8 Skills of a Social Worker

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A social worker meets with a family.

The social work field is both dynamic and demanding, often requiring practitioners to fill many roles over the course of their careers. In addition to helping people cope with problems such as unemployment, food insecurity and divorce, social workers may choose to specialize in serving certain populations, such as those working to overcome mental health issues or addiction, school-aged children, or military veterans.Employment within the field is growing fast. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS),  there were approximately 715,600 social workers employed in the U.S. in 2020, and it projects overall employment in the field to grow by 12% between 2020 and 2030, much faster than projected for the labor market as a whole.

Students interested in pursuing advanced roles in this field will find that an advanced education such as an online Master of Social Work (MSW) can provide them with the in-demand knowledge and skills needed to excel in this career. Additionally, MSW graduates often find that they’re well prepared to pursue many different types of social worker jobs, such as community organizer, legislative aide, child and family social worker, health care social worker, mental health social worker, and school social worker.

Aspiring social workers rely on a diverse range of technical skills and emotional competencies. While most social work skills can be learned through graduate programs, some are developed internally over years of practice and work experience.

Social Work Essential Skills List

For students and midcareer professionals alike, understanding the core social worker skills, traits and competencies is crucial for building a successful career. To that end, here are eight skills that every aspiring social work practitioner should work on developing.

1. Active Listening

Active listening is one of the most important soft skills for social workers, as it allows them to understand the specific needs of their clients and build productive relationships. By being attentive, social workers can establish a sense of trust and mutual respect that’s crucial for helping individuals in need, especially if they’re dealing with addiction, mental illness, poverty or discrimination. Of course, active listening goes well beyond the verbal: The ability to identify emotional distress in a person’s body language can guide social workers’ communication styles and professional recommendations.

2. Communication Skills

Social workers communicate with people from a diverse range of professional and cultural backgrounds, including clients, co-workers, care providers, government officials and members of nonprofit organizations. As such, the ability to adjust your written and verbal communication is essential to effective collaboration when multiple stakeholders are involved. This includes adapting your tone, body language and writing style to accommodate different audiences and settings. Social workers must also carefully document what they did for their clients and create detailed reports that outline their professional recommendations.

3. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to identify with another person’s situation on an intellectual and emotional level. Most social workers are naturally empathetic, having joined the field because of their deep concern for those in need and a desire to help alleviate emotional stress. This trait allows social workers to build strong relationships by forming genuine connections with their clients, and locate solutions that can improve people’s lives in tangible ways. While empathy is often an innate trait, social work practitioners can sharpen their skills through training and development exercises.

4. Boundary Setting

Although empathy is a core trait of successful social workers, it can also lead them to take the stress of their work home with them. Self-care is extremely important for professionals in this field, as they regularly assist individuals who are struggling with addiction, mental and physical illnesses, and poverty; this can take a toll on their emotional well-being. Setting boundaries between yourself and clients can not only help alleviate work-related stress but also make you a more effective and compassionate ally without impacting your health.

5. Critical Thinking

One reason social work can be challenging is that every individual or group deals with a unique set of circumstances, many of which call for specific solutions. After identifying the nature of a client’s issues, social workers use their critical thinking skills to identify social services, government programs and support structures that will have the greatest positive impact. This often requires the use of logic, analysis and creativity, as social work practitioners must be able to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to similar problems.

6. Time Management

Social workers have busy schedules, which can make it difficult to find a healthy work-life balance. Professionals in this field handle multiple cases and administrative tasks simultaneously, making time management an essential part of their daily routine. In addition to budgeting their time wisely, social workers must ensure that all clients receive the care, attention and emotional support they need without unnecessary delays. This often necessitates written schedules that outline all aspects of their workday, from client meetings and interventions to in-office tasks like applying for social programs and drafting reports.

7. Advocacy

In many cases, social workers advocate on behalf of individuals, families and communities that are underserved by government and social services. To ensure that their clients get the support they need, social work practitioners regularly call for the creation of programs, the revision of existing policies and the development of community-based support frameworks. Advocacy is a powerful tool for bringing about positive change and empowering individuals to overcome challenges in their lives. As such, aspiring social workers should cultivate communication and interpersonal skills that will help them affect real change at the local, state and federal levels.

8. Cultural Awareness

Among the most important skills of a social worker is a refined sense of cultural awareness. Working with clients from different socioeconomic, ethnic and racial backgrounds requires a great deal of openness and respect. Social workers use their sense of cultural awareness to help inform their interpersonal relationships and communicate effectively with a diverse range of individuals. While having strong opinions is only natural, allowing them to bleed into your work can make clients uncomfortable. Social workers should strive to remain objective in their judgments and focus on finding actionable solutions that will enrich the lives of the people, families and communities they serve.

Develop Key Social Work Skills and Traits with an MSW

Regardless of whether you’re interested in pursuing advanced roles as a social worker, or you feel that completing an online MSW will prepare you to pursue alternative career paths, such as community health worker, health educator or health policy analyst, the skills gained in a MSW program can prepare you to improve others’ quality of life. There are many things you can do with a social work degree besides social work. The online MSW from the University of Nevada, Reno has been designed to help students gain the knowledge and experience needed to address complex problems in diverse settings, including underserved inner-city and rural communities. With a curriculum focused on scientifically supported research and multidisciplinary competencies, you can gain real-world insight into key social work issues and practices.

To find out more, explore the online MSW degree page or reach out to an admission representative today.

Recommended Reading:

Types of Social Workers

6 MSW Jobs You Can Pursue

Can You Get an MSW Without a BSW?


National Association of Social Workers, Types of Social Work

Positive Psychology, “Developing Empathy: 8 Strategies & Worksheets for Becoming More Empathetic”

The Balance Careers, “Important Job Skills Social Workers Need”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers