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3 Principles for Effective Social Work Case Management

As an individual working in social work case management, you strive to have a positive impact on the community around you. You serve as a catalyst to better lifestyles for each of your clients. Your job is rewarding, but it isn’t easy.

If you’re taking a whole person care approach, you’re attentive to multiple aspects of a client’s wellness. As such, you are responsible for a wide array of tasks during the time between initial assessment and final discharge. Inevitably, at times, the client relationship can become secondary to the frenzy of service coordination, communication among providers, documentation, burdensome technology, and other aspects of such an unpredictable field.

This wide spectrum of responsibility can make it difficult to maintain focus, which can hinder you from successfully facilitating transformation in your clients’ lives.

This is why it’s helpful to understand three basic principles that will enable you to be more effective at social work case management. These principles are tried and true, based on the experiences of human services professionals using Clarity Human Services case management software.

Taking practical steps to apply these principles to your day-to-day work will help you stay on track, and see better results in your job.

We’ll look at these three principles:

  • Building trusting relationships
  • Using evidence-based practice
  • Empowering your client

For each principle, we’ll look at the philosophy behind it, some practical steps you can implement, and some examples and resources you can review. 


Principal #1: Building Trusting Relationships

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Standards for Social Work Case Management, the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and client plays an integral role in case management. Developing this kind of relationship with your client enables you to better engage them and develop the appropriate interventions with them.

A large part of this principle is providing a safe environment for your clients to share their stories, problems, and feelings. Clients have indicated that the following four personality characteristics are most important to them in a social worker:

  • Understanding
  • Empathic
  • Pleasant
  • Ability to put one at ease

By embodying these characteristics, you communicate that you are genuinely interested in your client and that you are a safe person. Another key part of being a safe person is maintaining confidentiality at all times. It’s important that your client knows you are someone they can trust to protect their story.

Practical Steps

Convey Empathy

The New Social Worker cites John C. Norcross in asserting that “patients with an empathetic therapist tend to progress more in treatment and experience a higher probability of eventual improvement.”

The humanistic psychologist Carl R. Rogers observes: in your ability to convey empathy, you are “a confident companion to the person in (their) inner world. By pointing to the possible meanings in the flow of (their) experiencing, you help the person to focus on this useful type of referent, to experience the meanings more fully, and to move forward in the experiencing.”

Keep in mind that empathy is different from sympathy. reminds us that sympathy is having a concern for a client’s well-being but not necessarily having a deeper understanding of their thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, empathy refers to accepting and understanding the client’s feelings, helping you become better equipped to help them help themselves.

Psychology Today shares some practical ways to convey empathy, including:

    • Suspending your own judgments and critiques
    • Using reflection to clarify what the client is saying
    • Keying in to shared human values

Focus on the Client

This is a broad topic, but we want to discuss here the importance of balancing active listening with intake, assessment, and documenting other case notes. Gathering the necessary information to help your client is important, but so is making sure they feel heard so they continue to share information with you. In addition to practicing the tips mentioned for conveying empathy, be sure to lean forward, make eye contact, and nod your head when appropriate.

One of the best ways to balance active listening with data collection is to leverage an easy-to-use client management software. When you have a client management software that makes it easy to enter data and take notes, you no longer have to focus on the hassles of technology. Instead, you can focus on your client, confident that you’re gathering the required information while still giving your client full attention.

Examples and Resources

Below are some examples and resources to help you look further into this principle:


Principle #2: Using Evidence-Based Practice

Evidence-based practice (EBP) is increasingly emphasized in social work, and it’s an important principle for social workers and case managers to apply. EBP is a process practitioners use to guide and inform the delivery of treatments and services, integrating the following four components:

  • Current client needs, situation, and environment
  • Best available research evidence
  • Client values and preferences
  • Clinician’s judgment and expertise

According to the Social Work Policy Institute, evidence-based practice requires that the practitioner, researcher, and client work together to identify and determine what works for whom and in which particular situations. The EBP approach ensures that the development and implementation of treatment and services produce the most effective outcomes possible.

There is much that can be said about evidence-based practice, but one important aspect worth noting is that each of these components is equally weighted. Many practitioners and other professionals have mistakenly thought that EBP means evaluating the best available evidence, focusing on academic research alone. However, a 2015 Clinical Social Work Journal paper reminds us that research evidence is only one of four parts in the process; the other three are critical to doing EBP correctly.

