What does a social worker do?

A group of social workers
A group of social workers

Social work is a rewarding career dedicated to supporting individuals and shaping better, more compassionate communities.

Social workers often see the direct results of their efforts – whether it’s helping someone secure housing, improve their mental health, or navigate complex social systems – making it the perfect career path for anyone who wants to make a measurable difference.

In Australia, social workers are integral to sectors like healthcare, education and government, where they champion social justice and tackle real-world challenges.

But what does a social worker do on a daily basis? How do you become a social worker? And how can the University of Canberra’s Master of Social Work (Qualifying) prepare you for this impactful profession?

Let’s explore the role of a social worker in more detail.

What is the role of a social worker?

The role of a social worker in Australia is diverse – from advocating for vulnerable groups to providing essential support in times of crisis. They’re often our society’s unsung heroes.

The profession encompasses a broad spectrum of responsibilities, all united by a common thread – a commitment to improving lives and advocating for fairness and social justice. Whether guiding individuals through complex life events or shaping policies that transform communities, social workers can empower people to grow in resilience and hope.

Social workers take a holistic approach to addressing complex issues like trauma, mental health and wellbeing across a range of different contexts including family violence, homelessness, substance abuse and with individuals living with disability. This approach involves working alongside individuals and communities to empower them in self-determining what support they need. It encompasses not only their immediate health or emotional challenges but also factors in their social environment, family dynamics, cultural background and personal history.

By addressing the interconnected aspects of a person’s life, social workers aim to provide a more nuanced and effective response to the multifaceted problems they face.

What do social workers do in different settings?

A Master of Social Work opens doors to a broad range of roles that support individuals by facilitating tangible improvements in their lives. Let’s investigate where a social work qualification can take you, from community health centres to private practice.


In a hospital setting, social workers coordinate patient care with community services, refer people to programs and organisations that can help them, offer care management advocacy services and counselling, and help patients navigate the complex healthcare system.

Hospital social workers focus on patients’ overall wellbeing, ensuring access to care, upholding patient dignity and assisting with emergency housing, financial aid, health and legal matters.

Their roles encompass practical support, emotional aid and explaining patient rights. They also handle complex challenges like ageing populations and chronic illnesses, discharge planning, and legal issues.

Mental health settings

Accredited mental health social workers complete advanced training to work in this field and use a range of evidence-based therapeutic techniques to support those with mental illness. It’s one of five core professions in mental health and the second largest allied health sector providing mental health services.

You’ll offer critical support in the recovery and wellbeing of those facing mental health issues, employing a broad range of skills and strategies for support to address both the psychological and social aspects of mental health. The key responsibilities of a social worker in a mental health setting may include:

  • managing social factors for recovery, addressing psychological and social issues, and improving life quality (their work involves counselling individuals and groups, including those with mental illness or addiction)
  • therapeutic approaches - for example, using techniques like cognitive-behavioural therapy and strengths-based, solution-focused approaches to address conditions such as depression and anxiety
  • providing evidence-based clinical services as accredited professionals, adhering to high regulation standards
  • holistic assessment and support including addressing social aspects such as housing and employment which may impact mental health and wellbeing


Social workers in schools provide support for students’ wellbeing and learning. Their work encompasses counselling, crisis response and policy development.

According to The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), accredited school social workers have specific capabilities to build effective person-centred relationships, deliver positive outcomes, apply high-level conceptual and analytical skills, provide protective intervention practices and help develop and implement strategies supporting the social, emotional and educational needs of children and young people in schools.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities

Social workers play a vital role in supporting older Australians. The responsibilities of a social worker in a nursing home may include:

  • promoting positive and healthy ageing
  • addressing social injustices and preventing abuse
  • supporting elderly residents’ health and providing social and emotional support
  • liaising with families and healthcare providers
  • addressing issues at both individual and systemic levels to improve the lives of older adults
  • navigating systems that provide access to financial and material support

Social workers work to ensure older individuals’ wellbeing, self-fulfilment and self-determination. They may also contribute to social and governmental enquiries regarding elder abuse, strategies for aged care workforces and the quality of care in residential aged care facilities​​.

