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Occupational Social Work: An Introduction

The History of Occupational Social Work in the United States

By Dr. Dale A. Masi, LICSW, CEAP

Editor’s Note:  This introduction to the history of Occupational Social Work in the United States was taken with permission from Chapter I of Dr. Dale Masi’s book “Human Services in Industry” published by Lexington Books, D. C. Heath and Company.

Introduction: Because it was partly a spin-off from nineteenth-century social work models, and partly because it was a new discipline within the art of social work, industrial social work in the twentieth century evolved in an uneven manner.  Industrial social work today occupies an increasingly important position in the field from both a professional and educational point of view….

Recent developments in the practice of social work in the work world have introduced new challenges to the profession.  The growing interest in this specialized practice is reflected in the greater numbers of practitioners in business settings, the proliferation of articles documenting these experiences, and the profession’s recognition of this as an area of social work practice to be studied and incorporated into professional social work education….

This narrative focuses on the delivery of services.  One section of the social work profession concerns itself with issues of social welfare policy and programs as well as legislation that effects workers, employers, and unions.  The tremendous growth of legislation in the 1930s is an example of its contributions. However, this history describes the delivery of services in the work place, including management consultation and social administration as well as counseling.  The history paints a background against which this new expansion will occur.  There is no central source for assembling the history of this field of practice. What may appear to be gaps in time are actually periods empty of development. Regrettably, some experiences were never recorded.

 1900 – 1940

One of the earliest instances of social workers performing counseling and social services for employees in a work setting occurred at the Northern States Power Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota. An in-house employee­ assistance program dealing with the complex human concerns of employees and dependents has been in existence since 1917, making it probably the longest running program in the country.

Ruth Gage Thompson, who had been involved in the settlement-house movement with Jane Addams, initiated the program. At that time, Northern States Power was a small, family-owned operation whose owner had a paternalistic car­ing attitude toward his employees. The  Northern States  Power program was unusual. It preceded the development of personnel management and services, social legislation that was later passed to ensure employees’ financial security, as well as several other types of hardship protection. Before the inception of the Northern States Power program, if an employer offered any advantages for employees beyond compensation, they usually included amenities such as chapels, nurseries, safety precautions, or health care.(1)  The so-called “welfare secretary” often hired in the early twentieth century had various duties in­cluding hiring personnel; investigating complaints; overseeing cloak rooms, dining rooms, and rest rooms; and sometimes offering help with personal problems. These secretaries most often came from religious or educational backgrounds. At Northern States Power, Ruth Gage Thompson’s previous training and experience particularly suited her to an industry in which, because of the high risks prevalent in the early days of electrical power, crises were not uncommon. However, the welfare secretary was seldom trained to help employees cope with crisis situations. The evolution of the position of welfare secretary refined the paternalism of many businesses.  The emergence of the modern industrial social worker humanized and democratized that paternalism.  The role was clearly an evolutionary one emerging from the earlier untrained welfare secretary.

We do not know how many programs staffed by social workers were in existence during this time. Others probably existed in industries where an obious need was met innovatively. The program at Northern States Power continues today furnishing a wide range of services. It is called the Social Resource Center and is headed by a social worker with a staff of twenty professionals that provide counseling, crisis intervention, and educational presentations.

About the same time another program started in New York City at Macy’s Department Store, which was called the Department of Social Services. Social worker Elizabeth Evans, writing about the program in 1944, nearly thirty years after its inception, saw her role as a caseworker for Macy’s as having three sides: 1) informational, 2) societal and 3) psychiatric. First, she believed counterparts in other urban businesses should provide employees with comprehensive information about social agencies and the health, recreational, and educational services of the city.  Second she thought that caseworkers should be able to recognize when conditions in an employee’s living conditions required assistance through loans or financial grants.  Finally, she expected an industrial social worker to offer personal counseling to employees about problems or goals.  She was keenly aware of the need for social work to improve upon its image in order to make a contribution to the exciting and unlimited area of industrial social work.(2)

A study by Annelise Miro in her 1956 study (3) noted that during World War I women were employed in industrial settings in larger numbers than ever before.  Employers were sensitive to the need to help women workers to adjust to and integrate in the occupational setting, as well as to help them maintain their social responsibilities as mothers and care providers.  Because an increasing number of the work force was female, employers often found it helpful to hire females, and in some cases trained, social workers, as personnel workers or supervisors. Though no specific documentation exists in historical records as to the numbers of social workers hired, Miro stats that during World War I, “…throughout the industrial settings then, social workers were frequently seen though they were never really regarded as such.”(4)

