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Social work can cover a variety of different roles. The core principle of social work is to help societies function better and ensure that all individuals’ welfare is catered for. For example this may include working with those who are socially excluded through drug abuse or violence, working with the aged or very poor and helping children or families. The role itself may involve providing a range of social services.
The role of a social worker can be hugely varied and social work refers to a broad range of activities related to promoting social wellbeing and welfare for a range of individuals. At a high level social work aims to set up programmes to enable and encourage all members of a community or society to engage with society as a whole. In this respect social work will often involve working with individuals who may be socially excluded through misfortune, disability or personal choice.
A social worker will be expected to cater for the needs of a variety of individuals, and facilities are often multidisciplinary to cater for a wide range of problems. However, the majority of social workers are likely to have expertise in a particular area.
The role is most likely to include working with impoverished individuals or in underdeveloped areas. The locale can include specialist centres, youth centres, schools, hospitals, residential nursing homes, medical clinics or day care centres.
Social work is not well paid in general and starting salaries will normally be between £14,000 and £20,000 although the area you work in will affect this. With experience, salaries are likely to increase and it may be possible to move into supervisory or management positions. Salaries for these roles are likely to be around £25,000 to £50,000 depending upon experience and the size of the team.
Unlike many government sponsored enterprises there is no recommended pay scale for social work in general and thus salaries will likely vary by area and agency.
Social workers are responsible for ensuring that individuals are able to integrate themselves within society. Subsequently, by definition, the job is likely to involve working with individuals who are unable to function ‘normally’. Social work is therefore a very important role as failure to evaluate situations and follow the duty of care can have severe consequences.
Social workers will often work closely with psychologists, psychiatrists or other medical professionals as well as lawyers and the police and will have a joint duty of care. However, social workers may be the first to come into contact with a family, group or individual experiencing problems and must be able to relay details of the issues to the appropriate people. Typical responsibilities will include:
- Interviewing and meeting individuals and or/ families to listen and evaluate issues and where appropriate discuss problems
- Keeping records of discussions and progress updates for individual cases; this may involve liaising with medical staff and take the form of a formal written assessment
- Providing assistance in resolving minor mental health issues
- Advising on the best course of action/ care for individuals, couples, families and/or clients to resolve issues
- Providing a comprehensive and methodical analysis and notes to assist in the diagnosis or resolution of a problem
- Referring individuals to qualified medical professionals as and when necessary
- Organising support packages. This might include providing a service such as meals on wheels for the elderly or arranging for a nurse to attend to a patient on a regular basis. It may also include arranging for amendments to an individual’s home, such as installing appropriate equipment to cater for disability
- Making arrangements for foster care to be put in place or, in extreme circumstances, organising custodial arrangements for children of other at risk individuals
- Supervising discussions between parties to help them resolve a situation in the most amicable means possible. This may involve acting as a formal mediator
- Presenting evidence for legal cases and in some cases giving evidence in court
- Acting within the ethical bounds of the profession, maintaining client/ patient confidentiality and ensuring that emotional distress is minimised.
You will under most circumstances need to have 5 grade A-C GCSEs and 2 A-levels or a recognised HND qualification as a minimum. The majority of better paid jobs will be offered to graduates and degrees in social services, education, psychology or nursing may prove beneficial.
As of 2003 the system was changed and in order to become a social worker in the UK you should look to complete a General Social Care Council accredited qualification. The minimum permitted qualification is an honours or postgraduate degree in social work. These courses are part theoretical/ part vocational but you must complete 200 days of assessed practice in a range of settings. A list of accredited courses is available here.
The majority of universities will offer similar courses and have a range of placements with different agencies and bodies. Degree courses are generally fairly similar and will look to provide a base knowledge to enable you to work with a variety of different service users. As a minimum you will be expected to have experience with two different user groups and work in two different areas.
The Department of Health has published a comprehensive set of criteria that social workers must meet.
It is possible to study courses on a full or part time basis and if you are already working for an authority offering social services or work in a related profession it is worth speaking to your employer to see if they will sponsor you to take a course.
It is possible to obtain funding from the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) in order to study for a course.
It is also possible to become an Approved Social Worker (ASW). An ASW is a qualified and experienced social worker who has received authorisation from a Local Authority. You will need to have undertaken a range of post-qualification training in order to qualify and will need to renew your approval after 5 years.
Technical Skills – as detailed above you will need to meet minimum threshold criteria in order to practise.