Child and family services

Social workers are at the forefront of addressing and supporting a range of critical issues in child and family services. The role of a social worker in this sector is multifaceted. Beyond advocacy and counselling, they’re key players in shaping a more supportive, safe and nurturing environment for children and families, tailored to the unique context of each community. This can include:

Child protection and advocacy

Social workers are actively involved in safeguarding children from abuse and neglect. This often involves working closely with government agencies like the Department of Health & Human Services. They assess family environments, work on foster care and adoption cases and advocate for the child's best interests in legal settings.

Family support and counselling

Diverse family structures and various socio-economic factors play a significant role in the day-to-day challenges faced by families across Australia. Navigating the complexities of family dynamics, social workers provide tailored counselling services to help with parenting difficulties, domestic violence, poverty, social exclusion, deprivation, mental health issues and more.

Group work and community programs

Social workers conduct various group work initiatives including parenting workshops, support groups for single parents and programs for children experiencing trauma. The aim is to create supportive community networks that foster shared understanding and mutual support.

Collaboration and advocacy in policy development

Social workers help shape policies that impact child welfare and family services, ensuring they reflect real community needs and challenges. They advocate for systemic changes to improve child protection laws, foster care systems and access to family support services.

Place-based services

A place-based approach to child and family services is vital. Social workers work with communities to identify their specific needs and target them accordingly, recognising that each place and situation is unique. For example, in remote areas, they might focus more on accessible service delivery, while in urban settings, the emphasis might be on addressing a family’s diverse cultural and linguistic needs.

Private practice

Being in private practice offers unique opportunities for flexible, specialised and innovative service delivery.

Your daily tasks may include personal and family counselling, service coordination and advocacy for disadvantaged people. You’ll help individuals find emergency housing, secure financial aid and address health or legal issues. You might also lead group work, promoting greater health, reducing social isolation and discussing addiction or grief.

Government agencies

Social workers may also operate in roles which don’t directly work with individuals and communities - but where their work influences the systems and programs that improve people’s lives. Working with agencies like the Australian Department of Social Services (DSS) social workers may design policies or shape programs to be funded in the community.

Likewise, social workers may also be employed by government agencies to deliver programs such as social security on a national level and at state-level, administer state-based child protection programs.

Drug and alcohol clinics

Social workers play an essential role in providing targeted support to individuals experiencing substance abuse. They work alongside other professionals like psychologists, psychiatrists and general practitioners, often operating out of treatment centres, specialist clinics and community centres. Their responsibilities may include:

  • providing counselling support to individuals struggling with substance use, creating a supportive and understanding environment and listening empathetically
  • helping individuals identify goals, prepare for change and challenge unhelpful thinking patterns​​​​
  • connecting individuals with other community supports and services that can aid their treatment and recovery

Correctional facilities

Social work services in prisons focus on rehabilitation, human rights and systemic change. If you’d like to work with and advocate for those who are incarcerated, the responsibilities of a social worker in correctional facilities include:

  • clinical services, such as providing individual and group counselling, treatment assessments and identifying at-risk prisoners
  • producing reports, developing plans for treatment and communicating with other criminal justice professionals to collaborate on meeting needs
  • supporting those who are incarcerated to reintegrate into their communities and ensuring their families have the support they need
  • addressing prison social injustices, including advocating for community-based alternatives to incarceration and promoting equal access and resources within the criminal justice system

Become an advocate in the social work field

Social work’s profound impact on our community is part of what makes this such a fulfilling career. It’s about more than providing aid – it’s about uplifting voices, challenging injustices, empowering individuals and promoting self-determination.

Qualified professionals actively involved in the industry have designed The University of Canberra’s online Master of Social Work (Qualifying) program to make it easier to balance full-time work while studying. You can complete your university degree part-time in as little as 32 months and start the next stage of your career sooner.

Because our curriculum meets the Australian Social Work Education and Accreditation Standards (ASWEAS) governed by The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), you’ll be well prepared for professional and globally recognised practice.

You’ll also apply what you learn immediately through field education placements, getting hands-on experience advocating for and supporting vulnerable communities, and driving social change.

Empower your passion to drive change and transform lives. Learn more about the University of Canberra Online’s Master of Social Work (Qualifying) by visiting our website and downloading a brochure.