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Case Management vs. Social Work: What’s the Difference?

June 5, 2023

Improving people’s well-being, empowering communities to overcome challenges, tackling social problems and injustice — achieving these goals is at the heart of social services work and requires a multipronged approach. To ensure people in need, especially the vulnerable and oppressed, get the proper support and resources, professionals in the field of social work take on various roles. 

Those inspired to make a difference and work in a meaningful field may want to consider a career in either case management or social work. An advanced degree in social work can prepare individuals to thrive in both areas.      

What Do Case Managers Do?

Case managers play a critical role in helping their clients access the health and social services they need. This entails evaluating client needs and coordinating appropriate treatment and services that help meet those needs. 

In their work, case managers may collaborate with social workers, health care workers and other types of service providers at various agencies. 

For example, a hospital case manager may work alongside nurses, making arrangements for a client’s discharge and aftercare. This could mean coordinating a transfer to a rehabilitation center or setting up home health visits. 

A case manager working at a nonprofit addressing housing insecurity and homelessness, on the other hand, may collaborate with government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, to support clients. This could involve coordinating rent relief assistance or submitting paperwork for subsidized housing. 

Case Manager Responsibilities

While specific duties will vary depending on where case managers practice, in general their work starts with intake interviews. During these discussions, case managers build rapport with their clients and ask a series of questions to determine their clients’ circumstances related to issues such as:

  • Housing
  • Food and clothing
  • Domestic violence
  • Finances and employment
  • Transportation
  • Substance use
  • Mental health
  • Health insurance coverage and benefits
  • Legal services 

Based on the information collected, case managers will determine which services can best address their clients’ needs, then connect their clients to those resources. 

Additionally, case managers may serve as liaisons between their clients and various service providers. For example, case managers working with formerly incarcerated individuals may meet with clients and gather information about their job status, housing situation and mental health. Then, the case managers may connect their clients to job services, counseling and programs designed to help them transition back into society. 

Additional case manager responsibilities include:

  • Preparing and evaluating case reports and detailing the assessment, care plan and follow-up for individual clients
  • Conducting screenings to assess a client’s eligibility for programs and services
  • Referring and introducing clients to service providers and agencies 

What Do Social Workers Do?

Social workers focus on both individual clients and how their environments affect their lives. This allows social workers to address client needs on a more person-centered level. 

Social workers consider not only their clients’ emotional needs, but also basic needs such as access to adequate housing and health care, food security, access to transportation and other variables that affect their clients’ well-being. Additionally, social workers assess how these various environmental factors impact their clients’ ability to cope and thrive. 

Using their expertise in counseling and knowledge of social problems, social workers help clients process their feelings about the challenges they face and take practical actions to change their realities. While social workers often provide therapy, they also guide clients to critical resources such as housing assistance programs, domestic abuse shelters, legal help and food assistance. 

Social Worker Responsibilities

Social work is a vast field with various areas of specialization that dictate a social worker’s responsibilities. Some social workers work primarily as clinicians, providing mental health services for psychological conditions and disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. 

Clinical social workers may also provide therapy to treat addictions and substance misuse, therapy for eating disorders, marriage and family counseling, or bereavement counseling. Other social workers address child welfare, helping families build safe, nurturing environments and intervening when children are in danger. These social workers may respond to allegations of child abuse and neglect, place children with foster families, and create reunification plans and work with parents or guardians to achieve the stipulations for reunification. 

Some social workers devote themselves to community organizing and advocacy. These social workers tackle the broken social systems that perpetuate inequities and discrimination. 

This may involve mobilizing communities into collective action to challenge unfair housing practices, pushing for prison reform or organizing campaigns to promote local economic development. With a concentration on structural shifts, this type of social work advocates for policy changes and has a big-picture outlook. 

Some typical duties of the various social work roles include:

  • Assessing client needs, strengths and support networks
  • Devising plans to promote clients’ overall well-being
  • Identifying relevant public and community services, such as child care and food assistance, and referring clients
  • Responding to crises and emergencies such as suicide attempts and domestic and interpersonal violence with appropriate interventions
  • Coordinating client care and services and communicating with other providers to ensure follow-through
  • Helping clients manage challenges and changes, such as death, separation and displacement
  • Monitoring clients’ progress and providing follow-up support as needed
  • Documenting and updating case files and records 

Similarities and Differences Between Case Management and Social Work

Social workers and case managers are essential to the delivery of effective social services. Both roles require similar educational backgrounds, and social workers and case managers frequently collaborate to achieve common goals. 

