Social workers play an active role in meeting the diverse and complex needs of individuals, both in health care settings and outside the medical field. Operating from a person-centric perspective, social workers seek to alleviate the physical, behavioral and mental health challenges that impact communities around the world. They provide hands-on counseling, help solve health-related problems and ensure clients can access government programs and other social services.
One of the most important job duties social workers perform is case management, which requires a particular set of competencies and interpersonal skills. To prepare for a successful social work career, professionals must develop a deep understanding of the case management process and the standards set by relevant organizations, like the National Association of Social Workers. This partially accounts for why many aspiring and practicing social workers earn advanced degrees.
Through a Master in Social Work program, students gain key insights on case management planning, human services and the social determinants of health. These learning outcomes strike at the heart of social work practice and offer multi-disciplinary perspectives on health service delivery, patient interventions and mental health counseling. That said, the role of a case manager varies depending on where they work, their area of expertise and level of experience. This raises an important question: What is case management in social work?
Why Is Case Management Important in Social Work?
Social workers use their case management skills to provide holistic support to clients from diverse cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Instead of exclusively focusing on health-related issues like chronic illnesses, mental health disorders and comorbidities, they address key social and environmental conditions that influence individuals’ well-being. For example, social work case managers might consider how a lack of access to human services can make it harder for a client to overcome mental health challenges. This person-in-environment perspective allows social workers to look beyond patients’ “biopsychosocial status,” according to the NASW, leading to better health outcomes.
Social work case management is all about meeting the complex needs of individual clients and their families. Professionals must carefully assess patients’ current situation, arrange access to social services, coordinate care delivery and evaluate the impact of their support activities. Case management in social work looks at micro and macro health determinants, with intervention taking place at both the client and system levels. This is why social workers must have strong interpersonal skills, case management process expertise and the ability to maintain therapeutic relationships with clients.
The NASW emphasizes eight components of social work case management, each of which focuses on a different stage of the client-social worker relationship:
- Outreach, referral, client identification and engagement
- Biopsychosocial and needs assessment
- Service plan development
- Implementation of the service plan
- Coordination and monitoring of service delivery
- Client advocacy and access to resources
- Reassessment of the client’s status
- Case closure when services are no longer needed
The ultimate goal of social work case management, according to the NASW, is to “optimize client functioning by providing quality services in the most efficient and effective manner to individuals with multiple complex needs.” Every patient contends with different life challenges and health problems, which is why social workers dedicate a lot of time to getting to know their patients. This relationship-building ensures interventions, recommendations and counseling services provide the long-term support individuals need to improve their overall well-being.
Social Work Case Manager: Career Overview
Social workers are employed in a variety of traditional and non-traditional settings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, including mental health clinics, schools, hospitals, human services agencies and private practices. While most social work jobs involve case management at some level, the core work duties vary depending on the specific client bases professionals support. For example, school social workers help students overcome behavioral and academic challenges by offering hands-on counseling and classroom support. In contrast, substance abuse social workers assist people of all ages who struggle with drug addiction and dependence through group interventions, mental health therapy and by recommending relevant social services.
According to the BLS, social work case manager job descriptions may include the following responsibilities:
- Assessing clients’ needs, situations and support networks
- Helping patients adjust to major life changes, including illnesses, unemployment, addiction and homelessness
- Referring clients to social services, such as food stamp and childcare programs
- Responding to incidents of child abuse and mental health emergencies
- Counseling individuals and families
- Maintaining detailed case files and client records
Social workers are considered mental health professionals, meaning they must obtain certain practice licenses and certifications. As the NASW notes, social work case managers are required to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher from a social work program accredited by the Council on Social Work Education before they can take on case management responsibilities. They may also be required to complete at least two years of supervised work.
Once they’ve earned the right qualifications, social workers can branch out into case management roles that align with their career goals and interests. Clinical social workers, for example, develop personalized treatment plans for patients suffering from mental health disorders and chronic illnesses, often in collaboration with doctors and other medical professionals. Community social workers are typically more concerned with the bigger picture, advocating for service delivery improvement in marginalized or underserved populations. Both roles require a familiarity with case management planning and the social determinants of health.
According to the BLS, the employment of social workers is expected to grow 13% between 2019 and 2029, which is much faster than the average rate for all U.S. occupations. However, many of these job opportunities call for significant social work knowledge, mental health expertise and a history of case management experience. The median annual wage for social workers was $50,470 in May 2019, per BLS data, with the highest 10% of earning more than $82,540.
