A social worker’s life and work will always be varied. People who enter into social work invest themselves in others—whether they’d like to help improve standards of living for specific people or to help advocate on behalf of multiple groups, it’s a career path that requires an extensive skill set.
However, what some may not realize is that taking care of oneself—and developing transferable skills for everyday life—are just as important for success in social work. While you’ll typically learn various skills and techniques as part of a degree or other program, it’s worth getting to grips with social work skills early.
In this guide, we’ll take you through the essential skills all social workers should develop and practice. These are both important for the people they care for as well as for their everyday well-being.
The cornerstone of social work is being able to communicate clearly and effectively. However, that doesn’t simply mean being willing to listen and knowing when to speak. An effective communicator, especially one who works in social care, takes the time to understand how the people they work with truly feel.
When undertaking a clinical social work masters or other type of degree (at a university such as Cleveland State University), you’ll likely find communication skills run core to all you study. CSU, in particular, helps its students learn how to listen actively and communicate clearly alongside the social working practices needed to help people effectively.
Social workers need to be able to communicate clearly with various groups. They won’t just be speaking with disadvantaged people in need of social care but also healthcare workers, local enforcement, and other public servants.
Therefore, it’s wise for social workers to develop skills that help them dissect information and relay them to specific audiences. For example, they will work with people from all educational and cultural backgrounds, and they’ll need to pick up on non-verbal cues and listen carefully and actively to the people they care for. Communication via writing and documentation, too, is vital. Otherwise, social workers might risk missing out on crucial details that could cause detriment to their patients.
Critical thinking means thinking on your feet efficiently and doing so under pressure. To think critically means taking a wealth of information and treating it without bias.
Social workers will handle a wide range of different details each working day. They’ll learn about their clients’ backgrounds, processes within local government and healthcare frameworks, and the limitations of what they can do to help their patients.
That means they must avoid letting emotion or prejudice get in the way of dissecting and evaluating information. Misjudgment can potentially harm vulnerable people, and it’s within a social worker’s ethical code to prioritize a client’s needs over all other details.
Free from prejudice, a highly skilled social worker can look at cases objectively and make decisions based on the facts available. This may not always work to the advantage of a patient or client if a worker can do little to help them, but it ensures the process is considered fair and within the realms of the law.
Empathy differs from sympathy in that it’s not the act of showing pity but being able to “walk in somebody else’s shoes.” A social worker who shows empathy will find it easy to appreciate their clients’ struggles, and actively invests themselves in their cases.
Social workers who show empathy understand that we all see the world differently and that each unique experience is important to individual people. Empathetic people often thrive as social workers as they are conscientious in their goal of helping clients resolve their problems.
For example, a social worker might empathize with a disadvantaged person who has recently lost a partner or is struggling with their mental health. The empathetic social worker takes time to listen to clients’ needs and looks for solutions that directly address the problems they’re facing. This is crucial, as it means they don’t simply look for a catch-all answer that does little to help.
Empathy is different from “getting emotionally involved”. It’s genuinely caring for someone else’s well-being and putting one’s own needs and perceptions second. Coupled with critical thinking, empathy is a vital skill that will help social workers find sustainable solutions to many different problems.
Resilience and patience
Social work is by no means easy, which means anyone entering this field must be willing to wait for results and resolutions. Alternatively, they must be resilient in the face of challenges that threaten the well-being of their patients.
In many cases, social workers are the “messengers”, in that they bridge the gaps between the “system” and the individual. This means, sometimes, and through no fault of their own, social workers will bear the brunt of anger, grief, or other negative emotions.
Once again, social workers need to remain empathetic to their clients. They need to continue working toward conclusions that will directly benefit their needs. What’s more, social care specialists must keep open minds.
Resilience is particularly important in cases where, despite the best efforts of a social worker, a patient’s situation cannot be improved. Social workers must have the resilience and strength to occasionally deliver bad news.
Similarly, patience is incredibly important as a social worker. A patient social worker is willing to follow multiple lines of inquiry and ensure that solutions are found by any means legally necessary. This can mean waiting on multiple parties to respond with further information, for example, or waiting for patients to come forward with more details.
For some people, this side of social care can initially be frustrating. However, the breakthroughs you may experience through showing resilience and patience are worth waiting for. When you’re responsible for helping someone to better themselves or to find the care they desperately need, it’s vital to keep on looking for answers at all costs.
Multitasking and time management
Experienced social workers are experts in multitasking and time management. For the former, handling a variety of cases means retaining an extraordinary amount of information at any one time. A social worker will need to use case details to help influence solutions, and what’s more, they will frequently work multiple cases at once.
Multitasking is vital in social care as it ensures that you can manage varied workloads daily and ensure you know the difference between the cases you’re working on. A social worker who’s also a multitasker will be adept at remembering and understanding crucial case details and thus genuinely care about their outcomes. In many cases, showing empathy for clients and getting deep into finding solutions will drive multitasking as a necessary skill.
However, all good social workers must also take time to manage their caseloads carefully. In many cases, lives will be at stake, and in others, there will be clear deadlines and expectations made of them. That means, instead of relying on a supervisor to set timetables and organize diaries, they must be self-starting, fully motivated, and ready to pivot at any given moment.
