Social Workers - What They Do

Social workers help individuals, couples, families, groups, communities and organizations develop the skills and resources they need to enhance social functioning and provide counselling, therapy and referral to other supportive social services. Social workers also respond to other social needs and issues such as unemployment, racism and poverty. They are employed by hospitals, school boards, social service agencies, child welfare organizations, correctional facilities, community agencies, employee assistance programs and Aboriginal band councils, or they may work in private practice.

Job duties

This group performs some or all of the following duties:

  • Interview clients individually, in families, or in groups, to assess their situation and problems and determine the types of services required
  • Provide counsel and therapy to assist clients in developing skills to deal with and resolve their social and personal problems
  • Plan programs of assistance for clients including referral to agencies that provide financial assistance, legal aid, housing, medical treatment and other services
  • Investigate cases of child abuse or neglect and take authorized protective action when necessary
  • Serve as members on interdisciplinary teams of professionals working with client groups
  • Act as advocates for client groups in the community, lobby for solutions to problems directly affecting client groups and develop prevention and intervention programs to meet community needs
  • Develop or advise on social policy legislation, conduct social research and assist in community development
  • Provide mediation services and psychosocial assessments
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of counselling and social programs
  • May provide public education and consultation to professionals or groups regarding counselling services, issues and methods
  • May supervise other social workers.
  • Social workers may specialize in fields of practice such as child welfare, family services, corrections, gerontology or addictions.

Job titles

  • co-ordinator of social work
  • medical social worker
  • social worker
  • psychiatric social worker
  • social work supervisor
Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:

  • A bachelor's degree in social work is required in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
  • In Alberta, a bachelor's degree or diploma in social work is required.
  • Supervised practical experience is usually required.
  • Successful completion of provincial written and oral examinations may be required.
  • Registration with a provincial governing body is mandatory to practise as a social worker in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and Alberta.
  • Use of the titles "Social Worker" and "Registered Social Worker" is regulated in all provinces.
  • Membership in a provincial association of social workers is usually required.

Essential Skills


  • Skim descriptions of social programs, community events, workshops in bulletins, brochures and other marketing materials. They read to become informed about resources for clients and professional development opportunities for themselves. (1)
  • May read instructions for administration and descriptions of potential side effects on the labels of prescription medications. For example, a psychiatric social worker may scan the label of an anti-psychotic medication to locate information about how often clients need to take the drug. (1)
  • Skim case notes from counselling and therapy sessions to review observations, key issues, conclusions and recommendations in preparation for returning clients. Some files contain descriptive paragraphs to explain problems, circumstances and clients' reactions. (2)
  • Read brief notes and comments written on a variety of reporting forms such as intake and assessment forms, applications, medical charts and referral forms. They read these notes for information about clients' backgrounds, needs and requests for assistance. For example, a children's aid social worker may review notes from a child's hospital report to learn about the physical trauma that the child has suffered. (2)
  • Read newsletters, magazines and newspapers to stay informed about current social work issues. They often pass useful information on to co-workers and clients. For example, an addictions social worker may read a newspaper article about the effects of crystal methamphetamine and its use by certain population groups in order to answer questions from clients in an addictions awareness program. (2)
  • Read training manuals and their organizations' policy and protocol manuals. For example, a social worker who facilitates group sessions for compulsive gamblers may review various training manuals to locate new exercises that can be incorporated into group counselling sessions. A school social worker may refer to crisis management protocols to understand what steps to take in the event of a student's death. (3)
  • May refer to social policy legislation such as the provincial Child Protection Act and the Adult Guardianship Act to determine if clients are in need of protection and explain the implications of the acts to parents and guardians. (3)
  • Read medical reports, psychosocial and clinical assessments, investigation reports, affidavits and program evaluations. In these documents, they read about medical diagnoses, psychiatric conditions, clinical observations, legal matters, investigation results and evaluation outcomes. They incorporate information from clinical assessments into treatment plans, social work programs and community development initiatives. For example, social workers and caseworkers read police and medical reports to determine if there is just cause to apprehend children. (4)
  • Read resource books, textbooks and articles from peer-reviewed journals to learn about various topics such as child abuse, drug addiction, mental illness, grief and loss, and community development. They read social work journals to expand their knowledge, incorporate it into their counselling practices, assist with social work research and to develop prevention and intervention programs. For example, geriatric social workers may read articles from the Journal of Gerontological Social Work and books about elder abuse to further their understanding of social issues affecting seniors and develop elder abuse prevention programs. (4)