Social Work Case Management Standards
Alongside an understanding of the case management process, social workers must also be familiar with standards and guidelines specific to their field. The NASW is considered a primary source for social work best practices, making it a key resource for aspiring professionals. Given that there’s no universally accepted definition of case management, per the NASW, social workers should approach the subject from a multidisciplinary perspective and adapt their processes on a case-by-case basis.
Here’s a quick overview of some of NASW’s core standards for social work case management:
Ethics and Values
The social work field is highly collaborative and built on interpersonal relationships between case managers and clients. The NASW Code of Ethics serves as a guide for social workers, both in terms of conduct and professional responsibilities. These standards are particularly helpful for navigating conflicts of interest and ethical uncertainties that may arise from case management duties.
Since social work case managers provide direct mental health services, professionals are expected to maintain a growing knowledge of theories, practice methodologies, policies and industry guidelines. This includes the assessment, planning and evaluation of service plans and client progress. Staying current with new practice methods helps ensure the consistency and quality of case management processes.
Cultural and Linguistic Competence
Working with different populations requires a sensitivity to cultural and linguistic differences, especially in diverse urban areas. Social work case managers must provide and facilitate access to social services that align with clients’ primarily languages and beliefs. This ensures all patients receive equal treatment, and have equitable access to government programs and support frameworks.
Service Planning, Implementation and Monitoring
Social workers build lasting relationships with clients to help them achieve their goals and overcome specific life challenges. Over time, support plans may have to change to better serve the needs of patients and their families. This is why case managers must set attainable, measurable objectives that can be used to evaluate the impact of their recommendations on clients’ well-being.
Advocacy and Leadership
Social work case managers aren’t solely concerned with physical, mental and social challenges, they also advocate for the rights of their clients. In cases where human services are not equally accessible, social workers promote policy changes that have a positive impact on underserved communities. This includes improving access to government programs, support frameworks and other mental health resources.
Documenting case management activities is essential to supporting clients’ goals, monitoring their progress and evaluating the impact of social workers’ recommendations. Professionals are expected to keep detailed notes about counseling sessions, social services advice and other insights that may be relevant to a client’s situation. This documentation must also be secured to protect the privacy of the individuals in their care. These are only a handful of NASW standards that social workers must be familiar with. Other key focus areas include workload sustainability, professional development and interorganizational collaboration. As professionals advance their careers, they may choose to specialize in a particular practice area, such as substance abuse or mental health rehabilitation. Regardless of their chosen career paths, social workers rely on their case management skills to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of their recommendations.
Key Case Management Skills for Social Workers
Case management in social work can be hard to pin down, according to the Society for Social Work Leadership in Health Care. Each role has different responsibilities and varying levels of involvement in clients’ day-to-day lives. Some social workers only perform discharge planning, while others manage complex patient care and family interventions in the long term. Despite the variability of social work jobs, the following skill sets are deemed essential to the case management process:
Social workers must be able to effectively communicate with clients, their family members, medical professionals and a variety of third-party stakeholders. Communication skills are crucial for understanding patients’ current situations and conveying complex information; it’s also important when documenting therapy sessions and recommendations. Along with strong verbal and written language skills, active listening and interviewing competencies are highly useful for building lasting relationships with clients.
While communication plays a key role in social work relationship-building, other interpersonal abilities and character traits also help make patients feel comfortable and understood. Social workers are, by nature, compassionate and empathetic. By approaching problems from their patients’ perspectives, they are able to find creative solutions, build trust and earn the respect of the people they support.
Social workers are sometimes called upon to help individuals overcome sudden crises in their lives, from an unexpected divorce to a loss of employment. Navigating these high-stakes scenarios requires significant sensitivity and time management, especially during life-threatening emergencies. The more experience and knowledge social workers have about crisis intervention, the better prepared they’ll be to support clients in times of uncertainty and upheaval.
Patient and Family Counseling
As mental health professionals, social workers must be able to mediate difficult conversations between clients and their immediate family members. In some cases, they may need to monitor and evaluate hostile interactions, environments and relationships to assess whether a patient has a healthy support framework. Family counseling calls for a different set of skills than individual therapy, which is why aspiring social workers should understand how to communicate in group settings.
Launch Your Social Work Case Management Career with an online MSW from the University of Nevada, Reno
Whether you’re interested in becoming a social work case manager or pursuing a specialized role, earning an advanced degree can help kickstart your career. The online Master of Social Work program at the University of Nevada, Reno is designed to prepare students to address complex problems in diverse environments. With courses in social work administration, therapeutic interventions and social welfare policy, you can assemble the functional knowledge and skills you need to stand out to potential employers.