In this article
What does a social worker do?
A social worker protects vulnerable people from harm or abuse. They also work with people to help them find solutions to any problems and live as independently as possible. They do this by providing support, advice and resources to individuals and families.
Social workers are mainly office-based and visit clients in the community, but they can work in other settings, such as hospitals and healthcare centres. Social workers will see clients of all different ages (from children to the elderly) and backgrounds who have issues, such as mental health problems, learning difficulties, addictions and disabilities. They may work with individuals, families, refugees, offenders, foster carers and adopters.
Social workers will have many duties, including establishing relationships with clients, assessing their needs, providing information, organising and managing support plans, and making referrals. The role will also have an element of administrative work, such as keeping detailed records and writing reports.
A social worker’s main aim is to support individuals and families with complex problems to make positive changes to improve their lives. They have an important role in promoting human rights and improving the health and wellbeing of individuals in society. They can even save lives.
Social workers can work alone with many different clients and families. They may also work closely with their colleagues, e.g. fellow social workers and assistants, and as part of a multidisciplinary team with other services, e.g. mental health. They may also need to liaise with external stakeholders, including carers, nurses, doctors, support workers, the police, the probation service, schools and local authorities.
Social workers can work for many different sized organisations. They may work for large organisations, e.g. NHS Trusts or local authorities, or smaller companies, e.g. private care homes and charities. Some more experienced social workers may choose to become self-employed as a contractor or work through employment agencies.
A social worker will have many different responsibilities, which may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Establishing relationships with clients and their families.
- Offering information, support and counselling.
- Interviewing individuals and their families to review their situation and assess their needs.
- Putting support plans together.
- Organising and managing the support needed, e.g. arranging appropriate care and resources.
- Helping clients to live as independently as possible by supporting them to develop and maintain relevant skills.
- Making recommendations and decisions relating to the needs of individuals and families.
- Discussing cases with supervisors where appropriate.
- Working closely with other services and agencies, such as child protection and mental health teams and referring clients where appropriate.
- Attending and participating in training and meetings.
- Keeping accurate records and writing reports.
- Giving evidence for cases that go to court.
The exact responsibilities a social worker will have will depend on their role, specialist area, who they work with and the type of setting.
A social worker can expect to work 37-40 hours a week, but the average tends to be around 37.5 hours per week. Their shifts may also include unsociable hours, such as evenings, weekends and bank holidays.
Flexible working is possible for some social workers, e.g. part-time hours or a job share. There are even working from home opportunities with certain roles, and some social workers may choose to be self-employed or work for an agency.
Travel throughout the day will be required for most social workers, as they will be visiting individuals and families in the community. There may be a requirement to cover social workers in other areas, and there may also be a need for occasional overnight stays.
Working overseas is uncommon, but there may be opportunities, e.g. for international charities and the armed forces.
What to expect
Being a social worker and helping individuals and their families through difficult times and protecting vulnerable people is extremely rewarding. Social workers can go home at the end of the working day knowing they are helping make a difference to people’s health, safety, welfare and wellbeing. They have a positive impact on the community as a whole.
There is no shortage of social work roles, there are jobs available nationally, and there are many different roles in which to specialise. The salary is also good, particularly if employed in the NHS or privately, and there are plenty of opportunities for growth in the industry.
Boredom will never be a problem for social workers, as their caseloads can be very varied, and no two days are the same. They will see and help many different people with various issues. One case may involve helping someone with a mental health condition, and the next, supporting a family in crisis. Of course, this will depend on a social worker’s specialist area and role.
Even though being a social worker is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, they may also face challenges, for example:
- High caseloads – most social workers will have heavy caseloads and see many different clients, making the working days longer. There is also a significant amount of administrative work involved in the role, e.g. report writing or typing notes. Overall, social work is under-resourced and understaffed. Therefore, social workers will have to juggle many different demands, and work schedules can often be erratic.
- Media attention – if there is a high-profile case, it can be reported widely in the media, particularly if errors have caused harm. Social workers may come under scrutiny. This can be difficult for some individuals, especially if the attention is negative.
