Case Manager vs. Social Worker: What’s the Difference?

Case manager helping a couple with paperwork

As you begin to think about your future career options, you may find yourself gravitating toward a career that would allow you to serve those less fortunate in your community. Two possibilities that fit this vision are the roles of a social worker and a case manager.

Choosing between a career as a case manager vs. social worker can be challenging, but this career guide will help you learn the main difference between a case manager and social worker, as well as their similarities. You’ll also explore the various educational and credentialing requirements for these professions to help guide your career decision.

What’s the Main Difference Between a Case Manager and Social Worker?

Case managers and social workers both work in the social services field. All social services professionals help individuals navigate challenging situations in life such as homelessness, abuse, substance use disorders and many more. However, although case managers and social workers often perform many similar duties, they are distinctly different careers.

The main difference between a case manager vs social worker is that a social worker is licensed to deliver therapy services, whereas a case manager is not. A social worker directly provides some needed services to clients and offers referrals for other services. In contrast, a case manager will act as a plan developer and coordinator to connect clients to the services they need to overcome life challenges.

What Does a Social Worker Do?

To get a better sense of the difference between a case manager vs social worker, it’s helpful to have a more in-depth understanding of what these professionals do on a daily basis. Social workers wear many hats, acting as social justice advocates, therapists and treatment coordinators. They work with a range of different populations, depending on their specialization, which may include:

  • Child and family social workers – These social workers assist families facing challenges like poverty, homelessness and major illnesses. They help families obtain housing and government benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). A social worker can intervene when a child is at risk of neglect or abuse, and may help arrange for foster care or adoption.
  • School social workers – These professionals keep a close eye on at-risk children in school systems, both in terms of academics and behavior. They may work with kids who are struggling academically, being bullied, are bullying others or are dealing with external pressures outside the school, such as poverty at home.
  • Mental health and substance abuse social workers – As the job title indicates, these professionals work with clients who are affected by substance abuse disorders or other mental illnesses. These social workers deliver therapy services and connect their clients to treatment programs and support groups.
  • Healthcare social workers – Working within healthcare settings, these social workers help patients adapt to a major diagnosis of a permanent or temporary disability. For instance, a healthcare social worker might help a patient with minimal social support make arrangements for long-term nursing care following a hospital stay for surgery.

In most cases, an aspiring social worker needs a graduate degree and a license. However, some social workers — known as bachelor’s social workers (BSWs) because they do not need a master’s degree and a license — specialize in macro social work, which is intended to correct some of the root causes of life challenges, like poverty and substance abuse. These professionals advocate for the improvement and implementation of public policies, programs and social services.

Although social workers may specialize in certain populations or areas of social work, they generally perform the same sort of tasks. On a given day, a social worker might do any of the following:

  • Evaluate a client’s social support network, circumstances, strengths and needs
  • Deliver therapy services and practical support designed to help clients cope with and overcome difficult situations such as unemployment, divorce, homelessness and social injustice
  • Provide crisis intervention in situations like mental health emergencies and identified cases of child abuse
  • Refer clients to needed services in the community, such as healthcare or vocational training
  • Maintain client case files and records while keeping them strictly confidential

Social workers also act as social justice advocates and may advocate for their client populations at a local, state or national level. They strive to raise awareness of issues their clients are facing and generate support for needed social service programs.

What Does a Case Manager Do?

Although case managers aren’t social workers, they are social service workers. Assessments and evaluations make up a significant portion of their job responsibilities. Case managers are responsible for screening and assessing individuals’ and families’ circumstances, resources and needs.

Based on these assessments, case managers develop a comprehensive service or treatment plan for each client. This plan must detail what that client needs to overcome their challenges, improve their quality of life and be a productive member of society. Then, case managers coordinate the delivery of needed services by liaising with various service providers. Case managers are also responsible for monitoring their clients’ progress and evaluating the effectiveness of their clients’ social service plans and services.

Like social workers, case managers may specialize in a particular population, such as people dealing with homelessness, families, veterans and the elderly. A typical day in the life of a social work case manager can depend on the area of specialization. Here’s a look at what a housing case manager might do on any given day:

  • Attend meetings with colleagues and other professionals to review any pertinent information, such as new policies issued by the city regarding the homeless population
  • Travel throughout the community, meeting with housed clients in their new homes or with homeless clients in various places like coffee shops or subway stations
  • Assist homeless clients with applications for housing vouchers or other assistive programs
  • Advocate on behalf of clients, such as by appearing in court on behalf of a client who has violated probation in order to explain how the client is working to get their life back on track
  • Handle administrative tasks, such as the maintenance of case notes

Like social workers, case managers must be flexible enough to accommodate rapidly shifting priorities. For instance, a case manager might expect to meet with a client about a housing voucher, only to discover that the client hasn’t had a meal in a long time. The priority would then shift to obtaining food resources for the client.

Earning a Behavioral Health Science Bachelor’s Degree

At the baccalaureate level, the education of a future case manager or social worker could look quite similar. Regardless of which career path you’ve settled on, you can expect to major in a social services field for your bachelor’s degree. It’s not uncommon to find future case managers and social workers majoring in psychology, sociology, social work or behavioral health for their bachelor’s degrees, although most aspiring social workers do major in social work.

A behavioral health science bachelor’s degree can be particularly helpful for any social services worker. This is because the curriculum tends to focus on the how and why of human behavior, and how professionals can help their clients improve their quality of life.

If you opt for a behavioral science bachelor’s degree, you may expect to study any of the following topic areas:

  • The biopsychosocial dynamics of addiction and substance use disorders, and the role of the professional in prevention, intervention and aftercare
  • Theoretical models of individual and group counseling, including Gestalt, person-centered, cognitive and solutions-focused therapies
  • A professional’s approach to working with multicultural and diverse populations
  • Abnormal behavioral patterns and disorders, and the factors that influence them
  • Traumatic experiences and their physical, emotional, cognitive, sociological and spiritual effects

At some universities, behavioral health science students may be required to take a capstone course. A capstone project is usually a lengthy research project with a written paper or proposal completed during the senior year. It’s intended to showcase the student’s academic progress in the field.

Is There a Demand for Case Managers?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track statistical data for this particular profession, but the agency does track data for social and community service managers. A social or community service manager is an occupation that is very similar to that of case manager. The main difference is that, whereas a case manager will typically work one-on-one with individual clients, a social or community service manager will typically plan, obtain funding for and implement community-wide programs that serve people struggling with various challenges, such as homelessness.

In other words, a social or community service manager works toward the same goals as a case manager, but on a somewhat larger scale. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for social and community service managers to increase by about 17% from 2019 to 2029, faster than average, accounting for an estimated increase of 29,800 jobs in the field.1

You can prepare to pursue a rewarding career as a case manager or social worker at Grand Canyon University. We are an accredited university that embraces interdenominational Christian values. Our Bachelor of Science in Behavioral Health ScienceBachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work through the College of Humanities and Social Sciences is a versatile degree that instills foundational competencies in social science, counseling, psychology and human development.

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1COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2019, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social and Community Service Managers.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.