20 Essential Skills You Need to Be a Social Worker

Want to become a social worker? You'll need these top skills to succeed!

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of a social worker with a family

Social work is an important career choice to make because it requires a great deal of commitment, time and emotional energy.

With your skills — both learned and inherent — you aim to help the most vulnerable in our society: the mentally ill, the struggling family and the perpetually unemployed. It is an admirable choice of career, since you likely could have embarked upon a career that offers more financial compensation, flexibility and prestige.

This is why it’s essential that you know this is the line of work you want to do. It’s a lifetime commitment that can be rewarding at times and emotionally exhausting at others. The best way to tackle this job head-on is to enter it with your eyes wide open.

If you’re interested in entering the field of social work right after school or you want to transition to a new career, then here are several critical skills that every social worker needs.

1. Communication

In social work, communication is your primary task day in and day out.

One of the key requirements for any social worker is having the ability to communicate effectively, regularly and in various ways — verbally and in writing. You must be clear, concise and transparent about what you want your clients to do, how you’re going to assist those you are working with, and what goals you’re laying out.

Communicating with your colleagues and supervisor is also essential.

2. Active listening

Active listening is a key skill in much of a social worker’s daily role. By engaging with the other person, reflecting on what they say and following along the conversation are elements of active listening. This is an essential skill because it builds trust, establishes a cordial relationship, and conveys respect.

“To comprehend and identify a client's needs, social workers must engage in active listening,” says Alina Clark, the cofounder and marketing director of CocoDoc. “Listening intently, focusing, asking the correct questions, and employing paraphrase and summarizing strategies all aid social workers in engaging and establishing trust with clients.”

In the end, you will help the other individual feel visible, respected and assisted — elements crucial to what the industry calls a “therapeutic alliance”.

3. Leadership

As a social worker, you’re advocating for your clients, a pursuit that requires leadership skills.

As a leader, you’re obtaining the necessary resources for clients, getting services that communities require and exacting change to empower your clients’ lives, whether they’re on social assistance or suffering from postpartum depression following the birth of their twins.

With your leadership, you’re creating new initiatives, eliminating outdated programs, and proposing policies to help everyone.

4. Emotional intelligence

Many people talk of having a high IQ, but have you heard of having a high EQ — otherwise known as emotional intelligence?

This is something that a lot of social workers inherently have, which is often the reason why they want to enter this field. By maintaining a commendable EQ level, you’re typically self-aware and sensitive to your clients’ wellbeing.

Most importantly, perhaps with classes or guidance, you can strike a fine balance between what your intuition tells you and the knowledge you have gained through education.

5. Boundary setting

A common grievance that many social workers have about their career endeavors is that they get burned out too quickly. In social work, you’re doing your utmost to help as many people as possible, looking for multiple resources and keeping in touch with every single connection. Unfortunately, if you do too much too quickly for one client — and then the next one — you will ultimately stumble and collapse. By the end of it all, you cannot assist anyone else — you might even feel some resentment.

The best way to avoid this is to establish the appropriate and necessary boundaries, whether it is establishing working hours or not getting into intimate relationships — and this applies to colleagues and clients.

6. Critical thinking

Critical thinking is multifaceted: you apply clinical theories to your treatment, incorporate new research into your plans, and maintain an ethical stance with your clients through both basic assistance and crises.

“By gathering information through observation, interviews, and study, social workers must be able to objectively analyze each situation,” says Clark. “Social workers can make educated judgments, locate the greatest resources, and build the best strategy to serve clients by thinking critically and without bias.”

7. Intervention

You connect patients with medical professionals. You find employment opportunities for the unemployed. You get clients in touch with family members who have decided to no longer keep in touch with them.

What do all these have in common? They all require a finesse that you know how to achieve through your communication skills. What’s more, your intervention enables your clients to manage their own lives without anyone holding their hand.

8. Documentation

Like any other career, there will be bureaucracy, red tape, and paperwork — lots and lots of paperwork. This is where your documentation skills come into play. You will need to compose emails, maintain a contact list, establish progress reports, and organize a comprehensive treatment plan (if applicable).

When you embarked upon this endeavor, you never thought about how paperwork would play a large role in your daily tasks, but it is and always will be.

You may not believe it, but documentation is still a crucial role in social work because, without it, you would not be able to offer the correct and necessary assistance, since you would inevitably lose track.

9. Organization

“People who work in social care often have busy schedules and a wide range of responsibilities in addition to managing and supporting their clients, including documentation, reporting, billing and collaboration,” says Julian Goldie, the CEO of Goldie Agency. “Thus, social workers need to be extremely organized and able to prioritize clients’ needs in order to effectively manage cases.”

By knowing how to organize your workload, you are not only likely to make excellent decisions, but you are also simplifying your work environment — your office isn’t in disarray and your time is better spent with your clients.

10. Problem solving

Every day, someone comes to you to help solve their problems, whether it’s trying to stay under a roof after missing rent payments or staying away from alcohol after a rough day at the office.

