the job, and it’s important, because it gives you the information you need to help your clients.
Social Workers Continue Their Education Both at Work and On Their Own
This is another thing that surprises people when they begin a career in social work: you never stop learning. People are continually finding out about new ways to help people, and on any given day as a social worker, you’ll have opportunities to find new ways to help people. There are always new therapies to use, new methods of treating illness, and new medications to learn about. A social worker who is employed as a marriage counseling Orange County specialist, for example, will be reading about the newest couples’ counseling techniques.
That can be a burden–the idea that there will always be new information that you’ll have to absorb–but it can also be a positive. It is exciting to think that as you get older, you will get better and better at what you do.
Many social workers choose to get more schooling by returning for a master’s degree, or even a doctorate, by becoming an Orange County child psychologist. But *all* social workers have “continuing education” programs that they have to complete at their agencies. The programs are usually an hour or two, once a month or maybe a couple times a year.
Social Workers Have Strange Adventures–Sometimes Exciting, Sometimes Scary
Many people who have corporate jobs or who work in an office look back at the end of a day, and can’t really point to anything interesting that has happened. Maybe they emailed some people, had a meeting, faxed some stuff, or had lunch with a coworker. Nothing memorable; nothing exciting.
This will not be the case if your are a social worker.
For most social workers, something memorable happens *every single day.* It can be anything—a patient in psychiatric hospital tries to break out and run away; a child in a foster care home rebels against his authority figures; a senior citizen at a day program has an anxiety attack and starts freaking out. You never, ever know what’s going to happen when you start your day. There’s no real typical day for a licensed therapist Orange County.
Some of it is bad, and can get scary. Certain populations, such as those with mental health disorders or those with severe abuse in their past, can act impulsively. That can be frightening, and you have to be careful.
But a lot of it is pretty wonderful, too—one of you clients may have a big personal breakthrough about one of his relationships, or your client may celebrate a full year of sobriety, or your client may get a job after being homeless for many years. That’s good stuff, and it’s stuff that you celebrate. It’s the kind of thing you feel good about after you go home.
Either way, you will never be bored. And if you are, you won’t be bored for long.
Social Workers Have to Make Ethical Decisions
Social workers are called to make decisions that will often affect someone’s life in significant ways. And, very often, a social worker job description will include having to choose between two options, and neither option is a good one.
For instance, a social worker who protects children from abusive parents may be ordered by the court to enroll a child in an after-school program. There are only two programs available, and the social worker may know that both programs include kids who are physically abusive. What does she do? Both options are lousy, so what’s the right decision?
This is again where training and education become very important—very often, the state has laws that clearly dictate what to do in certain situations. But it is frequently the case where a social worker has to make extremely tough decisions, where none of the options available seem positive.
Social Workers Remember Their Victories
Being a social worker can be draining (have we mentioned that already?). You spend most of your day with people who are having a very tough time in life. And that is why it is so important to remember the instances where you were able to truly help someone. Any time you are able to make a difference in someone’s life, that’s a gift to you. That’s a victory.
Every day, social workers have the opportunity to change someone’s entire life for the better. It may be in a big way—may you help a drug addict stop smoking crack, or you help a kid find a family that is going to love him–or maybe it’s small. Maybe you listen to someone who doesn’t have anybody to talk to. Maybe you play a board game with a kid whose father is in jail. Maybe you listen to a old person talk about “Back in the day, when I was young…” Every day, you make an effort. And some of your victories are big, and some of your victories are small.
Either way, you collect those experiences. You remember them when you need a lift and you’re feeling like you’re not making a difference. Because no matter how rough a day you have, you can’t point to those victories and say, “I did that. That person who is better now–I had a hand in that. That was me. I helped.”
What Does a Social Worker Do?
So if that’s the question — what does a social worker do? That’s the answer: they help those who are in need.