What Is A Social Worker? (With Duties and Qualifications)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 27 July 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

A career in social work can be a rewarding experience for people who dedicate their careers to their communities and interested in improving the lives of others. Social workers work with children, families and the elderly to provide them with the resources they need. If you want a career to help others within your community, consider becoming a social worker. In this article, we discuss what a social worker is, what a social worker does, how it differs from a therapist, how to become a social worker and what skills they use.

What is a social worker?

A social worker is a professional who works with people in crises to give them the support, resources and information they need. They meet with clients and work to understand their unique needs by analysing their environment. They can help with a variety of social problems like:

  • Homelessness

  • Domestic violence

  • Alcohol addiction

  • Drug addiction

  • Sexual assault

  • Child abuse

  • Bereavement

  • Centrelink entitlements

  • Financial illiteracy

Social workers can work in a private practice by themselves, or with a group of social workers and mental health professionals. They are also based in hospitals, outpatient centres, schools or residential care facilities, so they are readily available to provide services that may improve their patient's quality of life. Social workers work with clients from a variety of educational institutions, backgrounds, cultures, religions and disabilities.

What does a social worker do?

The responsibilities of a social worker can be different depending on where they work and what types of services they specialise in. Here are some types of social workers, and what their responsibilities may be:

Child, family and school social worker

Social workers can assess educational, home and neighbourhood environments for children and their parents. A social worker may work with the parents or the school administration to determine whether the child's wellbeing is upheld in their current circumstance. In extreme cases, they may have to remove children from their place of education or home and find a safer environment for them to live and learn. They may also supply parents with resources that are useful for improving a resident's home situation. These types of social workers are often based at schools, government entities and foster care agencies.

Medical and public health

Social workers can work with people diagnosed with chronic illnesses to help them navigate medical care. They can often educate patients on the treatments they may face and outline additional public assistance the patient is entitled to. These professionals also work with patients to develop coping mechanisms and counselling to address the mental strain of having a chronic illness. A public health social worker can also work to educate communities about the spread of diseases and how to prevent them.

Mental health and substance abuse

Mental health and substance abuse social workers can communicate with patients diagnosed with mental illness or who are overcoming addiction. They can coordinate rehabilitation programs and specialised counselling for their patients. Patients may need help to find an affordable rehab facility or therapy program that addresses their individual needs. Social workers working in mental health or substance abuse can also manage outreach programs to help identify members of the community who may benefit from their help. This type of social worker usually operates in hospitals, residential treatment facilities, community organisations and government agencies.


A community social worker provides education and resources about social justice in their neighbourhoods, towns or cities. They can help organise community members around relevant issues and create spaces for people to discuss and formulate action plans to improve their communities. Community social workers typically work for government agencies.


Military social workers can work with service members or their families to assist with the transition into and out of their time in service. These social workers can assess the well-being of service members to identify post-traumatic stress disorder or help service members develop coping mechanisms to adjust to living with sustained injuries. They can also help families of service members who are adjusting to the injuries, deployment or loss of loved ones in the military. These social workers typically work for the military, though social workers working in the private sector often service members of the military.

Social worker vs. therapist

Social workers often train in psychotherapy mental health help. However, they often receive broad instruction during their schooling to become social workers and are more informed on counselling and government services. Therapists receive more specialised education in illnesses and treatments. For example, a therapist may specialise in the diagnosing and treatment of depression in a client, whereas a social worker works in an institution to educate others and provide information about resources open to people living in harmful circumstances or suffer with a wide range of mental illnesses.

What qualifications do you need to become a social worker?

Here are some qualifications that a social worker can get to be qualified to practice social work in Australia:

Bachelor's degree in social work

Most social workers have a degree in social work from a four-year program that is accredited by the Australian Association of Social Workers. While studying, you can learn about what types of social work may interest you, as well as how to provide care to members of your community. There are a variety of universities in Australia that offer bachelors in social work.

Master of Social Work

Though you can practise social work with a bachelor's degree, you may choose to continue your education and choose a speciality through a two-year master's degree in social work. This degree can improve your understanding of the theory and practices of social work. With a higher level of specialised education, you may also gain eligibility to jobs with higher salary expectations.

Counselling experience

You may be interested in gaining counselling experience by volunteering with community organizations while getting your bachelor's or masters. This experience can help you establish connections at organizations when you are looking for a position after your degree. It can also help you gain an understanding of the type of work social workers do and if it suits you. By gathering a variety of experiences, you can determine if there is a specialisation that is appealing to you.

Australian Association of Social Workers membership

Once you have a bachelor's degree from an accredited institution, you can apply to join the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW). This organisation is the professional representative body of social workers in Australia. Being a member provides access to a significant number of employment opportunities. It can also provide you with connections and opportunities to network that can have a positive impact on your career, and keep you updated on important developments within the field of social work.

Related: Interpersonal Skills: Definitions and Examples

Look for a job

With the necessary education and qualifications needed to become a social worker in Australia, the final step is to start applying for jobs. Consider what communities you would like to work with, and which specialised area you hold the most interest. Draft a resume that outlines your previous experience and education, showcasing how those experiences make you a strong candidate for the position.

Social worker skills

Here are some skills that a social worker uses:

  • Empathy: empathy is the ability to identify with another person's experience and understand their feelings. Social workers use these skills to build relationships with clients and determine their needs.

  • Communication skills: the ability to share information clearly, either verbally or non-verbally. Social workers use this skill to educate their clients and their families and to understand the needs of their clients.

  • Organisation: the ability to keep track of and manage a range of schedules and tasks. Social workers use this skill to maintain busy schedules and a range of responsibilities for a variety of clients with different needs.

  • Cultural sensitivity: the understanding of the difference between cultures and how they may affect a person's experience of different situations. This sensitivity allows social workers to be respective and responsive to different cultural practices. They use this skill to provide resources and understand the needs of their clients of different cultures.

  • Active listening: active listeners pay close attention to someone and retain the information they are trying to impart. Social workers use this skill to build relationships with their clients and make them feel safe when sharing potentially traumatizing stories.

  • Critical thinking: the ability to analyse information without bias. Social workers use this skill when interacting with their clients to determine the best resources or programs of care for their clients.

Related: Communication Skills: Definitions and Examples

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