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Social Work

The role of social workers in Australia

Social workers are in huge demand, and it’s not only in health care that they’re needed. If you’re interested in social work, here’s what you need to know.

By Trudie McConnochie Published 27/09/2022

The term ‘social work’ isn’t legally protected in Australia, which means anyone can call themselves a social worker. That, combined with some common misconceptions about what a social worker does, means that you may not be clear on what a social worker is, let alone what the role might entail. 

According to Frossa Mrakas, a long-time social worker who also works as a field educator at a leading university, many people think social work is a reactive role supporting people in crisis. While that can be the case, social work today has become a more dynamic, proactive role that aims to empower individuals and communities. 

While social work is a broad and diverse profession, the common goal of all social workers is to facilitate social change, cohesion and development. Social workers might work at an individual, family or community level but can also work at a management, leadership, advocacy, policy or administration level. Sometimes social workers are known by other titles, such as: case worker, family therapist, allied health clinician, mental health worker, child safety officer, counsellor or welfare officer.

Frossa says there are two schools of thought in relation to social work in Australia – explanatory theories and practical theories. Under those umbrellas, the main theories are:

  • attachment theory
  • person-centred psychodynamic systems
  • critical theory
  • systems theory
  • eco theory
  • social learning theory
  • solution focused
  • strength based
  • anti-oppressive
  • trauma-informed
  • feminist
  • crisis intervention

What social workers do

According to the Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), social workers assist and support individuals, families, groups and communities with their wellbeing, while addressing any issues related to inequality, injustice and discrimination. This could take the form of case work, counselling, advocacy, social action or community engagement and development. As mentioned, social work can also involve policy development, education and research (AASW, accessed August 2022).  

Some of the common areas social workers operate in are hospitals, schools, mental health facilities, government departments, aged care facilities, NDIS agencies, justice organisations, alcohol and drug support agencies as well as ethno-specific settings, Frossa says. These are also the types of organisations and entities many social workers integrate with on a regular basis. 

Accredited mental health social workers can register with Medicare, and by contrast, have the opportunity to work one on one in private practice. Their practice is informed and guided by theoretical and academic knowledge, says Frossa. A snapshot of the support they provide includes, but is not limited to, the following: 

  • trauma-informed mental health services 
  • counselling 
  • psychotherapy 
  • life skills 

Frossa says the beauty of social work is that it can be mutable – and the skills are very transferrable. She points to her own career as an example.  

“I’ve been working in the field for nearly 40 years, and I’ve had many different roles. Social work provides valuable foundational skills and then you can springboard into areas that you want to work in. I’ve worked in ethno-specific, women’s health, mental health, training and development, community development and policy areas,” she says. 

“At one stage I was doing women’s health in a private hospital, because I had done a lot of work in women’s health education. And so my role there was running workshops and information sessions, and we did a lot of work around endometriosis – I helped set up different types of clinics,” Frossa recalls.

Social workers in health care

Because social workers are involved with supporting individuals’ wellbeing, their work often intersects with health care. According to the AASW, a social worker’s role in the health field is to enhance a person’s social and emotional functioning through targeted interventions and the mobilisation of services and supports . They’re often involved when someone’s health is impacted by complex social, psychological, family and institutional dynamics. Essentially, the aim of a social worker is to help people access health information and make decisions about their own health and wellbeing. 

Some examples include coordinating services both within and outside of the healthcare service, or assisting with hospital discharge planning (particularly when there are complex psychosocial issues at play). At an organisational level, social workers might provide professional development for healthcare practitioners around psychosocial issues, or helping identify and remove barriers to healthcare services. 

A 2016 Department of Jobs and Small Business Job Outlook report noted that more than 70 per cent of social workers in Australia were in the healthcare and social assistance field. 

Practising social work in Australia

Social work isn’t about managing people’s needs for them, it’s about setting them up to better manage their own needs, says Frossa. In recent years there’s been more focus on being proactive rather than reactive.

“I know it’s a cliched term but knowledge is power,” she says. “I do a lot of supervision of social work students on placement, and for a lot of students, what I see is they have this adherence to strength-based, solution focused [approaches], giving the power back to the client, the patient, the resident, depending on the setting. And it’s very much about social access and social equality.”

One of the greatest measures of her impact on people is hearing feedback indicating her work has made people feel validated. 

“I work with a lot of parents and carers of kids with autism,” says Frossa, who herself has a son with autism. “And I suppose I can offer them professional and practical support but I also have the insight because I’ve walked that path as well. So I hear: ‘Frossa gets me and she’s not into psychobabble’, ‘she can offer very practical, very realistic support’ and ‘understands where I’m coming from.’”  

Practising self-care in social work

While social work can be incredibly rewarding, it can also be demanding and emotionally draining. Burnout is common in professions such as social work which involve caring for others – and data shows burnout levels among social workers have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2011 Australian study found that social workers were experiencing higher levels of stress and resulting burnout than comparable occupational groups. The authors attributed this to the nature of social work itself, as well as tension between philosophy and work demands plus the organisation of the workplace. It noted, however, that supervision and team support are shown to be protective factors against burnout (Journal of Mental Health, January 2011, accessed August 2022).  

Frossa says self-care is essential to mitigate against compassion fatigue symptoms. 

“Practise self-care by recognising if and when you’re burning out, and whether you need to be doing more or less of something,” she says. “It comes down to your own self knowledge and understanding that: ‘I’m working too hard, I need to take a break’. And asking: ‘Is my life in balance? Do I need to reassess my work commitments and workload? Am I doing enough exercise? Am I meeting with my friends and sleeping well? Am I eating well?’” 

