What is Social Work?

Elements of a social worker's identity - self determination

The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.

International Federation of Social Workers

Brief introduction to Social Work

Social workers aim to protect vulnerable people from abuse, neglect or self-harm and to help to enhance their well-being and quality of life. Drawing upon a rich knowledge base and theoretical perspectives derived from the social and psychological sciences, social workers aim to promote positive individual and social change.

Social workers operate within legal frameworks for protecting and supporting vulnerable people. For example, local authority social workers working with children and families use child protection policies and procedures to intervene in families to protect vulnerable children and provide support, while those working with adults aim to ensure that their needs for care and protection are met.

Social workers practising in statutory contexts such as local authorities or NHS Trusts commonly assess the need for care, support and protection of individuals or families, develop care plans and provide or manage the provision of care. They are also responsible for implementing policies which aim to safeguard vulnerable children or adults and ensure that people have as much choice and control over services they use as possible.

Social workers work closely with other professionals, often known as 'inter-professional working'. Mental health social workers, for example, often work in teams alongside community mental health nurses, occupational therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. However, inter-professional working is common for all social workers.

Social work inter-professional working: social workers, NHS, community nurses, psychologists, social care providers, local authorities, occupational therapists

The difference between social work and social care

In the UK, social work (a qualified, registered profession with a protected title) is distinct from social care (a largely unqualified and unregistered workforce). Social care includes providing personal care, supporting individuals with tasks of daily living and supporting people to engage with their communities. Social care often involves more direct contact with people than social work. However, there is a growing interest in relationship-based social work which emphasises the importance of the relationship social workers have with the people they are working with.

Beyond statutory services

Social work in the voluntary sector - also known as the 'third sector' - is sometimes more flexible than in statutory services and there may be greater potential for creativity. Social enterprises, for example, provide social workers with the opportunity to draw upon their skills, knowledge and experience to work directly with vulnerable people in ways not often possible within local authority social work.

Dr Ian Buchanan in small group discussion with students

Our Social Work courses

We offer qualifying Social Work degree programmes at both Undergraduate and Postgraduate level, which, on succesful completion, entitles graduates to apply to register with the Health and Social Care Professions Council, in order to work as social workers in England.

Our Social Work research

Our staff have undertaking research and written in fields such as mental health, communication skills, ICT and social work, family social work and offending. Further details available through staff profiles and the York Research Database. The Department is home to the Centre for Mental Health Social Research, a collaborative centre of expertise in mental health social policy and social work.

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