The role of a social worker can take many forms. From clinical to administrative, there are several specializations a social worker can pursue. However, no matter their specific expertise, social workers share some common education, traits, and soft skills across the board that help them make the lives of their clients and patients better.
Marioli Sterling is a social worker based in New York City. She was born in Panama and did her primary schooling there. When Sterling immigrated to the United States after high school, she was exposed to many more career options than she could have imagined back home in Panama. After studying business for a short time, she landed on social work as her preferred career path in order to help others.
While in school, Sterling focused on public administration as her specialization because of its overlapping requirements with her business degree. Now she uses her expertise and advises on a range of topics that affect the everyday life of members of her community.
As a social worker, Marioli Sterling knows just how much confusion surrounds the role of a social worker. Are they therapists, advocates or administrators? Do they help individuals, families or groups? “The wonderful thing about social work is that it can take many forms,” says Sterling. “Depending on where your interests and strengths lie, you can specialize in different fields.” For example, Marioli Sterling identifies three main categories a social worker might find themselves working in.
Public health social workers might be the type of social worker you expect to see in hospitals. They are often responsible for helping people who have been diagnosed with a serious illness or who have experienced a life-altering accident or injury.
A public health social worker works with the patients and their families to help manage the change through advising caregivers, providing education and counselling, and referring them to additional services such as support groups and resources specific to their case. Public health social workers are often employed by assisted living homes and health care centers as well as hospitals.
Mental Health and Addiction
Mental health and addiction social workers are the kind of social worker you might encounter in a clinical setting, says Morioli Sterling. They offer support to those struggling with emotional stress, mental health issues, as well as addictions and substance abuse problems.
An addictions and mental health social worker may provide individual and group counselling, crisis intervention, education, and even referral services.
Family and Education Services
Family, child or school social workers provide assistance and advocacy services to families and children in order to improve their social and psychological functioning. In the school setting, they attempt to maximize the academic functioning of children by targeting both school and family sources. Family social workers may also be the individuals often portrayed in television and movies who work within the foster system to locate homes for displaced children and work on cases of reported abuse.
Family, child or school social workers advise caregivers and teachers, help families handle misbehaviors and traumas, and work with families as a liaison between government programs, hospitals, and courts.
“These are just some examples of what a social worker might take on as part of their professional role,” says Marioli Sterling. “But what it takes to be a social worker is so much more than these basic tasks.” Social workers are expert relationship builders, she explains, which is a skill that most people who encounter a social worker might not consider.
No matter the objective, as a social worker it’s important to be able to build trust and understanding between parties in order to achieve success. “That’s why so many social workers find that they truly personally care about their clients—because they’ve built strong relationships with them,” she says.
What it Takes to Be a Social Worker
Another common theme you might notice about social workers’ roles, Sterling points out, is that no matter their specialization they must always be an expert communicator. Whether it’s talking to patients, their families, or to other groups or organizations on their behalf, it’s pertinent that a social worker understands and can adapt to a range of communication styles to solve problems, create understanding, and defuse stressful situations. “Part of being a great communicator is knowing how to listen,” says Sterling. “I find a lot of my job is just listening to others’ points of view in order to better understand, communicate, and build those relationships.”
Social work is a very involved profession. Even once the work day is done, social workers continue to think about their patients and clients, worry about outcomes, and try to find solutions in their down time. “Ultimately,” says Marioli Sterling, “Compassion is the most important criterion for becoming a social worker, but you must be able to manage the stress that comes with it.”
In the end, a social worker can wear many hats. Depending on their specialization, you might find them in homes, hospitals, clinics, and even on government teams advising on policy. But no matter where you encounter a social worker, you can rest assured that he or she is compassionate, passionate about their job, and one of the best communicators you will ever meet.