Social workers perform an irreplaceable function in communities, and for this a very specific set of social worker skills is required. Social workers help individuals, couples, families, communities, organizations and groups to develop the skills and resources necessary to enhance their social functioning. They provide therapy and counseling as well as referrals to various other supportive social services. They also respond to needs created by poverty, racism and unemployment.
Social workers are employed in child welfare organizations, community agencies, school boards, employee assistance programs, social service agencies, correctional facilities, and in private practice.
Social Worker Skills
The social worker skills that are required are many and are diverse, as working in the areas, with the individuals, and under the conditions that they work takes a very special kind of person. Someone who becomes a social worker does it not for glory or for the salary but because they have received a calling to help their fellow men and women. It is as much a labor of love as an essential service.
A social worker needs great powers of observation in order to be effective. It is important that you use your senses to observe and record not only the client’s verbal responses, but also their non-verbal communication. Observing the client’s body-language will often tell you far more than the words that are coming out of their mouth.
This skill is crucial to correctly assess exactly what the clients’ emotional health and mental stability is, especially when making psychosocial assessments. It also helps to see when there is something really wrong in a family even though the client may be telling you completely the opposite.
Self-awareness is one of the social worker skills that is crucial, as it is integral to a social worker’s efficacy. A high degree of self awareness engenders in a social worker the ability to identify any transference or counter-transference issues that there may be and to utilize that information to assess the quality of the treatment interventions that are being used.
As a social worker you will often have to rely on use of self within the context of the therapeutic relationship and will require you to develop and refine a keen awareness of your assumptions, motivations, expectations and biases. You will need to observe, explore and articulate how your feelings and thoughts impact your behavior and how your behavior in turn impacts on others. This is a mandatory for the conscious development and direction of a helping relationship in order to facilitate change in the client.
Critical thinking is also one of the social worker skills that you cannot do without if you are thinking of going into this line of work. As a social worker your day will consist of gathering and interpreting data through various means, including through interviews, reviewing case-file documentation, clinical supervision, research, consultation, and observation. These all influence the client’s assessment, diagnosis, treatment, evaluation, and termination.
Critical thinking, observation and self-awareness intersect and interact with each other in order to influence your practice and orientation. You may need to interview elderly clients who are suffering from depression to determine what medical treatment, services or social programs is required and would work best for them.
It will often be necessary to interview both clients and their families, about social supports and stressors such as financial difficulties, and to read between the lines and pick up the invisible clues as to what is causing the problem in order to make the right assessment and develop a program that will best help them.
Critical thinking can be further broken down into a few more social worker skills which are necessary and required in order to consider your assumptions, motivations, self-awareness and expectations and how they shape the way in which you analyze and draw your conclusions from the available data:
- As a Social Worker you may not provide clients who are intoxicated or under the influence of narcotics with any type of service, and will have to explain this to the client whilst keeping them calm. You will have to encourage them to come back when they are sober and may also arrange for transportation to a detoxification center.
- You may often have problems in accessing the required services for your client duet to long waiting lists or a shortage of resources. In these cases you will need to help your client to develop a contingency plan and may need to provide them with interim counseling whilst waiting for the requisite services to become available. Getting the services your client needs may take some thinking outside of the box, like lobbying other agencies to change their admission criteria or develop some much-needed additional client services.
- Sometimes a client will be difficult and hostile, or even suicidal, and it may take all of your social worker skills to address their behavior, clarify what is expected from them, and define acceptable personal boundaries and behaviors. There will be times when the client refuses to adjust their behavior and it may become necessary for you to terminate your relationship with them and refer them to another resource such as an anger management class.
- Sometimes it is not the client that will create problems but one of his or her family members and you will need to use your critical thinking skills in order to figure out a way to make things work. This may entail you having to use methods such as applying for mental health and child protection warrants to force parents to attend scheduled family social worker visits if you feel that your clients are at risk.
- As part of your job as a social worker you will have to make many decisions, not all of them will be easy and not all of them will be popular, but decision-making is another of your social worker skills that you will put into practice virtually every day.
- You will need to assess a client’s language skills from information received from referral sources and your first interaction with them, consider your own language abilities and decide whether it is necessary to request the services of an interpreter, whilst also assessing whether you think the client would be comfortable with an interpreter present.
- Some of the most important decisions that you will need to make will be when assessing the client’s counseling needs, treatment plans and goals, as you will be required to select suitable programs and social services and ensure that they are placed.
