Social work is one of those mysterious professions where only those who work or study in the field really know what it is. So, just what does a social worker actually do?
The role of a social worker is to provide support and advocacy for those in points of crisis or life transition. They do this by working with people and structures to address life challenges, enhance wellbeing and promote social justice.
Social workers recognise the causes of most problems can be found in social and structural factors such as inequality. Using a person-in-environment perspective to understand people’s circumstances, they work with people to create a fairer, more inclusive society. They work with people with diverse abilities, identities and cultural backgrounds across various stages of life.
Social workers work as both individual practitioners and members of multidisciplinary teams. They use a broad range of methods to work with individuals, groups and communities to create change. These methods can include:
individual and family therapy
Wondering how to be a social worker? In Australia, accredited social work programs, like the Bachelor of Social Work (Honours) and Master of Social Work (Qualifying) at UQ, are known as ‘generalist’ qualifying degrees. This means they give social work graduates a broad set of knowledge, skills and attributes so they can work effectively in a variety of practice settings including both non-government, community-based roles and statutory/government roles.
We assist with behaviour change, exercise, healthy eating, education, coming together in groups (being social) and improving wellbeing overall.
Bachelor of Social Work (Honours)
What do social workers do in different areas?
Olivia Wells, a UQ social work student, completed a placement at Southern Queensland Rural Health (SQRH) Health and Wellness Clinic in Toowoomba, where she was exposed to the different professional routes a social worker can take.
"Social work is a diverse profession, as are job opportunities within the profession," she says.
"Being able to complete a clinical and research placement at the same time has given me a taste of just a few of those possibilities in one go, which I am extremely grateful for."
"I think that the social work faculty at UQ has prepared us with a strong theoretical base that has been relevant to my clinical and research practice."
The courses she's covered so far in the Bachelor of Social Work (Honours) equipped Olivia with the abilities and confidence to fully embrace her placement with SQRH.
"I've also used a lot of my practical skills taught in relevant subjects, which has made the transition to 'real' work much less nerve-wracking," says Olivia.
"We assist with behaviour change, exercise, healthy eating, education, coming together in groups (being social) and improving wellbeing overall."
There are many types of social workers, working in a range of settings. Below, we outline some of the career paths you could take after studying social work at university.
The role of a social worker in a hospital setting in Australia is to work with patients and their families to ensure they receive appropriate information about their health status and their options, as well as access to care both in and out of hospital. Other roles in hospital settings include:
child safety investigations
direct support to people experiencing family and domestic violence.
Social workers in aged care work with residents and their families to ensure the transition into care is managed in a way that is supportive and meets the individual needs of the older person. This can be a very challenging stage of life, and it's the role of social workers to ensure people continue to be provided with opportunities for growth and fulfilment regardless of age.
Social workers in youth-based services specialise in developing constructive professional relationships with young people. Youth social workers specialise in issues such as:
housing and accommodation
alcohol and other drug information
sexual health and relationship issues.
Social workers can be involved in the criminal legal system in a variety of roles:
They might support victims of crime and those giving evidence.
They may provide social background reports to the court to help inform their decisions.
They may support people who are accused of crimes, particularly young people and those with special needs, to navigate the legal system and offer support and advocacy.
They might be involved in rehabilitation and post-release reintegration programs.
In all these cases, social workers use specialised knowledge and counselling skills to empower clients to build on their strengths in ways that will make a positive difference to their lives. Social workers can play key roles in youth justice and forensic mental health settings. They may also be called as witnesses to give evidence in court.
The term clinical social worker is often used for those who have advanced knowledge, skills and expertise in particular psychosocial and behavioural problems and disorders. They typically work in more complex areas of practice. Increasingly, social workers are going into private practice, providing highly skilled trauma and mental health services to clients. This is a developing scene popular among students wanting to practise in a psychotherapeutic setting.
Social work agencies are looking for a lot from graduates:
knowledge on policy, research and the needs of clients
skills of empathy, critical thinking and communication to meet those needs
values of respect for people, social justice and professional integrity.