Career Development

What Is a Social Worker? Types of Social Workers and Social Work Environments

September 15, 2021

A social worker is someone who helps families and individuals gain access to life-changing educational and health-related resources. If you’re considering this field of work, it’s important to understand the services a social worker performs and the various industries where they are employed. In this article, we discuss what a social worker is, the different types of social workers that exist and the varied environments in which they work.

What is a social worker?

A social worker is a professional who helps individuals and families improve their quality of life by ensuring access to basic needs such as food, shelter and safety. They work to achieve better lives for their clients by analyzing the environment, relationships, systems and policies that impact their clients' lives. Common challenges that social workers must help their clients overcome include poverty, abuse, unemployment, mental illness, addiction and trauma. Social workers meet with clients and build relationships based on trust and compassion. They identify the issues their clients are facing and implement solutions such as physical relocation, therapy, coordinating medical treatment and assisting with employment.

Social workers assist people with a range of educational backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, cultural origins, religions and disabilities. They recognize how varying backgrounds affect a client's mental and emotional well-being and can guide how the client might respond to treatment methods. Social workers understand the unique needs of the lifestyle sectors in their area and engage with their clients in a culturally-respectful way.

Read more: Learn About Being a Social Worker

Types of social workers

Social workers can be employed in a range of areas. While all social workers strive to help people, each type of social worker focuses on a specific area of need. Common types of social work include:

Child, family and school

Children and their families who are struggling with social or psychological issues in school, at home or in their communities may seek the help of a specialized social worker. The social worker is responsible for assessing the suitability of the educational, home and neighborhood environment for the child and their parents. They work with the family and school staff to resolve the problem. Child and family social workers place children in foster care when required, monitor their well-being and assist adults with the process of adopting or becoming foster parents. This type of social worker can be employed by schools, government entities and foster care agencies.

Read more: Learn About Being a School Social Worker

Medical and public health

Individuals who are dealing with health issues or chronic illness can work with a medical social worker to assist in navigating their medical issues. The social worker assists by providing coping mechanisms, counseling and medical referrals to the patient and their family. They also help patients navigate public resources, including Medicare and Medicaid, and coordinate their many health care services. A public health social worker strives to limit the spread of diseases and helps communities overcome widespread illnesses and disasters. Medical social workers work for hospitals, government agencies and health care providers.

Mental health and substance abuse

These social workers coordinate and provide therapy, rehabilitation programs and counseling to addicts and patients with mental health challenges. They help find affordable rehab centers and connect patients with an appropriate counseling program based on their challenges. This type of social worker also handles outreach and preventative programs to locate individuals in need and provide timely care. Mental health and substance abuse social workers may be employed by hospitals, residential treatment facilities, community organizations and government agencies.


A community social worker provides resources and improves the social justice environment of a particular neighborhood, town or city. They work with a large group of community members, instead of one on one with clients. Community social workers focus on organizing and developing social programs to improve the quality of life in their area. They are typically employed by local government agencies.


Service members and their families face unique challenges transitioning into, during and after their military service and can seek the assistance of a military social worker who understands their needs. These social workers assess the well-being of service members, identify post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health challenges and recommend a treatment plan. They also help families cope with their relative's deployment or injuries from serving. Military social workers are most commonly employed by the government for a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces but can work in the private sector for health centers that frequently serve the military.

Social work professional environment

Social workers frequently work at multiple locations. They have an office but also regularly work in the field, visiting clients' homes, schools or health care clinics. Depending on the type of social work they specialize in, they may also meet with clients at their office. A social worker employed by a school, health clinic or rehab center conducts their work from their office and within the employer's facility. They monitor their facility's environment, schedule meetings with individuals who are going through a challenging time and check-in regularly with rehab patients to ensure continual progress.

Government and community social workers commonly work in the field, visiting at-risk areas, clients' homes or schools. These social workers focus on the issues the client faces within their community or environment, so they must be able to see the environment and make an informed recommendation to improve the client's quality of life.

The nature of social work requires professionals to help people who are experiencing extraordinary difficulties. The social worker must be able to handle a variety of challenges involving children, families, the elderly, addiction and abuse in a calm, professional and compassionate manner. They are responsible for communicating care plans to their clients, health care providers and other colleagues.

Related: Communication Skills: Definitions and Examples

List of social work jobs

Social workers can be employed by a range of public and private entities. They often specialize in a specific area, so they can best serve their clients. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the national average salary link for each job title below. Here are some of the most common social work positions:

National average salary: $62,473 per year

Primary duties: Direct support professionals help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They help the client perform daily tasks including housekeeping, cooking, cleaning, shopping and attending appointments. Direct support professionals provide counseling, crisis prevention and intervention as needed to their patients. They are responsible for following state care regulations and ensuring patients have a safe living environment.

National average salary: $45,692 per year

Primary duties: Caseworkers provide counseling and assistance to clients in at-risk communities. They set achievable goals for their clients and regularly check on them to ensure they are continually progressing towards a higher quality of life. Caseworkers conduct home visits to evaluate their clients' living environment and give advice on creating a safer and healthier home.

National average salary: $38,788 per year

Primary duties: Case managers organize a client's care options, facilitate treatment and ensure the care plan is continually improving the client's mental, physical and emotional health. They handle patient intake by assessing their needs, determining the optimal care plan and communicating their recommendation to the patient, their family and relevant health care providers. Case managers continue to advocate for their patient's needs throughout their care to ensure they are progressing.

National average salary: $47,250 per year

Primary duties: Program coordinators work for a range of social organizations, including health care, educational and assisted living facilities. They handle administrative tasks, such as budgeting, scheduling employees and organizing special programs for the facility. Program coordinators are responsible for reviewing policies to ensure compliance and implementing new procedures when required to improve quality of care and efficiency.

Average national salary: $59,903 per year

Primary duties: School social workers specialize in assisting students, parents and school faculty to identify issues that are disrupting students' learning. They work to ensure all students have access to a healthy and safe learning environment by helping children resolve their emotional, social and academic challenges. School social workers partner with parents and teachers to identify children who are struggling and provide counseling to help the child succeed academically and emotionally.


View More 

Why You Should Consider Working Outside (How To and Tips)

Learn about the benefits and challenges of working outside, explore steps to help you build an outdoor office and review tips for creating a comfortable space.

What Is Social Media Scoring? (Plus How To Increase It)

Learn what social media scoring is, how to evaluate your own social media score, view how to increase your own score and see tips on good scoring practices.