- Mental demands – being a social worker can be emotionally demanding, especially when dealing with individuals with mental health conditions and addictions. It is not easy seeing people struggling to cope with what is going on in their lives, and seeing victims of abuse and violence can be distressing. Social workers may be exposed to trauma, and some clients may also be challenging. It can also be frustrating if clients are not progressing as anticipated.
- Work-related violence – unfortunately, there is a risk of verbal and physical abuse in social work. It is usually due to alcohol and drug-related issues, but people can also lash out when in pain or emotional distress. Employers have a duty to reduce and manage the risk of work-related violence, so there are ways of prevention. However, social workers must be aware of the risk.
There are pros and cons in every career choice, and prospective social workers must know what to expect before deciding whether the role is for them. There is no doubt that working in social work is challenging, under-resourced, mentally demanding and stressful. However, there are many positives too and helping people improve their lives is very fulfilling and will give social workers a sense of purpose. In some cases, social work can actually save lives.
When considering whether to be a social worker, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a social worker
Some of the personal qualities a social worker requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Knowledge of sociology, mental health and psychology.
- Knowledge of related legislation and standards.
- Knowledge of health and safety.
- Knowledge of equality and diversity.
- Knowledge of confidentiality, data protection and GDPR.
- Having a caring attitude, sensitivity, empathy and understanding.
- Having confidence, patience, tolerance and a reassuring manner.
- Having a non-judgemental approach.
- Having an interest in the local community.
- Excellent interpersonal skills, i.e. the ability to deal with clients, families and other healthcare professionals.
- Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
- Excellent counselling and active listening skills.
- Good observational and analytical skills.
- Good organisational skills and time management.
- Good problem-solving and decision-making skills.
- Being motivated and committed to helping people.
- Being thorough and having attention to detail.
- Being flexible and open to change.
- The ability to work well with others and alone using own initiative.
- The ability to organise own workload.
- The ability to understand individuals’ reactions.
- The ability to deal with challenging behaviour.
- The ability to be resilient in emotionally demanding situations.
- The ability to gain peoples’ trust, respect and confidence.
- The ability to accept criticism.
- The ability to work well under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
- The ability to use IT equipment and software competently.
- The ability to follow policies, procedures, instructions and risk assessments.
Qualifications and training
To become a social worker, individuals need a degree or postgraduate qualification in social work, approved by one of the following regulators:
- Social Work England (SWE).
- Social Care Wales (SCW).
- Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC).
- Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC).
Undergraduate degrees usually take three years full time, or four to six years part time. To be accepted onto an undergraduate degree course usually requires two or three relevant A levels (or equivalent) and five GCSEs (grade C or above) (or equivalent), including English language and maths. It will depend on the university entry requirements, and individuals should check before applying.
Enrolling on an appropriate undergraduate degree programme is the main route to become a social worker. However, individuals can also undertake a postgraduate qualification (diploma or master’s), if they have a degree in another subject. Courses will usually take two years full time or up to six years part time.
Some degrees combine social work with other areas, such as mental health or learning disability nursing.
There is also an opportunity to apply for a social work degree apprenticeship, which takes approximately three years to complete. Individuals should have four or five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) and A levels (or equivalent). The Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education has further information on social work apprenticeships on its website.
There are bursaries available for those wishing to train for a career in social work. Further information about what is included, eligibility and how to apply can be found on the GOV.UK website.
There is also financial support for those wishing to study for a health-related degree, such as joint nursing and social work. Further information about funds and eligibility can be found on the NHS website.
Work experience and volunteering
To become a registered social worker, individuals will require a degree, as mentioned. However, other options can help individuals work towards entering the profession, for example:
Work-based training – if individuals have a first or upper second class degree in a subject other than social work, they can apply for accelerated programmes, for example:
- Step Up To Social Work – a 14-month full-time programme combining work and study.
- Frontline – a two-year programme for children’s social work, combining study and supervised practical work.
- Think Ahead – a two-year fast-track scheme for mental health social work, combining academic learning with extensive on-the-job experience.
- Work experience – to be eligible for most courses and job roles, individuals need to have experience with vulnerable children and adults. It is possible to start work as a social work assistant or support worker whilst studying for a degree. Individuals can also get a paid role before applying for a course, e.g. in nursing homes or hospices.
