Social Work: Who and What?

March is National Social Work Month. As a proud social worker, I thought I should write an article honouring the profession. I haven’t written specifically about social work since 2014, and this month, I thought it might be useful to look at the profession more broadly.

And then, of course, my mind jumped to the ridiculous: try to address this question in one article?! It’s an interesting challenge, particularly when I think that my introductory textbook on social work was over 500 pages long!

So, how to tame the beast? Instead of trying to be one hundred percent comprehensive, I thought I’d touch on some basic information on social work and social workers that might be relevant to the public, with apologies to social work historians and academics.

Social Work Qualities

It seems like a good starting point to touch on the values that social workers bring to the profession.

The International Federation of Social Workers, has a global definition of social work that I’m particularly fond of:

Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.  Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.

And the Canadian Association of Social Workers weighs in too, emphasizing the importance of relationship:

Human rights and social justice are the philosophical underpinnings of social work practice. The uniqueness of social work practice is in the blend of some particular values, knowledge and skills, including the use of relationship as the basis of all interventions and respect for the client’s choice and involvement.

Scope of Practice

As you may imagine, social work is a very broad field. A useful way of breaking it down, can be using the framework I was taught in my early social work education:

Micro Social Work

Sometimes known as clinical social work, this is work with clients that is typically happening on a one on one basis, or with couples, families or small groups. Examples include, counselling / therapy, advocacy for a particular person / situation, and sourcing and brokering resources for clients.

Mezzo Social Work

This kind of social work is often focused on working in and with communities, neighbourhoods and groups to effect change. Examples include community program development, education, organizing and community empowerment practices.

Macro Social Work

This form of social work typically has less direct client contact and is more focused on effecting larger-scale social change. Examples include research, analysis, major program development, teaching, policy and social reform.

Of course, more than one level of social work may be happening at the same time! There is not necessarily rigid boundaries between each, as social workers can move in and out fluidly, depending on what they are helping with.

Where Do Social Workers Work?

The settings social workers find themselves in are diverse and include, but are not limited to:

  • Hospitals
  • Community Agencies
  • Schools
  • Colleges and Universities
  • Correctional Facilities
  • The Court System
  • Community Health Clinics
  • Government
  • Child Welfare
  • Care Homes
  • Addictions Treatment Centres
  • Counselling Centres
  • Mental Health Clinics
  • Employee Assistance Programs
  • Private Practice

What do Social Workers Do?

One short response to this question would be that social workers, no matter what setting they are working in, are looking to maximize what is called “the person-environment fit”: understanding people based on the environments and situations that they are living in and then helping them to better these conditions, so people can live their best possible lives. This can mean making changes to specific life conditions or situations, or co-creating new conditions altogether.

This can also mean creating change from the inside out; for example, social work therapists may assist clients to achieve meaningful psychological (internal) changes that have significant effects on the way that clients relate to their outside (external) world.

In their work, social workers employ many skills including, but not limited to:

  • Counselling / Psychotherapy
  • Assessment
  • Crisis intervention
  • Identifying and brokering resources and services
  • Group facilitation
  • Community organizing
  • Advocacy
  • Letter-writing
  • Research
  • Policy development
  • Teaching
  • Psychoeducation
  • Consultation
  • Planning
  • Management
  • Collaboration, especially with clients
  • Clinical Supervision

Legal Stuff

The Canadian Association of Social Workers estimates that as of 2016, there are 50,000 regulated social workers practicing in Canada.

Social Worker is a protected title and the authorization to use it is regulated by each province. In the province of BC, it is an offence for an individual to call themselves a social worker unless they are registered with the College of Social Workers, or unless they work for an employer that is exempted from this rule, under the Social Workers Act.  The BC College of Social Workers has specific educational and practical requirements for their registrants.

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive overview of social work, but it does me much good to reflect on the profession that I love, and I hope addresses questions you may have had about it. Thank you for reading!