10 Essential Skills You Need to Be a Social Worker

Female social worker chatting with young woman and her baby
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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 from your old job of a receptionist or dental hygienist, for example, 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 – verbal and written. 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 is also essential with your colleagues, supervisor or third-party organisers.

If you’re not good at talking, then this might not be the right field for you. If you are, then this could be your calling.


2. Active Listening

What you say is just as needed as what you hear.

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.

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

While being able to listen actively can take practice, it is often a knack that social workers have.


3. Leadership

As a social worker, you are 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 programmes and proposing policies to aid everyone.


4. Emotional Intelligence

Many people talk of having a high IQ (intelligence quotient), but have you heard of having a high EQ (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 are typically self-aware, sensitive to your clients’ well-being and empathetic.

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 endeavours is they get burned out too quickly. In social work, you’re doing your utmost best 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.

Like active listening, critical thinking can be learned in a class, but a lot of times it is an inherent characteristic.


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 necessitate 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 organise a comprehensive treatment plan (if applicable).

When you embarked upon this endeavour, 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 correctly offer the necessary assistance, since you would inevitably lose track.


9. Organisation

Similar to documentation, organisation will be a key aspect of your day-to-day routine.

Social workers are required to ensure they maintain detailed and accurate records, their papers are in proper order, and they manage their time far more effectively.

By knowing how to organise 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.

Here is one trick that will help you the most: have a calendar to keep up with all your appointments.


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 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 practise empathy and actively listen to their issues, but it is just as important to have an inkling or an idea on how to come up with successful resolutions.



Social work is a job that comes in all shapes and sizes. You may be assigned to an impoverished community that is 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 is 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 his head, you realise that the sleepless nights and tears were all worth it.

Are you in social work? Let us know about your experience in the comments section below!