One day you could be counselling a child who’s having a hard time at school. The next day you could be helping a refugee who is struggling to adapt to life in their new home country.
The job of a social worker is varied, rewarding and sometimes very challenging. If you are compassionate, organised and want to work with people, it could be the ideal career for you. In this guide, we’ll talk you through how to become a social worker.
What is a social worker?
Essentially, social workers help people and families to live happier, more fulfilling lives. They encourage people (usually called clients or sometimes ‘service users’) to live independently; protect them from harm or abuse; and help them find solutions to problems.
They work with people at all stages of life, from small babies through to the elderly. Social workers support people on an individual basis, and they also help direct people to other services they might need.
What do social workers do?
The role of a social worker is extremely varied, depending on who they are helping and the employer. Most of the time social workers will have a “caseload”, which is a certain number of cases of people or families that they help at any one time.
These are some of the tasks a social worker might do:
- Visit clients and assess what they need.
- Give information, advice and counselling.
- Work with their client’s friends, family and community to find the best way to help.
- Build relationships with clients, so they can work together to improve the clients’ lives.
- Make “care and support plans” that explain what a client needs and what is the best way to help them.
- Refer clients to different services and other agencies.
- Keep records and write reports.
- Work in a team with education and healthcare professionals, and take part in “multi-disciplinary” meetings.
- Going to court if necessary.
- Have regular “supervision sessions” with your mentor or boss so that you can discuss your cases, reflect on your work and learn how to manage stress.
Who do they work with?
Social workers help a very broad range of clients, including:
- People who have mental health problems.
- Children and young people.
- Foster carers and families who have adopted children.
- Older people.
- People in prison, and young offenders.
- Refugees and asylum-seekers.
- People who have been abused or neglected, or are at risk.
- Victims of domestic violence.
- Homeless people.
- Children and adults with learning disabilities.
- People with drug and alcohol problems.
- Carers (acarer is someone who cares, unpaid, for a friend or family member who needs support because of an illness, disability, a mental health problem or an addiction).
- People who are excluded from society.
- Families who have serious problems.
Social workers will often specialise in one of the groups listed above.
Where do they work?
Social workers are based in offices, hospitals, health clinics or residential centres. They regularly visit clients at home or wherever they are based; that could be a care home, hospital or prison. Part of the job is working alongside other organisations such as the police, schools, the probation service and the local council.
What skills do they need?
Social workers need the following skills and qualities:
- Excellent communication skills.
- Knowing how to actively listen.
- Able to develop professional relationships with clients, families and other professionals.
- Able to be understanding, have compassion for other people, and show empathy (putting yourself in other people’s shoes).
- Able to stay calm when working under pressure and in stressful situations.
- Organised and able to manage caseload.
- Able to find solutions to problems.
- Able to cope with very difficult and challenging behaviour.
- Keen to work with people from lots of different backgrounds.
- Good at making the most of your time.
Is social work right for me?
If you have all of the above qualities and are interested in improving people’s lives, social work could be up your street. Watch this video to see how social workers have made a difference in people’s lives:
But it’s important to note that social work can be a tough career. The hours can be long, and you may have a very heavy workload. The job can be very emotionally draining because you are helping people at extremely difficult, painful times in their lives. Social workers need to be resilient (which means being able to adapt and recover from stressful or traumatic situations), and they often get emotional support themselves.
Tell me how to become a social worker.
In order to become a social worker, you will need a degree in social work that us approved by the Health and Care Professions Council. The course usually takes three years. If you’ve already got a degree in another subject, you can take a two-year master’s degree in social work.
Entry requirements vary – you will typically need at least five GCSEs at grade C or above, and two A-levels. Check the university you’re interested in applying to.
To apply for the degree you will also usually need some work experience or voluntary work that shows you are committed to social work. Depending on your circumstances, you might be able to show this through your personal experiences – for example if you have been a carer for a friend or relative.