This means anyone heading into social care should have some experience with managing their own timetables as part of a study program or degree, for example. Even a little revision management is great practice heading into the world of social care, though the work carers do “on the job” will naturally be more intensive.
For people who care deeply about others and rely on their own time management skills and wits in everyday life, social care will likely offer many interesting opportunities.
Tact, or sensitivity, is just as virtuous as patience in social care. A tactful social worker is one who can and will work with people from different backgrounds and walks of life. They’ll be willing and ready to take on complex cases and treat their clients with the respect, dignity, and humanity they deserve.
Tact is a vital skill in social care as it demonstrates a willingness to understand clients and those who may hold the answers to complex problems. Effective communicators will be tactful in how they approach sensitive cases and will take time to appreciate the cultural differences between their clients.
Social workers demonstrating tact will also show a great deal of cultural awareness and sensitivity. Rather than fall back on guesswork and assumptions, tactful social carers will take the time to ask their clients questions and take careful notes for future reference.
Social workers should use inclusive language and be willing to learn from others at all times. Just because they are in the position of caring doesn’t mean they are superior to their clients, nor does it mean they can’t learn from them.
Tact is a crucial facet of effective communication in social work. Sometimes, it may even mean the difference between a client being receptive to support and guidance and being completely closed off. Therefore, a tactful, sensitive attitude will take social care graduates far.
Social workers must always understand that the answers and solutions to problems they’re handling won’t be available to them immediately. The best social workers are born researchers, always ready to dig deep into a variety of resources and speak to many different people to gain headway.
For example, social workers may need to look into local resources and care groups they can suggest to their clients, who may already be resistant to care. Social carers must also be ready to carefully research the care needs of the people assigned to them.
For instance, they might need to run background checks on disadvantaged people to ensure family members are not abusing them, to check if they have histories of mental health problems and/or substance abuse, or if there is a risk that their clients may bring harm to themselves or others.
Research, problem-solving, and time management all revolve around each other. They all arise from a genuine desire to offer clients the best possible care. Research skills such as looking beyond primary sources and being willing to speak to different people in many different areas and walks of life are highly beneficial in social care.
A social care student will learn to research their cases and complete coursework autonomously. Social carers should graduate from degree programs with the confidence to research and scope out potential solutions to complex issues with resilience and resolve.
While not all social carers will need to lead teams, leadership skills are extremely useful when seeking the best possible care for clients.
For example, clients will feel more confident and secure with social carers who are confident in themselves. If they lead with clear action plans and act to inspire others, patients are more likely to follow their instructions. However, carers must balance leadership skills with tact.
An effective leader (when it comes to social care skills) is one who brings the best out of their colleagues, not one who barks orders and chastises others. Social workers with leadership skills must focus on boosting their clients’ confidence and helping them help themselves.
Social workers showing leadership aptitude will also likely find solutions from various sources. When acting with confidence, compassion, and determination, social workers are more likely to find effective solutions and improve patient outcomes. Self-belief and self-confidence are vital in social care, particularly as you will be working on behalf of others who may lack such attributes themselves.
All good social workers must be ready to fight for their clients and the causes that affect them. Many social workers initially seek out this career path out of a desire to bring about social change or even social justice.
Crucially, even the willingness to try and bring about positive change is an asset in social work. A social worker willing to stand up to authority figures and/or raise awareness of care gaps affecting their clients will be highly respected by those they care for.
Advocacy doesn’t always bring about the positive change social carers aim for, which is why keeping an open mind, again, is vital for long-term success in the role.
With advocacy skills, social workers can find disparate solutions and resources and tie them together to help their patients. They will go above and beyond to help the people they’re responsible for, and this may often mean they put themselves last.
While social workers handle extremely complex and often distressing situations, they must always take time to care for their own mental and physical health. Striking a work-life balance might be difficult when working several cases at once, however, social work students must appreciate the benefits of self-care as early as possible.
Social carers will always have time and space to breathe and practice self-care. It’s vital to use this time to decompress and readjust. Social carers who take care of themselves are in better positions to care for the people who depend on them.
Workers who burn out, are physically exhausted, or are struggling with their own mental health won’t necessarily offer the level of care their clients deserve and demand. Therefore, it’s a selfless act to take time out occasionally!
The most successful social workers know when to take breaks and how to manage their health outside of work. They also understand that taking work home can be unhealthy.
None of us should ever feel guilty about practicing self-care—especially when others depend on our ability to work with clarity.
While social workers will learn techniques and skills as part of their degrees and other courses, they should also take time to develop transferable skills such as those listed in this article.
Social workers who can demonstrate empathy, who manage their time effectively, and who are willing to advocate for almost any cause will likely go far in this field. It’s varied, exciting work, but it’s a career path that demands workers give their all.
At the same time, social workers should always take time to rest and recharge. A social carer that’s ineffectual or burned out could harm the cases of the people they work with. What’s more, self-care isn’t just a single act of kindness but a highly beneficial skill in the face of all kinds of challenges.
Many social workers will learn the crucial skills listed in this guide once they start work for real. However, it’s much more beneficial to patients—and for the confidence of said workers—if they start brushing up on these traits as soon as possible. The best thing any student of social care can do to begin with is develop an open mind—and be patient for what lies ahead.