Social work emerged in the United Kingdom and North America in the late 19th Century to help address social inequalities that became increasingly visible as a result of the industrial revolution. Before social workers existed, the protective role now performed by social workers was largely performed by churches and charities. The relatively early introduction of university level training in the United States (Columbia University), the United Kingdom and Australia means that social work has been a recognised profession for much of the last century.
Now, social workers are key members of health and social care teams in many countries and regions throughout the world, with a focus on promoting social change and development, the empowerment of people and communities, and enhancing social cohesion and equality. This profession is in high demand globally.
Social workers roles have evolved in different ways in response to major social and economic shifts – in particular depression, world wars, the introduction of the welfare state and most recently COVID-19. However, the “social” context of the social work profession also means that the workforce has developed along different theoretical underpinnings and philosophies.
This is a dynamic area of allied health practice that originated as a movement to promote equality and reduce poverty.
It is a practice-based profession with extensive theoretical underpinnings; human rights and social justice are central to this profession.
In terms of work settings and services provided, it is one of the more diverse allied health professions, working with people of all ages, life stages, and circumstances, to identify issues they need help to address, with a view to improving their emotional and social wellbeing. They undertake thorough psychosocial assessments with clients to understand their unique context, social environment, and wellbeing goals.
They are flexible and adaptable allied health professionals who often work as part of multidisciplinary teams, and have excellent communication and problem-solving skills and focus on building trusting relationships with the people they work with. They are instrumental in linking their clients in with existing community-based services, and may also provide therapy, care coordination, and advocacy support.
Social workers can be found in countries and regions across the globe, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK, the USA, Africa, throughout the Asia Pacific Region, in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.
They play an important role in a range of health and social care settings, and often work in community health services, public and private hospitals, in aged care facilities, disability services, mental health services, and alcohol and other drug support services.
These allied health professionals can also work in correctional institutions and other justice settings, employment support, domestic violence support services, child protection, social housing services, refugee support services, research and education settings, in policy development roles, and other settings and roles.
Professional education and regulatory frameworks
Social workers in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada hold either a bachelor’s degree in social work or a master’s level social work degree. Some will go on to complete a graduate certificate in a specific area of social work practice (for example, case management) or even a PhD. University qualifications involve a combination of theoretical curriculum and workplace-based experience.
In the UK, social workers hold either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work or a postgraduate diploma. There are also options for postgraduate certificates in specialised areas of social work (for example, in mental health practice).
The professional education requirements in the USA vary according to the settings in which the social worker is employed. For example, to work in a nursing facility, social workers need to hold a bachelor’s degree, but to work in Veteran’s Affairs or school settings, they must have a master’s level degree in social work.
This profession is self-regulated in Australia (Australian Association of Social Workers), New Zealand (New Zealand Government), and the UK (Social Work England). State-based regulation is in place in Canada and the USA.
Social workers are in high demand globally. A quick job search in Australia (via seek.com.au) reveals at least 30,000 jobs listed for “social workers”.
Similarly, a search via indeed.com in the UK, shows there are more than 10,000 unfilled jobs for this profession. In both cases, some of these jobs are not specific to social work, but clearly indicates a concerning demand.
This is one of a few allied health professions that has an established global body: the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW).
The IFSW promotes international cooperation and best practice, with a view to achieving social justice, human rights, and social development across the world.
Here are some links to websites and resources:
- Australian Association of Social Workers
- Social work – Allied Health Professions Australia
- Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers
- Social Work England
- National Association of Social Workers | USA
- Canadian Association of Social Workers
- International Federation of Social Workers
If you have questions about the social work profession, or if you wish to share your experiences as a social worker, please leave a comment below.
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