Document use

  • Scan lists and tables. For example, social workers scan resource directories to identify appropriate community resources for clients. Addictions social workers may scan tables comparing different illegal drugs and their effects. (1)
  • Complete reporting forms such as referrals, discharge summaries, confidentiality agreements, timesheets and mileage claim forms. For example, a social worker completes a referral form for a client who requires housing assistance. (2)
  • May refer to simple schematics such as decision making trees. For example, a crisis social worker may refer to a decision making schematic to assess risk of suicide and to follow proper protocol for crisis intervention. (2)
  • Complete various assessment forms such as intake forms, screening assessments, investigation forms and applications for assistance. They enter clients' contact and demographic information and tick checkboxes to identify issues or risk factors. (2)
  • Locate test scores and interpret psychosocial information presented in graphs. For example, mental health social workers may compare clients' psychiatric test scores to personality disorder charts in order to develop appropriate treatment plans. School social workers may use graphs to understand the severity of children's learning disabilities. (2)


  • Write comments on forms such as intake and assessment forms, referrals and discharge summaries. For example, legal aid social workers may write comments on intake forms to explain their decisions to grant legal aid coverage to clients. (1)
  • Write case notes for clients' files. They record information about clients' personal problems, home situations and concerns. They detail their own observations about progress made and matters that require follow-up. Because their files may be subpoenaed for court proceedings, social workers consider carefully what they write down. (2)
  • Write speaking notes and learning materials for workshops and presentations. For example, they may summarize the topics covered during their presentations and hand them out to participants. (2)
  • Write letters to co-workers and colleagues such as doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers and parole officers. For example, they write letters of referral outlining their observations, recommendations, reasons for referrals and summaries of clients' situations. They write letters to other social workers to request financial assistance and other supports, such as writing letters of support on behalf of clients. (3)
  • Write a variety of assessment, evaluation, investigation, research and funding reports. For example, in assessment reports, geriatric social workers summarize clients' case histories and offer their observations, recommendations and conclusions. Child protection workers write investigation reports in which they summarize allegations against caregivers, detail observations of children's health and living conditions, offer assessments of risks and make recommendations. They consider the content carefully because these reports may be used as evidence in court proceedings and may affect funding decisions. (4)
  • May draft social work policies and protocols. They summarize background research, describe methodologies, offer rationales, discuss findings, offer recommendations and analyze implications for social work practice. For example, a social worker may write a community planning report which suggests the integration of suicide intervention protocols into medical counselling services. (4)


Money Math

  • Calculate travel expense claims. They calculate reimbursements for using personal vehicles at per kilometre rates. They add amounts for meals, accommodations and incidentals. (2)

Scheduling, Budgeting & Accounting Math

  • Schedule appointments for clients, allocating realistic amounts of time for counselling sessions. They reschedule appointments to accommodate cancellations and urgent requests. (1)
  • May create budgets. For example, they may draw up household budgets to determine if clients qualify for financial assistance. They may create program budgets that include cost categories for personnel, rent, office equipment and supplies. (2)

Measurement and Calculation Math

  • Score psychosocial tests and assessment instruments. For example, social workers may administer and score suicide assessment scales. (2)

Data Analysis Math

  • Compare clients' incomes to benchmarks to determine if they qualify for benefits such as social assistance and legal aid. For example, caseworkers may compare clients' net incomes to benchmark amounts to determine whether they are eligible for legal aid. (1)
  • Compile data and develop statistics to describe social programs and the populations of clients they serve. For example, social workers operating programs for victims of spousal abuse may calculate numbers of referrals received monthly and classify program participants by gender, ethnicity and age group. (2)
  • Analyze lab results and scores on psychosocial tests to assess clients' health and wellness. For example, social workers may compare lab test results to baseline norms to identify differences that indicate health problems such as drug addictions. They may analyze scores on suicide assessment scales to determine levels of risk. School social workers analyze cognitive test results such as the Weschler Intelligence Scale for Children to identify learning disabilities. (2)

Numerical Estimation

  • Estimate amounts of time required for counselling sessions. They consider clients' needs and the average duration of previous appointments. (1)

