What Social Workers Do
Social workers help individuals, groups, and families prevent and cope with problems in their everyday lives. Clinical social workers diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional problems.
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
- Monitor clients' situations, and follow up to ensure that they have improved
- Maintain case files and records
- 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, being diagnosed with a terminal illness, or preventing and treating substance abuse.
Some social workers get involved at a broad level to help community organizations and policymakers develop or improve social programs, services, and conditions. This is sometimes referred to as macro social work.
Advocacy is an important aspect of social work. Social workers advocate or raise awareness with and on behalf of their clients and constituents. Additionally, they may advocate for the social work occupation on local, state, and national levels.
Social workers who are licensed to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional disorders are called clinical social workers (CSW), licensed clinical social workers (LCSW), or have a similar title; specific titles vary by state. They provide individual, group, family, and couples therapy; work with clients to develop strategies to change behavior or cope with difficult situations; and refer clients to other resources or services, such as support groups or other mental health workers. Clinical social workers may develop treatment plans with the client, doctors, and other healthcare workers and may adjust the treatment plan if necessary based on their client’s progress. They may work in a variety of specialties.
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. They help students with problems such as aggressive behavior or bullying. Additionally, school social workers meet with families to discuss issues such as access to special education resources or frequent student absences.
Healthcare social workers help clients understand their diagnosis and adjust their lifestyle, housing, or healthcare. For example, they may help people transition from the hospital to their homes and communities. In addition, they may provide information about services, such as home healthcare or support groups, to help clients manage their illness or disease. Social workers help doctors and other healthcare workers understand the effects that diseases and illnesses have on clients’ 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. These workers often are licensed clinical social workers.
Social workers held about 728,600 jobs in 2022. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up social workers was distributed as follows:
|Child, family, and school social workers||355,300|
|Healthcare social workers||191,400|
|Mental health and substance abuse social workers||113,500|
|Social workers, all other||68,400|
The largest employers of social workers were as follows:
|Individual and family services||17%|
|Ambulatory healthcare services||14|
|Local government, excluding education and hospitals||14|
|State government, excluding education and hospitals||13|
|Hospitals; state, local, and private||10|
Most social workers work in an office setting. They may spend time visiting clients and meeting with colleagues and community specialists or other support workers. 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.
Injuries and Illnesses
Social workers, all other have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. (“Social workers, all other” includes criminal justice social workers, adult protective service social workers, and forensic social workers, among other titles.)
Most social workers are employed full time. They sometimes work evenings, weekends, and holidays to see clients or attend meetings, and they may be on call.
How to Become a Social Worker
Social workers typically need a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. They also may need a license; specific requirements vary by state.
Clinical social workers need a master’s degree, supervised clinical experience, and a license from the state in which they practice.
Education and Training
Most social workers need either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree from a program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education.
A bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is the most common requirement for entry-level nonclinical social worker positions. BSW programs teach students about diverse populations, human behavior, social welfare policy, and ethics in social work. All programs require students to complete supervised fieldwork or an internship.
Clinical social workers typically need a master’s degree in social work (MSW). These programs prepare students for work in their chosen specialty by developing clinical assessment and diagnostic skills. Some nonclinical social workers also may complete master’s-level programs. MSW programs generally take 2 years to complete and include a supervised practicum or internship.
A bachelor’s degree in social work is not required in order to enter a master’s degree program in social work. Although a bachelor’s degree in almost any field is acceptable, common majors include public policy and social services, psychology, or social science. Recommended coursework includes sociology, economics, and political science. Some programs allow graduates with a bachelor’s degree in social work to earn their master’s degree in under 2 years.
After obtaining an MSW degree, clinical social workers must complete supervised training and experience. The length of clinical training varies by state but may take several years.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
All states require clinical social workers to be licensed. Some states also require nonclinical social workers to have a license or credential.
Becoming a licensed clinical social worker requires a master’s degree in social work from an accredited program and supervised clinical experience after graduation. After completing their supervised experience, clinical social workers must pass a clinical exam to be licensed.
Because licensing requirements vary by state, those interested should contact their state licensure board. For more information about regulatory licensure boards by state, visit the Association of Social Work Boards.
Overall employment of social workers is projected to grow 7 percent from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations.
About 63,800 openings for social workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Projected employment of social workers varies by occupation (see table).
Child, family, and school social workers will be needed to help strengthen parenting skills, prevent child abuse, and identify alternative homes for children who are unable to live with their biological families. However, employment growth for these social workers may be limited by federal, state, and local budget constraints.
Healthcare social workers will continue to be needed to help aging populations and their families adjust to new treatments, medications, and lifestyles.
Employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers will grow as more people seek treatment for mental illness and for substance abuse, especially recovery from opioid use disorder. In addition, drug offenders are increasingly being directed to treatment programs, which are staffed by these social workers, as a supplement or occasionally an alternative to incarceration.
Contacts for More Information
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
Occupational Requirements Survey
For a profile highlighting selected BLS data on occupational requirements, see
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 2022|
|Health Education Specialists||
Health education specialists develop programs to teach people about conditions affecting well-being.
|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 rehabilitating 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||$85,330|
Rehabilitation counselors help people with physical, mental, developmental, or emotional disabilities live independently.
|School and Career Counselors and Advisors||
School counselors help students develop academic and social skills. Career counselors and advisors 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||$38,520|
|Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors||
Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors advise people on a range of issues, such as those relating to alcoholism, addictions, or depression.