Typically, social workers and case managers work in health and social work settings, such as:

  • Child and family welfare agencies
  • Hospitals
  • Juvenile correction centers
  • Addiction and substance use facilities
  • Home health organizations
  • Nursing homes 

While the two professions share many similarities, they also differ in notable ways. For one, the level of contact with clients differs. Case managers tend to facilitate the delivery of services, coordinating the steps in those processes from start to finish. 

Social workers, on the other hand, directly administer those services. Additionally, social workers develop care plans and strategies. This often means social workers have more intimate involvement with their clients and the outcomes of recommended care plans.   

To further understand case management vs. social work, one may consider the education, skills and certifications required for each type of work. 


Social workers and case managers need at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably in social work, nursing, counseling or a related field. However, social workers often need a master’s in social work (M.S.W.) as well. Clinical social workers cannot practice without this advanced degree.

While case management roles don’t always require an M.S.W., many employers prefer candidates with advanced degrees, so acquiring an M.S.W. can lead to more job opportunities and possibilities for advancement. 


Professionals in case management and social work need similar skill sets to succeed. Building these skill sets happens over time through education, training and practice. 

Additionally, improving one’s skills can begin with a self-assessment to identify areas of weakness. Asking for feedback from trusted colleagues or educators can also help individuals develop the skills they need for case management and social work. Finally, investing in courses and training can help aspiring or practicing social workers and case managers level up their skills in key areas such as: 


Social workers and case managers regularly interact with a host of people, including their clients and other service providers. Both groups of professionals need to be able to speak with clarity to explain care options and services, eligibility requirements for various programs, and other information. They also need to engage in active listening to accurately assess their clients’ needs and preferences. 

Cultural Competence

Providing appropriate support to people from a range of cultural, racial and economic backgrounds requires cultural competence. Both social workers and case managers need to develop understanding and respect for the beliefs, attitudes and experiences of diverse communities. 

By reflecting on their own biases, conscious and unconscious, professionals in both roles can prevent the distortion of objective assessments. Cultural competence helps social workers and case managers give each client the tailored support they need, and also builds trust and understanding with clients. 

Organizational Skills

Handling multiple clients, conducting follow-ups and staying up-to-date with services, programs and eligibility requirements demand excellent organizational skills. Social workers and case managers often balance heavy caseloads that involve paperwork, deadlines and coordination. It’s crucial professionals in the field can effectively prioritize tasks and stay on top of their calendars to ensure clients get the support they deserve. 


The clients that social workers and case managers work with are often experiencing complex challenges. It’s vital that social workers and case managers use their analytical abilities to assess situations and solve problems. Analytical skills also enable professionals in the field to evaluate the effectiveness of care plans and make changes accordingly. 

Licensing and Certification

In addition to educational requirements, social workers and case managers have licensing and certification requirements to consider. 

Case Manager Credentials

Though many case manager positions do not require certification, others do. This often depends on the state and the nature of the case management work. For example, some roles require licensure based on the amount of direct contact case managers have with clients. 

Caseworkers can become Certified Social Work Case Managers (C-SWCM) after earning a bachelor’s degree in social work, completing at least three years of supervised work experience in case management after earning their degree, and passing an exam. 

Social Worker Credentials

Credentialing for social workers varies by state. However, social workers can earn their license from state regulatory boards. This generally involves graduating from an accredited M.S.W. program; passing the Association of Social Work Boards Master’s, Advanced Generalist or Clinical exam; and completing a specified number of field education hours. 

Common social work licenses include the LCSW, or Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and the LMSW, or Licensed Master Social Worker.

Make a Difference Empowering Those in Need

Case management and social work both have an important role to play in serving individuals and families in need. Those inspired to make a difference empowering others to thrive can prepare themselves with the right education. 

Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work Program format combines the convenience of online coursework with guidance from expert faculty with field experience. Explore how the VCU M.S.W. online format can equip graduates with the skills they need to succeed as case managers and social workers.