- Volunteering – gaining practical experience and skills through volunteering can help towards becoming a social worker. An individual can volunteer at their local NHS Trust or a charity, such as a hospice. Alternatively, there may be work placement opportunities in community care. Information on volunteering and local opportunities can be found on Do-it, NCVO and Volunteering Matters.
An individual’s own life experience can also count if they have been a carer for a family member or friend.
On successful completion of an approved qualification, individuals must register with Social Work England (or one of the other three regulators) to work in social care.
Registration must be renewed annually.
There will be a cost to become registered and for renewing registration.
To maximise the chances of being accepted onto social work courses and for job roles, it is recommended to become a member of a professional body or association, such as the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).
Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help social workers enter the profession, enhance their employability and keep their knowledge and skills current.
Most colleges and accredited private training providers provide training courses. Some examples of relevant courses that may be useful for social workers include:
- Safeguarding children and vulnerable adults.
- Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS).
- Mental health and capacity.
- Managing behaviour that challenges.
- Child sexual exploitation.
- Substance misuse awareness.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- Equality and diversity.
- Health and safety, e.g. work-related violence and lone working.
Professional bodies and associations, such as the BASW, can advise on reputable training courses. They also have events that can help social workers and give them the means to continue their professional development. Continuing professional development (CPD) is a mandatory requirement for social workers to remain registered. Also, see CPD courses for social workers for further guidance on CPD.
The type of training required will depend on what employers are looking for, the areas of social work individuals want to work in and the CPD requirements for registration. As well as looking on professional body websites, it is also worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the courses required and other training needed for specialist roles. Jobs can be found on Social Worker Jobs, NHS Jobs, BASW Jobs, Charity Job, HealthJobsUK, British Social Worker Jobs and other job sites, such as GOV.UK find a job service and Indeed. Also, look at recruitment agencies, e.g. Liquid Personnel, BS Social Care, Sanctuary Personnel and Agency Central.
Having more relevant training and competence will open up more opportunities for social workers. Refresher training will also be required, as it is a legal requirement under legislation and mandatory for registration renewal. It also keeps knowledge and skills up to date.
Criminal records checks
Social workers will be required to undergo a criminal record check, as they will have contact with children and vulnerable adults. Having a criminal record, caution, warning, or conviction may put off prospective employers. However, they should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance to the role.
The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:
- England and Wales – Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).
- Northern Ireland – AccessNI.
- Scotland – Protecting Vulnerable Groups (PVG) scheme.
Most social workers will be required to drive as part of their role, especially when working in the community. Therefore, they should have a full clean driving licence.
Where do social workers work?
Social workers can work in many different settings, including (this list is not exhaustive):
- People’s homes and other locations in the community.
- Their own homes.
- Hospitals, walk-in centres and GP surgeries.
- Residential care homes, nursing homes and hospices.
- Children’s homes.
- Offices and assessment centres.
- Courts and prisons.
- Armed forces bases.
They can work for public bodies and private organisations, for example:
- The NHS.
- Private hospitals, centres and clinics.
- Specialist social work agencies.
- Local authorities, e.g. social services and social work departments.
- Charities and not-for-profit organisations.
- Children’s Trusts.
- Ministry of Defence (MOD).
They can also be self-employed and work for themselves or an agency.
How much do social workers earn?
If a social worker decides to work for the NHS, their salary is subject to a band pay system (agenda for change pay rates). For example (these are a guide only and are subject to change):
- Starting salary for social workers (band 6) – between £32,306 and £39,027.
- Specialist/senior social workers (band 7) – between £40,057 and £45,839.
The exact salaries for social workers will depend on the role, location (London supplement), specialisms, qualifications and years of experience. As social workers progress in their careers, there may be opportunities to enter more senior positions, and the band will increase. The NHS also provides a training salary for trainees (known as annex 21).
There is potential for social workers to earn more if they work in other settings, e.g. private organisations. Experienced social workers may also earn higher salaries if they combine consultancy with research and teaching.
If individuals are successful in getting on to a work-based training programme, they will get (this is subject to change):
- Step Up To Social Work – an offer of £19,833 tax-free bursary during the programme.
