The difference between human services and social work

April 30, 2018

Human Services and Social Work are related fields that involve helping people through challenging life circumstances, whether in a crisis situation or for the long term.

So what distinguishes these fields from one another? In many cases, the differences have to do with the type of interaction and intervention each professional can offer.

An example of social work and human services at work

A human services professional (HSP) manages a homeless shelter and interacts with individuals and families on a daily basis. Daily interaction allows them to build trusting relationships with clients needing their help.
For example, the HSP might notice that a client is losing weight and showing signs of increased irritability and discomfort. When asked by the HSP, the client says they don’t feel well, can’t eat, and can’t sleep. The HSP acts as a first-responder, helping round up resources to assist. They might make a referral to a medical clinic or connect the client with a social worker to address possible changes in mood. The HSP might advocate for changes to government policies on behalf of his or her homeless clientele.

A social worker would be responsible for assessing the client and then working with them to develop a treatment plan. The social worker would also implement the plan and evaluate its outcomes. Based on outcomes, the social worker would either end services (if goals are met), or change the treatment plan. Social workers intervene in a variety of ways, depending on their level of education and licensure.
In addition to working with individuals, social workers are trained to assess and intervene from an environment perspective. They might engage the client’s family or other support networks to help address any macro level issues that might be impacting the client. Additionally, the social worker might work with HSPs, government agencies, or nonprofit organizations to advocate for new policies to address identified needs of at risk populations.

A comparison of social work and human services

Here’s a quick guide to help you understand the differences between the two areas of study and practice, as well as some career paths within each field.

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