Between 1920 and 1940, few new programs in which social workers served industry seem to have been instituted. The professionally trained social worker disappeared almost completely from the industrial setting after World War I.  The subject did not disappear from the minds of theoreticians, however.  For example, Mary Van Kleeck, director of  industrial studies at the Russell Sage Foundation, gave several presentations on the topic of labor and social work at meetings of the National Conference on Social Work. In 1934, she discussed the common goals of labor and social work. She foresaw ample legitimate opportunities for social work and organized labor to work together, especially during times of unemployment and the Depression, for the com­mon goal of maintaining standards of living for both individuals and com­munities.(5) In 1937, prior to the formulation of any social programs in labor, Van Kleeck forewarned the social work profession of the importance of developing a new philosophy guided by a real understanding of the mass labor movement.(6)


World War II again created a climate in which the needs of millions of Americans who were demanding assistance could not be ignored. Com­panies, unions, and often the government responded to the obvious need for emotional and financial support of employees and dependents who were uprooted, overworked, and physically or emotionally handicapped by the war. Social work services not only helped people adjust personally to the effects of the war but also enabled them to be more productive during a time when production was a critical common goal. A sense of unity prevailed as Americans joined together for the good of the country.

The most thoroughly documented account of social work by profes­sionally trained social workers serving wartime needs is the joint project begun in 1943 by the National Maritime Union and the United Seaman’s Service.  In Social Work and Social Living, Bertha C. Reynolds recounts her experience as a professional social worker with a staff of six others in the Personal Service Department of the National Maritime Union. It was apparent to the union that social work services were needed when, by the spring of 1943, over 5,000 members had been killed at sea. The surviving crewmen and the family members of the deceased faced pressing and often overwhelming situations. Appropriate services included assisting members and families in financial distress to procure loans, ration books, unemployment or disability insurance, locating seamen stranded in foreign ports after rescue, counseling or making a proper referral for seamen who needed hospitalization, and assisting bereaved families.

Reynolds enthusiastically described the uniqueness, thrill, and challenge of working for a group that was at the same time the sponsor and client of the program. This aspect has turned out to be true throughout the subsequent history of industrial social work. It is crucial for the social worker to understand the philosophy and  organizational structure of the  particular setting:  Reynolds believed that:

“…Professional social workers coming into this setting would find an unhampered opportunity to use their skills, and at the same time a challenge, which is the  essence of professional skill to adapt to the way of life and the and mores of this particular sector of a great industry….”(7)

Reflecting again on her experiences with seamen, she admits:

“…Yes, there were real differences in approach and in thinking when a social worker moved to serve an employed  group in an essential industry.  The principle of relating social work to its community was unchanged,  but it was a community quite different….”(8)

The federal government began employee counseling in 1942. The Civil Service Commission issued its first department circular on the subject as recently as 10 July 1942.  This statement was a report of the Committee on Employee Counseling of the Civil Service Commission and outlined the direction of a counseling service as follows:

To deal with any situation represented  by an employee or his supervisor which affect or is likely to affect his work productivity;

To provide information as to housing and recreational service educational opportunities, budgeting, social agencies, church organizations, nutrition, medical and psychiatric facilities;

To identify the problems of individual employees which need treatment by specialists;

To discuss with employees who seek counsel the nature of their problems and to work out with the employees solutions to their problems;

To counsel employees regarding various problems connected with their work: living and work conditions, health, recreation, education and other phases of self-development;

To refer employees to local recreational agencies outside the government;

To keep in constant touch with personnel officer and operating officials regarding recruiting standards, placement problems, and the correction of unfavorable operating conditions;

To assist in the development and presentation of orientation, induction, and staff development programs.

In 1942, Stailey predicted that: Employee counseling in the federal ser­vice … may be one of [the] new frontiers in social work.


1.  Irl  Carter,  “Industrial Social Work:  Historical  Parallels  in Five Western Nations,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Iowa, 1975, pp. 45-46.
2.. Elizabeth Evans, “A  Business Enterprise and Social Work,” The Compass, January 1944, pp. 14-15.
3. Annelise Miro,  “Industrial Social Work-Its Principles  and  Its Practices,” Master’s thesis, Wayne State University, 1956, p. 6.
4. Ibid.
5. Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Social Work At The Sixty-First Annual Session Held In Kansas City, Missouri May 20-26, 1934, p.234. 6.Proceedings Of The National Conference Of Social Work  At The Sixty-Fourth Annual Session Held In Indianapolis Indiana * May 23-29, 1937. p. 389-390.
7. Bertha Capen Reynolds, Social Work and Social Living (New York: Citadel Press, 1951), pp. 53-56. For  another  account of  the project,  see Reynolds, An  Uncharted Journey (New York: Citadel  Press, 1963),   pp.243-259.
8. Reynolds, Social Work, pp. 56-57.
9. Civil Service Commission, Departmental  Circular, (Washington, D.C.:  Government Printing Office, July 10, 1942).
10.Marshall Stailey, “Employee Counseling in the Federal Service,” The Compass, January 1944, pp. 19-24.

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