What is case management in social work?

A case manager working and discussing with a group of people.
A case manager working and discussing with a group of people.

The world is undergoing change at an unprecedented pace and the need for skilled professionals to provide future-focused support has never been greater. When it comes to making a significant difference for individuals, families and wider communities, few career paths can drive change and transform lives like social work.

This multifaceted industry encompasses a gamut of roles and responsibilities focused on improving quality of life. Unsurprisingly, it’s projected to grow by almost a quarter (23.2 per cent) in the lead up to 2026.

At its core, social work is centred on supporting and empowering individuals, families and communities to overcome challenges and bolster their wellbeing. There are a number of pathways to choose from within the industry and a critical aspect of social work is case management – but it’s often misunderstood.

So, what is case management? If you’re interested in advancing or pivoting to a career in social work but are wondering – what does a case manager do? You’re in the right place. Below, we explore the specifics of case management in social work and how to conduct it, then discuss why case management is important in social work and what skills aspiring case managers need to thrive. Let’s dive in.

What is a case manager in social work?

Broadly, case management describes the assessment, planning and facilitation of services to meet clients’ specific needs. In practice, this involves helping clients navigate the often complex social service system to access essential resources and services such as financial aid, employment services or healthcare.

Depending on what field of social work you work in, examples of this can look like helping individuals with disabilities find employment and housing, helping disadvantaged children overcome academic difficulties in the school system, or helping families in crisis navigate the legal system to protect against child abuse or domestic violence.

Case management vs social work: What’s the difference?

Case management is a role within the field of social work, but it’s one of many social worker careers pathways to choose from – which also span community worker, addiction counsellor, policy adviser and more.

A social worker may provide direct or indirect services to clients, specialise in a certain area such as addiction or youth, and/or consult on policy reform. While social work represents a broad spectrum of tasks aimed at assisting individuals and communities, case management provides a more targeted and practical approach. But what exactly does a case manager do?

Case managers are responsible for guiding clients through complex social service systems, ensuring access to necessary resources and services. In effect, the role typically requires interviewing a client to gain an understanding of their circumstances, then working alongside them to help them to establish a life that matters to them.

Like social workers, case managers can work across a number of settings such as hospitals, schools, government agencies and private practices, which can impact the average case manager salary. Case management focuses on the practical, logistical and administrative side of social services, but can also include a range of other services, such an incidental counselling and advocacy.

Steps for conducting case management

Like the individuals and families who need social services, every case to manage will be unique. However, the process for conducting case management will follow the same structure – regardless of which specialism or setting it’s applied in. Typical steps for conducting case management include:

  1. Engage: Good case managers first need to establish a working alliance with the client by engaging them with empathy and respect. A supportive, trusting and respectful relationship is critical to effective case management.
  2. Assess: This step is critical, as it’s when case managers determine what type of support the client needs. The assessment involves gathering comprehensive information about the client’s specific situation, including their challenges, resources and goals. Generally, this is done via conducting in-person interviews and reviewing any relevant files and records to gain a complete picture of the individual client’s situation and needs.
  3. Plan: Once a comprehensive understanding of where the client is and where they want to be has been established, the case manager can develop a tailored plan to help them get there. This involves determining specific objectives – such as ‘to secure stable housing within the next three months’ – then creating an action plan to map out each step to get there. In the above example, such steps could be: identifying appropriate housing options, assisting with the application process, connecting the client with financial aid services, scheduling weekly counselling sessions and so on.
  4. Coordinate: Step three is where case managers organise the resources and services identified in step one and two. This is the administrative phase of the process, whereby case managers book appointments for the client(s), assist them with filling out any paperwork and work through any practical challenges that may prevent them from reaching their goal.
  5. Monitor and evaluate: The final step of the case management process is just as integral as the first. Individuals’ circumstances are often changing and unforeseen challenges can pop up at any time. It’s essential to continuously review the client’s progress throughout their journey and make any necessary adjustments to ensure they’re working through any potential blocks and are on track to meet their goals.

Why is case management important in social work?

Case management plays a critical role in the field of social work and society in general. Without it, many individuals, families and communities would not be able to access and navigate essential services and support. Case management is important in social work for a number of reasons, including:

Improved outcomes for clients

With effective case management, clients are able to identify the key services they need and access them as quickly and resourcefully as possible. In turn, this decreases the length of time and severity of clients’ needs and improves their overall outcomes.

Enhanced collaboration between professionals

Case managers specialise in connecting clients with the right services and – when necessary – connecting those services with each other. This improves both efficiency and effectiveness of communication; case managers ensure key information doesn’t slip through the cracks and that service workers don’t have to waste time trawling through paperwork.

Prevention of potential crises

With such a hands-on role that is both targeted and holistic, case managers have a unique overview of their clients’ needs and vulnerabilities. This puts them in the perfect position to identify potential challenges and intervene early, before they become complex or difficult to resolve.

Reduced healthcare costs

By communicating efficiently, coordinating resources and preventing crises, case management plays a key role in improving costs across the healthcare and social services sectors.

What skills do I need for effective case management?

With some case manager salaries exceeding $100K per year, the rewards of this career path don’t stop at having a meaningful, transformative impact in the lives of others. Whether you want to pivot into the profession from a related industry or are already working within the field and ready to level up, you may be wondering how to become a case manager.

In Australia, you’re required to have a relevant qualification to practise social work, with some senior or specialised roles requiring a postgraduate degree. There are also a number of skills required to truly succeed as a case manager, which can be cultivated through both the right study and in-field experience. Empathy, organisational and interpersonal skills are non-negotiable, but there are more specific skills effective case managers have mastered. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Empowerment: Skillfully enabling clients to navigate the system, make informed decisions and cultivate the sense of confidence required to take control of their lives is fundamental in the field of case management.
  • Relationship-building: Fostering strong, trusting relationships in which clients feel encouraged to communicate and comfortable with sharing their personal situations with you is essential. Equally, the ability to cultivate strong professional relationships with social service providers is a must, in order to facilitate the best support for your clients and general workflow.
  • Strategic thinking: Effective case management requires the ability to see the ‘big picture’ of a client's situation and design an achievable road map to help them achieve their goals. Thinking strategically is critical here.
  • Assessment and evaluation skills: The ability to accurately evaluate a client’s situation based on in-person meetings and their records and design an effective strategy for them is a skill case managers call on every day.
  • Evidence-based practice: Staying up-to-date with the latest research and best practices, then identifying opportunities for their implementation in your day-to-day is a key differentiator of high-performing case managers.

Drive change and transform lives

Case management is a high-impact and high-reward career path in the field of social work, which provides the opportunity to make a tangible, lasting difference for individuals, families and communities.

The online Master of Social Work (Qualifying) course at UC qualifies graduates for employment as a case manager and equips students with the knowledge and skills needed to excel in this field. If you’re ready to empower your passion to drive change and transform lives, a career in case management may be the right fit for you.

Learn more about Master of Social Work (Qualifying) by visiting our website and downloading a brochure. You can also get in touch with one of our Student Enrolment Advisers on 1300 471 770.