- Choosing the correct counseling strategies and therapies according to your assessment of the client’s problems, treatment costs, the appropriateness of the intervention, and the client’s preferences will also need to be done, according to your organization’s precedents and protocols.
- Choosing whether to continue a client’s counseling or terminate it is sometimes a very difficult decision to make, but one which has to be done at times due to various factors which you will have to weigh up.
- Sometimes you will need to make difficult decisions regarding the safety of the client or others. If, for example, a client is exhibiting suicidal or violent behavior, or there is suspected physical or sexual abuse of a minor, it may be necessary to call emergency services.
Planning And Organizing
- Your social worker skills should include good planning and organizational skills as you will need to plan your own day. New cases will be assigned to by intake workers, supervisors and managers and you will also have walk-ins and referrals directly from human services agencies and social work departments. Social workers generally have quite a heavy load and if you are not organized you could end up stressing yourself over clients that you could not get to.
- You will need to organize your own counseling appointments, but be flexible with your schedule as there may be emergency situations that need to be taken care of immediately. If you are working in family services you may be required to work very long hours to ensure that your clients, especially if they are children, are safe.
- Social workers in supervisory positions will need to plan and organize tasks for practicum students, other social workers and volunteers. Supervisors also contribute to organizational planning and may also assist with the development of operational policies and practices.
A Good Memory
- A good memory may not sound like one of the most important social worker skills, but it is, as a good recall of protocols for crisis interventions such as suicide assessments is critical. It is also important that you remember names and details of previous counseling sessions with your clients in order to build trust and rapport.
- Remembering the names of commonly used drugs and medications and their effects in order to answer questions that the client may have is really important. It is also important to remember the side effects of antipsychotic medications and to understand their effects on clients.
- Locating information regarding community resources for clients by researching local resource directories, the Internet, and through personal telephone calls to various agencies is a very good skill to have.
- Accessing information regarding suspected cases of child abuse or neglect, conducting interviews with health professionals, friends and neighbors, police officers, teachers, and the children’s families and examining school and medical records are all part of the job for a social worker.
It stands to reason that verbal communication is one of the required social worker skills, as “social” means “relating to human society and its members.”
Verbal communication calls for actively listening to understand and speaking to be understood. This means that you may have to alter your communication style multiple times during a single workday in order to exploit your effectiveness with your clients, community members, colleagues or supervisors.
Verbal communication is central in many diverse settings such as offering testimony as an expert witness in court, advocating for a client in a public benefits office, testifying before legislators, or providing an informative educational presentation in a church hall.
Written communication is definitely in the top of the social worker skills toolkit, as the old adage of “If it isn’t documented, it never happened” rings very true when it comes to social work. This rings especially true if programs are accountable to funders. It is important that you make clear concise notes and keep the records and correspondence up to date. If something is not recorded it could cause big problems down the line, especially if there are legal or criminal activities involved.
You may also be called upon to pen grant proposals when you get to a more senior level, as you will be in a better position to articulate a case for financial support to sustain your program. Grant-writing, proposal-writing, report writing and the ability to write program evaluations and devise treatment plans are all highly valued social worker skills.
Although you will spend most of your day dealing with clients on your own, being able to work in a team is also one of the social worker skills that you will require, as you will have to work in collaboration with other social workers and professionals such as psychologists, therapists, teachers, police officers, medical doctors, psychiatrists and lawyers in order to coordinate treatment strategies.
In amongst our toolbox of social worker skills you need to have some computer skills too, as you will need to do research on the Internet, send and receive e-mails from clients, organizations, other professionals, and many other sources.
You will be required to prepare assessment reports, enter program statistics into a database, generate reports for funders, and retrieve data from our organization’s management database. You may have to use spreadsheets and tracking software, amongst other programs in order to do your job effectively
The last of the social worker skills that you will need is good reading skills as you will spend a lot of time reading reports, skimming case-notes from counseling sessions, reading articles from peer-reviewed journals, resource books, medical reports, investigation reports, affidavits, psychosocial and clinical assessments and many more documents in order to remain up to date and relevant with the latest in medications and methods of treating various conditions.
There are, of course, other social worker skills that may also come in handy, including being non-judgmental, empathetic, and having a driver’s license, but the above have basically covered all the most important social worker skills that you must have and why you need them.