- Frontline – a tax-exempt bursary of £18,000 or £20,000 in London (in the first year), equivalent to a salary of £21,000 or £24,000. Newly qualified social workers will earn between £25,000 and £34,000 depending on the location (in the second year).
- Think Ahead – a tax-free training bursary of £17,200 outside London or £19,100 inside London, paid monthly (in the first year). In the second year, newly qualified social workers will receive a taxable salary. The exact salary will depend on the employer but will typically range from around £21,000 to £33,000, depending on the location.
What self-employed/independent social workers will earn is variable. It will also depend on how many clients they have and if they freelance, the hours worked, their qualifications and specialisms, and the expenses they have to pay, e.g. utilities, fuel and training.
Some social workers may choose to work voluntarily, e.g. helplines, or combine unpaid work with paid social work.
As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). Some employers will pay more than this, but it will depend on the organisation and role on offer.
Types of social work roles to specialise in
Not only are there opportunities for social workers to move up the career ladder and work in various settings, but there are plenty of opportunities for them to specialise in different roles, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- Safeguarding social workers – specialise in safeguarding children and/or vulnerable adults.
- Children’s social workers – help vulnerable babies, children and teenagers.
- Forensic social workers – specialise in cases where individuals with mental health issues may come into contact with the criminal justice system.
Court social workers – specialise in court work and care proceedings.
- Hospital social workers – work in NHS or private hospitals and with individuals with different needs.
- Military social workers – work for the armed forces and support military personnel and their families.
- Mental health social workers – specialise in individuals with a variety of mental illnesses and any associated issues, e.g. addiction. They will usually need to be a qualified Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP).
- Fostering social workers – protect vulnerable children and find, work with and support foster carers and families. Sometimes they are known as supervising social workers.
- Substance abuse/misuse social workers – specialise in people who have substance abuse/misuse problems.
- Palliative care social workers – support individuals with serious or life-threatening diseases and specialise in end-of-life care.
- Independent social workers – usually self-employed and work in different areas of social work.
Social workers may decide to specialise in a particular group, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- The elderly.
- Adults/children with learning or physical disabilities.
- Adults/children with mental health conditions.
- Adults/children abusing substances, e.g. alcohol and drugs.
- Adults/children at risk of neglect or abuse.
- Individuals experiencing domestic violence.
- Children and young people missing school.
- Families in crisis or at risk of breaking down.
- Young offenders.
- The homeless.
- Refugees and asylum seekers.
- Foster carers and adopters.
There are many different social work roles and specialisms to choose from and far too many to mention here. Some social workers may decide to specialise in one area or group. Some may work in different areas and with various groups.
All different social work roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. Some may need specific qualifications and additional training for specialised areas and groups. Most social workers will need to know how to build relationships with different people, assess individuals’ needs, plan, organise and manage support, and cope with high caseloads. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for in a social worker and the type of work a social worker wants to carry out.
If social workers do not carry out their role effectively, it can put clients (and others) at risk and, in worse cases, may even cost lives. It can also attract unwanted negative media attention if people are harmed. Therefore, whatever the type of role, social workers must have the necessary competence (knowledge, skills and experience) to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency and not take on responsibilities if they have not been trained and are not competent.
Social work standards, guidance and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, social workers need to keep abreast with the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain legally compliant and ensure they carry out their roles effectively and safely. CPD gives social workers the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them stay registered and allows them to progress their career.
Joining a professional body can help prospective and current social workers enhance their skills and overall career. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) offers different levels of membership, CPD, advice and support, access to industry contacts and networking events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression within social work, and it is a diverse field. With more qualifications and experience, a social worker can become a senior social worker, team manager or consultant. They can also decide to focus on a specific area of social work, such as fostering, mental health or child protection. Alternatively, they may choose to become self-employed as an independent social worker or work for an agency.
Having the knowledge, skills and experience in social work can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, a social worker may want to work in education, training, management, research or supervision. They may want to work in other industries, such as mental health, healthcare, criminal justice and politics. Finally, they may decide to combine social work with other roles, such as nursing, or study for a PhD.
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