Practical Steps

Analyze and Adjust

Even though the research supports a particular treatment, you may need to take a different route if you’re not seeing positive change in your client’s life. Bonnie Spring, Ph.D., says:

Suppose you start giving the treatment that had the very best research support. Three months into the treatment, the client is deteriorating, but you’re continuing to give the same treatment. I’d say that you’re no longer doing evidence-based practice. Part of the evidence-based practice process is that you have to analyze and adjust. You need to measure how you’re doing because if you’re implementing a best practice but the client is deteriorating, you’ve got to change course. Just doing what the overall body of research says is only where you start. From there on, you make choices based on what your own client’s data show is working.

Collect and Evaluate Quality Data

To use the evidence-based practice model, take the time to collect and evaluate precise data. In doing so, you are able to clearly see what works and what doesn’t work, allowing you to confidently incorporate this data into the EBP process.

One way to ensure quality data collection and evaluation is the proper utilization of case management software. When you have a client management software that complies with industry data standards, facilitates streamlined intake and assessment, integrates across databases, and allows for seamless generation of reports, you can rest assured that you are gathering the information necessary to best inform your practice.

Examples and Resources

Below are some examples and resources to help you look further into this principle:


Principle #3: Empowering Your Client 

Dating back to the late 19th century, early social work case managers viewed themselves as benevolent helpers. However, caseworkers today now recognize their relationship with clients as a partnership instead (according to NASW).

As you recognize the dignity, worth, and rights that belong to each of your clients, you can instill a sense of self-determination as you guide them. This will empower your clients to reach higher levels of life satisfaction. This will also leave them with the confidence to make healthy choices.

Charles D. Cowger writes:

The personal empowerment dynamic is similar to a traditional clinical notion of self-determination whereby clients give direction to the helping process, take charge and control of their personal lives, get their “heads straight,” learn new ways to think about their situations and adopt new behaviors that give them more satisfying and rewarding outcomes. Personal empowerment recognizes the uniqueness of each client.

While you act as the early support system for your client, it’s important that you help them build their own support systems and make their own decisions, encouraging the client to reach more effective and sustainable outcomes.

Practical Steps

Help the Client Define and Own Their Story

This is part of being empathic when interacting with your client. Cowger emphasizes the significance of helping the client define their situation—clarifying the reasons they have sought assistance—and helping them evaluate and give meaning to the factors that affect their situations. But remember that as you listen and seek to understand your client’s situation, you must be careful to remember it is their story, not yours.

Cowger writes that, in assessment, the client’s understanding of their own situation—their view of the situation, the meaning they ascribe to the situation, and their feelings or emotions tied to the situation—surpass facts found in client data, academic research, and your personal or professional interpretation of the client’s story. In this, it’s important to believe the client.

“There is no evidence that people needing social work service tell untruths any more than anyone else,” Cowger writes. “Clients may need help to articulate their problem situations, and ‘caring confrontation’ by the worker may facilitate that process. However, clients’ understandings of reality are no less real than the social constructions of the reality of the professionals assisting them.”

The client owns the story, and if they sense that you respect their ownership of their story, they will feel empowered to more fully share it with you.

Recognize the Client’s Individuality

Because every client is different, the treatment and services they receive must be tailored to the client’s specific needs. In one regard, this involves asking the client questions such as:

    • What do you want and expect from assistance?
    • What do you hope will happen in relation to your current situation?
    • What do you believe are your strengths?

Asking these questions helps the client consider their own situation and contribute to their own treatment and services plan.

Recognizing the client’s individual needs also involves customizing intake forms, creating goal plans and targeted variables, and streamlining the assessment and prioritization process for each individual client. This can be done through a case management software that allows for these customization, measurement, and prioritization capabilities.

Examples and Resources

Below are some examples and resources to help you look further into this principle:



Your job is essential to the well-being of your client and their community. While social work case management involves many different roles to fill and moving parts to coordinate, entering your work each day with these three principles in mind can help pull those pieces together.

By providing a safe environment and developing a relationship built on trust, as you assess your client, encourage the client to open up and work with you in order to best understand their situation. Applying the evidence-based practice process ensures you’re continually testing and adjusting the treatment and services that work best for your client.

Finally, throughout your interactions with your client, empowering them to own their story and set goals increases the likelihood of bringing about positive, sustainable, outcomes in their life.

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