Social work is a practice-based profession and academic discipline founded on theories of social work, social science, and humanities. It is advanced through an evidence informed approach and recognizes the importance of Indigenous ways of knowing in practice, the development of knowledge, and education, clinical services, policy, and research. Social work focuses on the person within their environment and recognizes the importance of family, community, culture, legal, social, spiritual, and economic influences that impact the well-being of individuals, families, groups, and communities. Social work applies a strengths-based perspective and views individual, families, and communities as resourceful, resilient, and having capacity. Principles of respect for the inherent dignity and worth of persons, the pursuit of social justice, and culturally responsive practice that applies an anti-oppressive lens to all areas of practice and is grounded in ethics, values, and humility, are central to social work.
Social work practice responds to needs of individuals, families, groups, and communities and addresses barriers and injustices in organizations and society. Social work focuses on improving health and social well-being using the social determinants of health framework when delivering services, navigating systems, and advocating for equitable access to and improvement of the multiple dimensions that impact health and well-being. Social work engages people and communities to address life challenges and traumatic events, to create change, and build resiliency. Social work also collaborates with other professionals, communities, and organizations to provide services, improve conditions, and create opportunities for growth, recovery, and personal development.
For more information refer to the CASW National Scope of Practice Statement (2020).
To access the Canadian Institute for Health Information's portal on the profession of social work, click here.
Where Do Social Workers Work?
Social workers work in a variety of settings: family services agencies, children’s aid agencies, general and psychiatric hospitals, school boards, correctional institutions, welfare administration agencies, federal and provincial departments. An increasing number of social workers work in private practice.
"93% of those in the social worker occupational category are employed either in the health and social services or government industries, with 74% in the former and 19% in the latter. Relatively few social workers are employed in private practice offices, but the number almost doubled between 1991 and 1996."1
How Many Social Workers are there in Canada?
The social work profession is provincially legislated and regulated consequently to gain a full picture of Registered Social Workers in Canada, enquire directly with each Provincial/Territorial regulatory body for the most recent and accurate figures. Alternatively, the Canada's Health Care Providers 2000-2009 A Reference Guide and the Health Personnel Trends in Canada 1994-2004 (Revised 2006) by the Canadian Institute for Health Information can be referenced. As of early 2016, our best estimates indicate that there are approximately 50,000 social workers in Canada.
What Do Social Workers Do?
Social workers provide services as members of a multidisciplinary team or on a one-to-one basis with the client. The duties performed by social workers vary depending on the settings in which they work.
Social workers employed by child welfare agencies (public and private) investigate cases of family violence, child abuse and neglect and take protective action as required. They may recruit foster parents or supervise the placement of children in protective care. Others work on adoption cases.
Many school boards hire social workers to help students adjust to the school environment. They help students, parents and teachers to deal with problems such as aggressive behaviour, truancy and family problems, which affect the students’ performance.
In general and psychiatric hospitals, social workers are members of the treatment team. They provide a link between the team and the family as well as with community resources. In these settings they contribute to the care, treatment and rehabilitation of the aged and of physically or mentally ill individuals, as well as the care of disabled persons.
In health and community services centres, social workers are involved in the provision of counselling to individuals or families and in providing services to seniors. Some work as community developers helping citizens to identify their needs and proposing ways of meeting these needs. Others may assist with parent-child relationships and marriage counselling. The services may be offered on an individual basis or in groups.
In the correctional field, social workers may be part of a team concerned with the social rehabilitation of young or adult offenders. They may work as classification officers. Others work as probation officers or as parole officers. Parole officers help ex-prisoners adjust to life in the community while conforming to the conditions of their parole.
Social workers in private practice offer their services on a fee-for-service basis to individuals, families and organizations. Their services include counselling, psychotherapy, mediation, sex therapy, policy and program development, organizational development, and employee assistance programs.
Social workers involved in policy analysis, policy development and planning are usually working in federal and provincial departments or social planning councils. Researchers are found in universities and governments. Others are teaching in universities and community colleges.
Learn more about what social workers do here.
Employment opportunities in Social Work do exist. The situation changes from province to province. For more information contact the individual provincial/territorial social work organizations.
Most social workers work full-time although it is possible to work part-time. Recent graduates in social work practise under supervision for administrative and professional development purposes. Many employers offer staff development training. Social workers providing direct services spend most of their time with clients in their offices or in the client’s home. They also spend time in consultation with other professionals such as psychologists, teachers, physicians, lawyers or other persons concerned in a specific case.
Earnings may vary substantially among provinces and even within a province. The provincial organization of social workers may be able to provide more information on wages in a particular province.
Social work education consists of theoretical courses and practical training at the undergraduate or graduate level.
In most provinces the Bachelor of Social Work is the minimum educational requirement for entry into the profession. Postgraduate education leading to a master’s or doctoral degree is also available.
A four-year undergraduate program is required for a bachelor’s degree. Persons who have a Bachelor of Social Work degree may obtain a master’s degree after one year of postgraduate studies. Those who have a degree in another discipline would require a two-year postgraduate program in social work to obtain the master’s degree in social work.
The Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE) has the responsibility for accrediting university-based social work programs. This association publishes a directory of accredited programs. As admission requirements and program orientation vary among schools, interested persons should consult the directory or communicate with the school of their choice.
As a preparation at the secondary school level, courses such as economics, social policy, sociology, psychology and philosophy are useful. Voluntary work in a social service agency is a plus.
For information about social work education in Canada contact the Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE) at the address below.
NOTE: Content of "The Social Work Profession" can be copied freely provided that the source of information is acknowledged.