Oral communication

  • Discuss schedules, clients' files, office supplies and other matters with support staff. (1)
  • Discuss clients and social work programs with colleagues in other community and social service agencies. For example, they may seek information about available programs and resources for clients. If they obtain consent, they may share information about their clients' situations and needs, discuss their suitability for available programs and advocate for assistance. (2)
  • Interact with other social workers to discuss difficult cases, coordinate clients' care strategies and seek advice about counselling strategies and resources. Social workers and their supervisors meet regularly to debrief and further develop their counselling skills. They also meet to discuss other work-related issues such as caseloads and administrative procedures. For example, social workers and their supervisors discuss strategies to help clients with mental illnesses and addictions. Some social workers participate in coalition meetings with other professionals to develop social policy and co-ordinate new initiatives in their communities. (3)
  • Interview clients to assess their needs and determine the services they require. They ask open-ended questions to gather information about the clients' mental, emotional, physical, spiritual and financial health. They listen actively to the clients' responses, explain their services and suggest appropriate resources. They need sensitivity and good conflict management skills to engage with clients and family members who may be angry, defensive and embarrassed about seeking help. (3)
  • Deliver educational seminars and workshops to schoolchildren, community groups and colleagues. They present information about specific programs and services, current social issues and counselling strategies. They adjust their communication styles and workshops' contents to suit audiences of school children, pensioners, teachers and medical doctors. For example, a school social worker may present strategies for reducing aggression in children at a teachers' conference. A medical social worker may educate other social workers about the symptoms of sexually-transmitted diseases and the stigma of being infected. (3)
  • Counsel individual clients who are struggling with personal problems such as depression, families torn by abuse and groups affected by social problems such as poverty. Social workers may present ideas that will spark discussion and ask probing questions to elicit personal reflection and sharing of insights. They actively listen to clients describe their feelings and thoughts, cuing into signs of anxiety, depression, anger and other extreme emotions that may indicate risks of emotional distress. They provide reassurance and guidance to clients and assist them in developing the skills and resources they need to enhance social functioning and resolve their personal problems. For example, social workers validate the feelings of clients who are struggling with depression and assist them to develop healthy coping strategies. (4)


Problem Solving

  • Are unable to provide service to clients who are intoxicated and under the influence of drugs. They explain to impaired clients why they cannot provide services and encourage them to come back when they are sober. They may arrange transportation to detoxification centres for clients. (2)
  • Cannot access the services that their clients need due to long wait lists and resource shortages. They help clients to develop contingency plans and provide them with interim counselling while they wait for appropriate services to become available. They may advocate for other agencies to adjust their admission criteria and develop needed client services. (3)
  • Encounter clients' family members who are uncooperative and dissatisfied. For example, child protection social workers may encounter parents who do not attend scheduled family visits and prevent social workers from seeing their children. They make repeated attempts to discuss their concerns with clients' families. They apply for mental health and child protection warrants to enforce their decisions if clients are at risk. (3)
  • Encounter difficult and hostile clients. For example, they may counsel hostile, aggressive and suicidal clients. They address their clients' behaviours, clarify what is expected and work with them to develop appropriate personal boundaries and behaviours. If clients continue to exhibit unacceptable behaviours, they may terminate counseling and refer them to other resources. For example, they may refer hostile clients to anger management programs. (3)

Decision Making

  • Decide that interpreters are needed for interviews. They assess the clients' language skills from their introductory interactions with them and information received from referral sources. They consider their own language abilities and the clients' comfort with interpreters before requesting assistance. (2)
  • Select programs and social service agencies for clients. They consider clients' counselling needs, goals and treatment plans and the availability of suitable placements. (2)
  • Choose counselling strategies and therapies for clients' treatment plans. They consider their clients' problems, the appropriateness of interventions, treatment costs, and their own preferences. They are guided by their organizations' protocols and precedents. (3)
  • Decide to terminate counselling and therapy with clients. They consider the degree to which clients' problems have been resolved, the benefits of continuing counselling and clients' abilities to maintain healthy lives. For example, a school social worker may terminate counselling for a child at the end of the school year if sufficient progress has been made. They may also recognize their own professional limitations in dealing with their clients' problems and may make referrals to appropriate helping professionals. (3)
  • Decide to call emergency services for assistance. They consider the safety risks to clients and others by violent and suicidal behaviours. For example, social workers call police in cases of injuries and suspected sexual abuse of children. (4)

