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What Qualities Make a Good Social Worker?

A Master of Social Work can help further develop essential skills.

Social workers heed the call to a profession that, from its start, has dedicated itself to improving the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable children and adults.

“Social workers help relieve people’s suffering, fight for social justice, and improve lives and communities,” says the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). “We can be found in hospitals, helping people cope with acute conditions and chronic illness. We provide therapy in community health centers and help prevent students from dropping out of school. We help prisoners as they reenter communities and provide rehabilitative support in drug and alcohol centers.”1

What Qualities Make a Good Social Worker?

Social work career opportunities are growing more diverse for the 600,000 professionals in the United States with a BSW, MSW, or a DSW/PhD in social work.1 But practitioners, working in roles that range from counseling older adults to school social worker, share many of the same qualities—traits that help them stand out in their field. Here are seven of those top qualities:

Setting and maintaining boundaries to keep work and personal life in separate and healthy proportions is essential for success and longevity in social work careers. Social workers must guard against what Tulane University professor Dr. Charles Figley calls compassion fatigue, “an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”2 Successful social work practitioners knit self-care into their daily routines. But even those with an innate sense of balance can wobble off course. Online MSW programs and professional organizations offer many tools, tips, and techniques to help keep you on track.

Wherever they work, social workers are communicators. Some social workers are advocates who must speak and write persuasively about the needs of their clients and communities. Some are directors of social service agencies, communicating with funders to elicit vital support. Others are child welfare social workers representing the needs of children. And licensed clinical social workers use communication skills to develop a rapport with clients, knowing what to say and how to listen. Active listening is as vital a skill as verbal and written communication.

Empathy is a powerful tool. Research shows that being able to understand and feel what others experience can improve patient outcomes in a social work practice.3 As with most traits, the degree to which we empathize is on a continuum. Some practitioners may seem more empathetic than others, but there’s no empathy yardstick. Through coursework in a master of social work program, practitioners can develop and refine their empathic skills to benefit their clients.

Ethical Standards
Social workers uphold the highest principles and standards and adhere to laws of patient privacy and confidentiality like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). They understand the difference between client privacy, confidentiality, and privileged communication and stay current on professional standards and regulations. In outlining ethical standards for social workers, the NASW explains that some are enforceable, and others are aspirational.4 Top professionals adhere to both.

Problems may arrive by the dozen on any given day for most types of social workers. They may present as issues clients are facing or as their own personal or professional concerns. Top problem-solving social workers bring multiple talents to finding solutions, serving as a researcher, interviewer, advocate, and strategist. They work collaboratively, creatively, and with curiosity to craft solutions to clients’ issues, and their own.

Sense of Humor
Humor softens life’s edges and can help keep us afloat when conditions get rough. Many professionals incorporate humor into their social work practices. And when it’s not appropriate in a client-facing situation, it’s a helpful tool to use personally, behind the scenes, to relieve pressure. In one study, emergency room social workers said a sense of humor was vital to their well-being and ability to do their jobs.5 It’s never too late to learn to laugh.

Time Management
Social workers’ hours can be long and unpredictable, and members of this helping profession can have a hard time setting limits. When the workload is heavy, it can be easy to fall behind on tasks that seem less urgent. Paperwork is rarely a favorite task, but it’s a critical piece of a social work practice, along with returning telephone calls, scheduling, coordinating meetings, and a whole to-do list of responsibilities. The good news is, time management can be taught. In earning a degree and learning how to become a social worker, students pick up valuable tips for managing their workload.

Take Your Skills to the Next Level

A master’s in social work can help you develop and hone essential skills to use in your social work practice. In an online MSW program, students can gain foundation-level skills on the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of social work practice. Topics may include ethical conduct, client engagement, active listening, empathetic responses, and interviewing skills.

While pursuing an online MSW you can put your knowledge and skills to use immediately, making you an attractive candidate for new social work career opportunities. The best programs offer specializations that let you tailor your MSW degree to a field that fuels your passion and intellect. Popular choices include advanced clinical practice, military social work, social work in healthcare, and social work with children and families.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) forecasts an expanding social worker job market through 2026, with growth of 16%. According to the BLS: “Overall, job prospects should be very good, particularly for clinical social workers.” The agency projects a 14% increase in career opportunities for child, family, and school social workers, and a 20% increase in the healthcare social worker job sector.6

Prepare for this expansive future by adding an MSW online to your educational portfolio and let your singular blend of skills and talents lead the way to a rewarding social work career.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree program with three completion options. Expand your career opportunities and earn your degree using a convenient online format that fits your busy life.


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Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,