Skills shortages in social work

Currently there’s a shortage of social workers, and Frossa says that our ageing population, and the exponential increase in demand for mental health services, are contributing factors. Other pressures putting demand on social workers include increasing policy focuses on family violence, disability and mental health support. A March 2018 Victorian Allied Health Workforce Research Program report predicted that these areas, as well as child protection and Indigenous mental health, would be future areas of high demand for social work – and it also pointed to service gaps in rural areas of Australia as a concern. 

The impact on the community is very long waiting periods – a source of great frustration, Frossa says.  

“I can talk to the clients I’m seeing where they might have kids who’ve got very, very complex needs, and there’s nowhere to take them because the waiting list is so long,” she says. 

Becoming a social worker

To become an accredited social worker in Australia, at a minimum you must have a four-year bachelor’s or two-year master’s qualification in social work that’s accredited by the AASW (e.g. Bachelor of Social Work). Overseas equivalent qualifications may be eligible, if approved by the AASW. From there, most social workers undertake additional study to specialise – for example, Frossa has studied trauma-informed care, relationship counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, as well as other areas. 

If you’re entering social work from another healthcare field, such as nursing, counselling, psychology or occupational therapy, you’ll be in a strong position. Those specialised skills will potentially increase your value in the job market as a social work.   

Social workers are also required to undertake professional development every year to keep their knowledge and skill base current.  

According to Frossa, these are some of the skills and traits that are helpful if you’d like to become a social worker: 

  • emotional intelligence 
  • empathy 
  • self awareness 
  • flexibility  
  • patience 
  • the ability to set clear boundaries 
  • being analytical 
  • being critically reflective  
  • good interpersonal communication skills 
  • the ability to get on with people – “Not only your clients and patients, but your peers and other workers too,” she says. 

Frossa points out that you can work in the community sector without becoming a qualified social worker. 

“There’s different work you can do in the field – you can be a community worker or a disability work, and you can do shorter TAFE courses, but you don’t become a qualified social worker, nor do you have the same career opportunities that qualified social workers have,” she explains. 

Many social workers say they chose to work in this field because it allows them to assist people from all walks of life, in a range of contexts, with an emphasis on social justice and advocacy. Social work allows them to have an impact on individuals and the community.  

If you’re interested in becoming a social worker, a good place to start is with AASW accredited courses. If you are looking to study social work online (distance) the following institutions offer that as an option:

  • Charles Sturt University
  • University of New England
  • Charles Darwin University
  • CQUniversity
  • Griffith University
  • James Cook University
  • Southern Cross University
  • Deakin University

 

AASW accredited Social Work Courses
State Institution Program
ACT Australian Catholic University Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Master of Social Work
NSW









 
Charles Sturt University Bachelor of Social Work 
Bachelor of Social Work Honours 
Master of Social Work 
University of New England Bachelor of Social Work 
Master of Social Work 
University of New South Wales Bachelor of Social Work 
Bachelor of Social Work Honours/Bachelor of Law
Bachelor of Social Work Honours/Bachelor of Arts
Bachelor of Social Work Honours/Bachelor of Criminology & Criminal Justice
Bachelor of Social Work Honours/Bachelor of Criminology & Criminal Justice
Bachelor of Social Work Honours/Bachelor of Social Science
University of Newcastle Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
University of Sydney Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Social Work
Master of Social Work
Western Sydney University Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Criminal & Community Justice/Bachelor of Social Work
Master of Social Work
University of Wollongong Bachelor of Social Work/Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Master of Social Work
Australian Catholic University Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Social Work
Master of Social Work
Australian College of Applied Professions  Master of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work/Bachelor of Social Work Honours
NT Charles Darwin University Bachelor of Social Work/Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Master of Social Work (provisionally accredited)
QLD CQU Bachelor of Social Work
Griffith University Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Master of Social Work
Master of Social Work/Master of Mental Health
James Cook University Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Master of Social Work
QUT Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Bachelor of Behavioural Science/Bachelor of Social Work
Master of Social Work
Southern Cross University Bachelor of Social Work (provisionally accredited)
Master of Social Work 
The University of Queensland Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Master of Social Work Studies
Australian Catholic University Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Batchelor of Theology/Bachelor of Social Work 
Batchelor of Arts/Bachelor of Social Work 
Master of Social Work 
University of the Sunshine Coast Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work/Batchelor or Criminology & Justice
 Master of Social Work 
University of Souther Queensland Bachelor of Social Work/Bachelor of Social Work Honours
SA Flinders University Bachelor of Social Work/Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Bachelor of Social Work
Master of Social Work 
University of South Australia Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Master of Social Work
TAS University of Tasmania Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Master of Social Work
VIC Deakin University Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Master of Social Work
LaTrobe University Bachelor of Social Work Honours (provisionally accredited)
Master of Social Work
Bachelor of Human Services/Master of Social Work
Monash University Master of Social Work
RMIT University Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Bachelor of Social Work Honours/Bachelor of Social Science Honours
Master of Social Work
The University Of Melbourne Master of Social Work
Federation University Master of Social Work
Victoria University Bachelor of Social Work
Australian College of Applied Professions Master of Social Work (provisionally accredited)
Bachelor of Social Work (provisionally accredited)
WA Curtin University Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
Master of Social Work
Edith Cowan University Bachelor of Social Work
Bachelor of Social Work Honours
The University Of Western Australia Master of Social Work