Critical Thinking

  • May assess the performance of other social workers, practicum students and volunteers. They review feedback provided by clients and other social workers and observe them directly to assess their communication skills. For example, social work supervisors may participate in group counselling sessions to observe social workers' facilitation skills. (2)
  • Evaluate clients' needs. They interview clients and their families to gather information about social supports and stressors such as financial difficulties. For example, geriatric social workers may interview elderly people who are suffering from depression to determine what counselling services, medical treatment and social programs they need. They recommend resources, develop treatment plans and implement counselling strategies that will enhance their clients' quality of living. (3)
  • Assess clients' emotional health and mental stability. They ask questions and compare clients' responses to explore benchmarks of wellness such as feelings of self-worth, happiness and existence of supportive relationships with others. Some social workers administer psychosocial assessment and screening tools and analyze the results against norms. They assess the clients' behaviours and examine their appearance to identify signs of stress, poor health and indications of emotional instability. Mental health social workers may ask questions which their clients' levels of stress and assess whether they are taking their medications. (3)
  • May assess safety and welfare of children to determine their need for protection from abuse and neglect. They gather information from interviews with children, family members, neighbours, teachers and other professionals. They compare testimonies to medical evidence, police reports, psychiatric assessments and their observations. They examine the children's living conditions to identify signs of neglect and make recommendations for corrective actions under the Child Protection Act. (3)
  • Judge the effectiveness of therapies and interventions. They compare clients' self-assessments over time, and observe their behaviours and overall demeanours to identify positive changes that indicate improvements. They consider clients' commitments to their goals and steps taken to reach them. (3)
  • May evaluate the effectiveness of counselling and social programs to recommend service revisions and social policy development. They analyze outcome and evaluation data collected from program participants to determine if services are meeting expected needs. They gather feedback from clients, staff members, colleagues and other stakeholders such as funding agents to identify successes, weaknesses and gaps in services that require attention. They review literature from similar programs and synthesize their conclusions into recommendations for new social programs and policy reforms. (3)

Job Task Planning and Organizing

Own Job Planning and Organizing

Social workers plan and organize their own job tasks. New cases are assigned to them by intake workers, supervisors and managers. They also acquire new walk-in cases and referrals directly from social work departments and human services agencies. Social workers usually book their own counselling appointments, but must be prepared to modify their schedules if clients are in crisis and require emergency assistance. Child protection social workers may be required to work long hours to carry out investigations until children are deemed safe. (3)

Planning and Organizing for Others

Social workers in supervisory positions plan and organize tasks for other social workers, practicum students and volunteers. They contribute to organizational planning and may participate in the development of operational policies and practices. (3)

Significant Use of Memory

  • Remember names and details of previous conversations with clients to build trust and rapport.
  • Recall protocols for crisis interventions such as suicide assessments.
  • May remember names and effects of commonly-used drugs and medications to answer clients' questions and recognize symptoms of use. For example, mental health social workers may recall the side effects of antipsychotic medications to understand their effects on clients.

Finding Information

  • Locate information about community resources for clients by searching local resource directories, consulting information available on the Internet and telephoning community agencies directly. (1)
  • Find information about suspected cases of child abuse and neglect. For example, when sexual abuse of children is suspected, they may set-up interviews with police officers, teachers, health professionals, children's families, friends and neighbours. They may also examine medical and school records. (3)

Digital technology

  • Use word processing software. For example, they use word processing applications such as Word and WordPerfect to write letters of support for clients and to prepare assessment reports. (2)
  • Use databases. For example, they enter program statistics and generate reports for funding agents and retrieve data from their organizations' case management databases. (2)
  • May use spreadsheets. For example, they may create spreadsheets to manage counselling and program data, and may use them to track number and types of clients in social programs. (2)
  • Use communication software. For example, they use e-mail software to exchange messages with other social workers and send attachments such as referrals, research reports and program announcements. (2)
  • Use the Internet. For example, they use Internet browsers to find information about work-related topics such as effects of illegal drugs and community resources for drug education. (2)

Other Essential Skills:

Working with Others

Social workers work independently to provide counselling services to clients. They coordinate treatment strategies with other social workers and professionals including teachers, medical doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, police officers and lawyers. (2)

Continuous Learning

Social workers learn continuously to stay abreast of new community resources, counselling interventions and therapeutic treatments. They determine their own learning goals, which vary considerably depending on areas of expertise. They attend conferences, seminars and workshops offered by post-secondary institutions, community organizations and professional associations. They learn about subjects ranging from cultural diversity to sexual health. They read academic journals, articles and books to learn about new perspectives on social issues and prospective therapeutic treatments. They benefit from the expertise of other professionals and learn by discussing cases with other social workers and participating in case management teams. Social workers may also learn from feedback offered by clinical supervisors. (3)