What Social Workers Do
Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives.
Social workers work in a variety of settings, including mental health clinics, schools, child welfare and human service agencies, hospitals, settlement houses, community development corporations, and private practices. They generally work full time and may need to work evenings, weekends, and holidays.
How to Become a Social Worker
Although some social workers only need a bachelor’s degree in social work, clinical social workers must have a master’s degree and 2 years of post-master’s experience in a supervised clinical setting. Clinical social workers must also be licensed in the state in which they practice.
The median annual wage for social workers was $50,470 in May 2019.
Overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 13 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. Employment growth will vary by specialization.
Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.
Social workers typically do the following:
- Identify people and communities in need of help
- Assess clients’ needs, situations, strengths, and support networks to determine their goals
- Help clients adjust to changes and challenges in their lives, such as illness, divorce, or unemployment
- Research, refer, and advocate for community resources, such as food stamps, childcare, and healthcare to assist and improve a client’s well-being
- Respond to crisis situations such as child abuse and mental health emergencies
- Follow up with clients to ensure that their situations have improved
- Maintain case files and records
- Develop and evaluate programs and services to ensure that basic client needs are met
- Provide psychotherapy services
Social workers help people cope with challenges in their lives. They help with a wide range of situations, such as adopting a child or being diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Advocacy is an important aspect of social work. Social workers advocate or raise awareness with and on behalf of their clients and the social work profession on local, state, and national levels.
Some social workers—referred to as bachelor’s social workers (BSW)—work with groups, community organizations, and policymakers to develop or improve programs, services, policies, and social conditions. This focus of work is referred to as macro social work.
Social workers who are licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders are called clinical social workers (CSW) or licensed clinical social workers (LCSW). They provide individual, group, family, and couples therapy; they work with clients to develop strategies to change behavior or cope with difficult situations; and they refer clients to other resources or services, such as support groups or other mental health professionals. Clinical social workers can develop treatment plans with the client, doctors, and other healthcare professionals and may adjust the treatment plan if necessary based on their client’s progress. They may work in a variety of specialties. Clinical social workers who have not completed two years of supervised work are often called master’s social workers (MSW).
The following are examples of types of social workers:
Child and family social workers protect vulnerable children and help families in need of assistance. They help families find housing or services, such as childcare, or apply for benefits, such as food stamps. They intervene when children are in danger of neglect or abuse. Some help arrange adoptions, locate foster families, or work to reunite families.
School social workers work with teachers, parents, and school administrators to develop plans and strategies to improve students’ academic performance and social development. Students and their families are often referred to social workers to deal with problems such as aggressive behavior, bullying, or frequent absences from school.
Healthcare social workers help patients understand their diagnosis and make the necessary adjustments to their lifestyle, housing, or healthcare. For example, they may help people make the transition from the hospital back to their homes and communities. In addition, they may provide information on services, such as home healthcare or support groups, to help patients manage their illness or disease. Social workers help doctors and other healthcare professionals understand the effects that diseases and illnesses have on patients’ mental and emotional health. Some healthcare social workers specialize in geriatric social work, hospice and palliative care, or medical social work.
Mental health and substance abuse social workers help clients with mental illnesses or addictions. They provide information on services, such as support groups and 12-step programs, to help clients cope with their illness. Many clinical social workers function in these roles as well.
Social workers held about 713,200 jobs in 2019. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up social workers was distributed as follows:
|Child, family, and school social workers||342,500|
|Healthcare social workers||185,000|
|Mental health and substance abuse social workers||123,200|
|Social workers, all other||62,500|
The largest employers of social workers were as follows:
|Individual and family services||18%|
|Local government, excluding education and hospitals||14|
|Ambulatory healthcare services||14|
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||13|
Although most social workers work in an office, they may spend time visiting clients. School social workers may be assigned to multiple schools and travel around the school district to see students. Understaffing and large caseloads may cause the work to be stressful.
Social workers may work remotely through distance counseling, using videoconferencing or mobile technology to meet with clients and organize support and advocacy groups.
Injuries and Illnesses
Social workers, all other have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. (“All other” titles represent occupations with a wide range of characteristics that do not fit into any of the other detailed occupations.)
The majority of social workers work full time. They sometimes work evenings, weekends, and holidays to see clients or attend meetings, and they may be on call.
This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of social workers.
|Occupation||Job Duties||Entry-Level Education||Median Annual Pay, May 2019|
Health Educators and Community Health Workers
Health educators teach people about behaviors that promote wellness. Community health workers collect data and discuss health concerns with members of specific populations or communities.
|See How to Become One||$46,910|
Marriage and Family Therapists
Marriage and family therapists help people manage and overcome problems with family and other relationships.
Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists
Probation officers and correctional treatment specialists assist in rehabilitation of law offenders in custody or on probation or parole.
Psychologists study cognitive, emotional, and social processes and behavior by observing, interpreting, and recording how individuals relate to one another and to their environments.
|See How to Become One||$80,370|
Rehabilitation counselors help people with physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities live independently.
School and Career Counselors
School counselors help students develop the academic and social skills needed to succeed. Career counselors help people choose a path to employment.
Social and Community Service Managers
Social and community service managers coordinate and supervise programs and organizations that support public well-being.
Social and Human Service Assistants
Social and human service assistants provide client services in a variety of fields, such as psychology, rehabilitation, and social work.
|High school diploma or equivalent||$35,060|
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors
Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors provide treatment and advise people who suffer from alcoholism, drug addiction, or other mental or behavioral problems.
For more information about social workers and clinical social workers, visit
For more information about accredited social work degree programs, visit
For more information about licensure requirements, visit
For a career video on mental health and substance abuse social workers, visit
Related BLS Articles
Career Outlook: “Careers in social work: Outlook, pay, and more“
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social Workers,
at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm (visited ).