The many faces of social work

Posted August 13, 2012, by Vivien Luu

Social work is a demanding career that can be emotionally taxing at times but wonderfully rewarding too. If you’re a student studying social work or someone considering making a leap into the field, then it’s likely you’re a compassionate individual who lives to help others. 

The field of social work is incredibly broad and diverse. It’s a job that can take you from the tip of the Northern Territory to work with remote Indigenous communities, to the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital where you will console and find practical information for the families of critical patients. 

Without a doubt it’s a difficult and emotionally rigorous career, which is why you need to factor yourself into the equation by considering your needs and interests, and finding the field of social work that best suits you. Getting to know the ‘lay of the (social work) land’ will give you the best chance at finding a job that aligns with your values and strengths, and ignites your passion for helping others. 

So how do you decide which field of social work is best for you? 

‘Because it’s such tough work, I think it’s really important to love the clients you’re working with and to find a supportive workplace’, social work graduate Kate Bakunowicz says. 

Diane Turner, a brain injury social worker at the Royal Rehabilitation Centre in Sydney who has 35 years of experience in social work, agrees.

‘Get into a place where you can learn and grow’, she says. ‘And always value your colleagues’. 

With that in mind, here are eight broad social work sectors for you to consider:

Health care

Medical and health care is an extremely diverse sector of social work that includes multiple sub-sectors such as acute care, allied health, mental health and community health. 

Regardless of the speciality, working as a health care social worker involves dealing with people from all walks of life, with all kinds of illnesses – be it a stroke, spinal injury or schizophrenia. 

In hospitals and rehabilitation centres the role of a social worker is to provide support, information and resources to both patients and their families. In community health however, the focus shifts to those with health concerns living at home. 

An interest in health and medicine is key as it is important that social workers in this field understand how illnesses will impact on their clients’ lives. 

To get into this specialised field, a Graduate Diploma in Counselling for Health and Social Care could be a great add-on to your social work qualification

Substance abuse and addictions

The area of substance abuse and addiction can be a challenging one in social work as practitioners may find themselves working with clients who do not necessarily want their help or think they need it. Addiction can include alcoholism, gambling or drug addiction. 

Social workers in this particular field will need a thick skin and a great deal of patience in order to build trusting relationships with their clients. Work can involve providing clients and their families with drug education and prevention methods, counselling, and delivering self-help programs. 

Immigrant and refugee advocacy

Social work in this field focuses on assisting people who have become vulnerable through the process of migration. This includes working with migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, immigration detainees and stateless persons. 

Social workers provide these individuals with practical assistance and advice to help them access health services, income support, education and other services in the community. 

It’s an area of social work that requires a strong sense of social justice and an ability to overcome language and cultural barriers. 

Social workers with a passion for this kind of work might want to consider doing a Graduate Certificate in Human Rights to learn more about social advocacy.

Indigenous communities and services

Social work in the Indigenous community and services sector aims at improving the Indigenous population’s quality of life and promoting social inclusion.

The work can vary from delivering grassroots programs to developing overarching policies, but the underlying focus is the same – to ensure Indigenous people have the same access to education, medical services and employment opportunities as any other Australian. 

Again, this is a tough field of social work that comes with its own unique set of challenges, some of which include the prevalence of substance abuse, health issues and poverty. A comprehensive understanding of Australia’s past mistreatment of the Indigenous community is vital. 

Criminal justice

Social workers in the criminal justice sector work predominantly with offenders at all stages of their imprisonment. The aim is to tackle criminal behaviour by reducing the risk of re-offending and to help offenders rehabilitate and realise the impact of their behaviour on themselves, their families and the community at large. 

The work may involve helping offenders tackle problems such as drug and alcohol abuse (which may contribute to their offending); providing courts with a range of meaningful alternatives to incarceration where appropriate; and assisting prisoners to resettle into the community after release from custody. 

This area of social work can be particularly challenging as it calls for the ability to connect with people with different worldviews and value systems. A thick skin and assertive personality are crucial. 

Disability services

People with disabilities are often marginalised and unintentionally overlooked in society. Therefore the role of a social worker in this field is to empower these individuals and help them work towards living rich and full lives. 

This starts by advocating on behalf of clients and families, and by ensuring that clients have adequate financial and psychological support. In doing so, you help give clients the same access to education, employment and accommodation opportunities as the rest of the population. 

Practitioners in disability services may be employed in a variety of workplaces including rehabilitation centres and community outpatient programs. 

Child protection 

Social workers in this field work towards protecting children from abusive and dangerous environments where they may be neglected, exploited or physically and/or sexually abused. 

It is recognised as a highly specialised area of social work, and in Australia is conducted by government authorities. 

The main task of a child protection social worker is to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect; conduct risk assessments and, in very serious cases where a child is at risk, remove children from families. 

Social workers in this area often work alongside lawyers and the police department to ensure the welfare and safety of a child is put first. Such work might include appearing as a witness before a court and securing alternative accommodation for a child. 

Family counselling

Families that are struggling through a traumatic experience and are unable to cope may turn to social workers for support during this time of crisis. Family issues may include relationship breakdowns, loss and bereavement, domestic violence, addictions and sexual assault. 

Social workers here assist families by providing them with short-term counselling; providing information about government or community support services; and by helping family members work out options for the future. 

Practitioners in this area may be employed by general counselling agencies as well as services that assist victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. 

To qualify for a career in social work, see our range of online social work courses.

Vivien Luu
Vivien Luu

Viv is a writer who enjoys researching and writing about creativity, how the human mind works, and neuro processes. She values creativity above all else and admires people who pursue their career dreams, no matter the sacrifice. In her spare time, she binges on HBO shows and epic fantasy novels.

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