It can be difficult to try and come up with reasonable and relevant solutions to ensure they do not break down, lose their jobs or return to drugs. Indeed, it can be hard, but it is your job to be a problem solver, something that is a must-have in social work.

Sure, you can practice empathy and actively listen to their issues, but it is just as important to have an inkling or an idea of how to come up with successful resolutions.

11. Understanding human relationships

This is one of the most important social work skills to have, but let’s be honest: “human relationships” is a vast term that covers a wide range of components when it comes to the connections between individuals and a social worker. For example, possessing a form of empathy to identify the other person’s experience is paramount to social work. Or, as another instance, knowing that a patient may develop romantic feelings for the social worker because of a broad array of traits the patient has, and being able to alter your behavior to avoid such situations.

Indeed, humans are complex social creatures, and trying to help troubled individuals, whether they are suffering from a debilitating disease or they can’t seem to get on the right path, can be an uphill battle. A person who understands (and utilizes) how human relationships are formed can ensure that a suitable professional does a great job when working with the patient.

12. Time management

Flexibility and dependability are the chief objectives of maintaining impeccable time management skills. With a little bit of organization and abandoning any procrastination, you can ensure you can manage your time more efficiently.

In social work, no day is the same, especially as you begin to work with more people. Time management is critical to your position, but this can be challenging when you have multiple individuals to work with as part of your job. While you want to perform your duties effectively, you also want to be flexible and dependable to maintain a level of trust you have developed with the person, which is an essential skill to have as a social worker.

13. Communicating with children

Many social workers will come into contact with children. A kid will either be the patient you work directly with or maybe a client’s son or daughter that you need to communicate with to assess a particular situation. Whatever the case may be, it is critical to know how to communicate with children, which can be difficult when you aren’t trained to work with kids, or you don’t have the natural abilities to be around young children.

So, how can you achieve this? Here are a few tips:

  • Pay strict attention to the child.
  • Talk about everyday things in life.
  • Be open to all kinds of feelings (anger and joy, for example).
  • Eliminate distractions while talking to the child, like your smartphone and pen and notepad.
  • Play with the child during your questions.

14. Observation

Being observational is one of the many critical skills required of a social worker since you are combing through details and quantifying things as you notice them. This is done by maintaining an observational journal and having great active listening skills to ensure you are making notes in your mind about the individual.

15. Engagement

In the end, the most effective social worker is one who has this one key trait: engagement. Whether it’s showing interest in a case or being excited about working with someone, being an engaging social worker is a soft skill that is essentially a prerequisite for these professionals. Indeed, if you treat every case the same without any enthusiasm, the person who needs assistance will acknowledge this and refrain from opening up or offering another level of information that could be crucial.

16. Multitasking

It’s important to be able to compartmentalize cases. Being able to work on more than one thing at a time is a great skill to have, but you’ll need to make sure you don’t get information confused. You could be on the phone with one client while writing a report about another. Being able to work on two things at the same time, without confusing the information, is a great skill to have. It can be challenging to multitask, so if it isn’t one of your strengths, it might be worth looking into ways to improve your multitasking skills.

17. Respect

Treating individuals with respect is one of the more important skills you’ll need to have to become a social worker. You’ll be working with people from many diverse backgrounds with different beliefs than those you hold. Being respectful of these beliefs and treating people with dignity, no matter their background, is essential.

18. Patience

If you’re a little hot-headed and impatient, then this isn’t the right career for you. To be a social worker, you’ll need patience — buckets of it! You’ll spend hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months speaking to people to get to the bottom of their issues. There’s a high chance that their walls won’t crumble immediately, and it will take time and perseverance to get them to open up to you.

19. Dependability

Being dependable is important in building trust with your clients. If you’re a bit of a flake who misses appointments, is late, doesn’t respond in a timely manner, and changes their mind constantly, then you won’t build the level of trust needed with the client. If you’re the kind of person who’s always there when you say you will be, rain or shine, then this might be a good route for you to go.

20. Collaboration

Social workers don’t work alone; they collaborate with other agencies for the best possible outcome. Mental health social workers, for example, work with community mental health nurses, psychiatrists, and psychologists to provide the best level of care they can for their client. If you work better within a team that’s working towards a common goal, that’s great! If you’re more of a lone wolf, then a different career path might be better suited to you.

Final thoughts

Social work is a job that comes in all shapes and sizes. You may be assigned to an impoverished community that’s consumed with drug dealers, alcoholics, and high school dropouts, or you might be transferred to a hospital to work with new mothers who are dealing with a lot of mental stress. No matter what, it’s a challenging job and one that has its ups and downs.

That said, if you know you have the skills for social work, then it probably is your calling. It takes adjustment, dedication, and plenty of tears to get used to the life of a social worker. In the end, however, when you have located jobs for struggling youth, or you have ensured that a recovering drug addict has found a roof over their head, you realize that the sleepless nights and tears were all worth it.

Join the conversation! What skills do you think are important for a social worker? Let us know in the comments section below!


Originally published on 22 October 2018. Updated by Hayley Ramsey.