Communication – strong inter-personal and communication skills are a must. There will be many difficult situations involved within the job and it will be necessary to liaise with a range of different people suffering with acute problems. Tolerance, patience, subtlety, tact, understanding and patience are essential. You will also need to have strong listening and negotiation skills.
Ethics – social workers need to have a well defined ethical philosophy as they are responsible for ensuring the mental and emotional health of individuals and groups who may be severely disadvantaged. It is imperative that you are able to remove yourself from the work environment and maintain a professional distance from the subject when appropriate.
Independence – there may be situations where an individual is termed “at risk” and as a consequence you have to make arrangements for them to be put into care or custodial arrangements. You may be expected to present evidence in court and failure to act with due care and diligence can result in injury or death in some cases. These situations can be difficult to judge. For example, a child may not wish to leave their parents but could be under extreme risk if they remain under their care; consequently you will have to make a call on what is the most appropriate course of action.
Teamwork – you will be expected to work with a wide range of individuals, including nurses and doctors to ensure what is best for a patient.
Working conditions will vary considerably between the different fields and the working environment will be defined by the job. Social work can be intense, stressful and emotionally draining.
Social work may involve working standard office hours but may equally involve shift work outside normal office hours. In general you should normally expect to work around 37 hours per week; however, depending on your role you may have to travel extensively.
Social workers should be on their guard and when working in certain fields need to understand the risks of working with individuals with severe issues. This can include violent, abusive or obsessive behaviours and can be highly distressing.
Following government legislation, social work in the UK tends to be multidisciplinary and you will likely work with a range of other professionals, carers and social workers with different specialisms.
There is a large number of voluntary posts available and before committing to the job full time it is worth obtaining experience on a voluntary basis to see if this career is for you.
The Department of Health is the main link to finding work in the UK.
Local Authorities and Councils will also offer a range of social services.
The Care Quality Commission also has a database of social services that may be useful.
Other employers include:
- Primary care trusts
- Doctors’ surgeries
- Hospitals and hospices
- Residential and private nursing homes
- Voluntary and independent agencies
Most organisations will offer management or supervisory roles, however, this may involve more time in an office and less work with service users. It is also possible to specialise in a variety of different fields and move between them.
It is also possible to move into auditing roles offered by Care Quality Commission or to move into social research or academic positions.
Also known as…
- Welfare worker
- Medical social worker
- Public servant
What’s it really like?
How long have you been in this particular job / industry?
I’ve now been working as a customer service adviser for a London borough local authority for 18 months. I work in the substance misuse team.
What did you do before this job?
Social work represented a complete career change for me although my degree is accredited which allows me to work in social care. Before this I was working as a conference organiser and constituency caseworker in an MP’s office. This involved working in Westminster with MPs and I had good exposure to a range of societal issues.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
I work on the front desk of a borough substance misuse team. We assist people who want to beat their addiction, giving people that telephone and walk-in off the street information about available services and supporting them in attending appointments. I also deal with queries from the criminal justice service, GPs, hospitals, and associated social services. I work to support a team of nurses in performing their duties, managing their appointments and the maintenance of the building. I can be doing anything from sorting the post and issuing travel expenses, to advising families on parenting and anger management classes. I also regularly deal with emergency situations requiring police or ambulance support. Good planning, team working and reporting are a must.
What do you like about the job?
Meeting new people and building friendships with them as they progress through their treatment. In this job you are facing the constant challenges that crop up such as dealing with particularly vulnerable or volatile people. This means that the role can be very frustrating and also equally fulfilling.
What do you dislike about the job?
Catching everybody else’s colds! This can be a very draining role. For example we have regular occurrences where our service users threaten us or act inappropriately and you have to be mentally strong in order to deal with this. We have also been exposed to theft as we have a multidisciplinary team including doctors and other medical professionals and there was an attempted theft of some of the substances we keep on site. I have also met our service users when not at work. Sometimes individuals are unable to dissociate you from your work persona. You therefore have to be very careful not to expose yourself to risk.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Think happy thoughts and use patience and understanding – it always gives the best results (which leads to less paperwork!) Also speak to someone who does the role. If you contact your local authority you may be able to spend some time as a social care assistant or get some voluntary work. Following a degree programme and then realising that this isn’t the career for you is not the best way of going about things.
What job(s) do you think you might do after this role (i.e. career progression)?
I am currently thinking of moving into an administrative role for an international substance misuse Non Government Organisation (“NGO”) like Medicines Sans Frontier
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?
Focus on what you can do to improve diversity, equality and inclusiveness – the public sector loves their buzz words and if you use them in relation to a real life example in an interview they will love you!