Social work is an incredibly dynamic and rewarding field to work in. Many people who embark on social work careers often get opportunities to change the lives of individuals, families and communities. It's this ability to improve someone's world that makes social workers love what they do.
Building good relationships with clients is essential to social work but keeping the right amount of distance between yourself and the client can be tough at times. We are all human, after all, and it's natural that a relationship with a client might become more complex over time, intentionally or unintentionally. Awareness and protection of your professional boundaries are absolutely essential.
By recognising and protecting the boundaries that are appropriate for your specific job and domain, you can be more effective as a social worker, improve your own self-care and reduce potential risks to your career.
Whether you're new to social work or have years of experience in the field, it's sensible to maintain an objective view of your client relationships and to know the best strategies for keeping your professional boundaries intact.
Our social work recruitment team has extensive experience in working with people in the profession and we've heard our share of stories about relationships with clients. Here's what you need to know about maintaining professional boundaries in social work.
Watch Out for Dual Relationships
As a social worker, you may jeopardise your work with a client – and your job – if you develop another relationship with a client that is separate from your professional work. This is referred to as a 'dual relationship'.
If you're assigned a client that you happened to have an intimate relationship with previously, you're going to encounter boundary issues. Similarly, entering into a new intimate relationship with a client is definitely a no-no.
Of course, social workers can enter a dual relationship by accident, such as in circumstances where the client knows a person that you know. In these situations, it's best to seek advice from your management team on how to proceed.
A frequent challenge for social workers is maintaining a respectful relationship with a client without becoming their 'friend'. This is a tricky area all social workers need to navigate, as it's natural to become friendly with some clients. Consider how this dual relationship might change the balance of power or objectivity between you and the client. Also, think about any potential effects of having to end the relationship with the client because the assignment is over.
It's also important to avoid any dealings with clients that offer you or the client some form of personal benefit or monetary gain. Benefits can be in the form of favours, gifts, payments, referrals or private information that gives someone an unfair advantage in a transaction over another party.
While benefits or monetary payments might not be offered as explicit bribes, they certainly blur the boundaries between a social worker and a client. Gestures such as offering a client money to take public transport, giving them a ride home, or helping them with shopping, are some examples where you may feel moved to act out of goodwill – but these can compromise your professional boundaries.
Practical Ways to Manage Your Boundaries
1. Don't share personal information
It's much easier to maintain your professional boundaries by not sharing details about your personal life and your personal contact details. This includes your private phone numbers, email addresses and your home address.
Be cautious when using social media and make your profiles private or limited to people you have approved to follow you. Some clients may try to add you as a "friend" or contact on social media sites such as Facebook or Instagram, which can be a sure-fire way to erode the professional boundary between you and the client. It's also important to avoid posting commentary about your work – especially if it's negative – as this can also violate professional codes of ethics in Australia.
Maintaining boundaries works both ways, so avoid looking up your clients on social media to find information about them that is private or isn't relevant to your work with that client.
Setting expectations around communication protocols and your availability will help you avoid misunderstandings. Although you might want to show clients you're willing to help them by encouraging them to contact you directly at any hour, you might actually create more problems and lose their trust when you're unable to respond to their contact.
2. Manage your stress and make time for self-care
As any social worker will attest, managing stress and not 'taking your work home' are significant issues in the profession. Some cases and situations can really get under your skin, or you can come up against limitations in what you and your organisation can do for a client.
Learn to recognise the signs of work-related stress so you can address them before they become serious problems.
Finding ways to nurture yourself during your workday and in your personal time will help you feel more energised and effective at work, and more relaxed during your personal time. Exercise, regular breaks during the day, a healthy diet and good sleep hygiene are all essential for looking after yourself.
One of the most important ways to manage stress is to cultivate supportive relationships with your colleagues. Working with people you can trust and get along with can provide you with the critical support and advice you need to manage difficulties at work.
Treat Everything as a Learning Process
Breaches of professional boundaries are inevitable or unavoidable in some circumstances. The key is to recognise these before they happen and know how to take steps to address them. When a boundary is crossed, try to reflect as much as you can on what happened so you're more prepared to handle similar situations in future.
Time and experience will help you find the middle ground between being too rigid and too entangled with a client. A balanced approach will help you be more authentic and caring, without overstepping your professional boundaries.
Seek out professional mentors and role models at work wherever you can – this can be immensely helpful with navigating client relationships and maintaining professional boundaries in social work.
Although each situation will vary, it's useful to be aware of the factors that can weaken professional boundaries between you and a client at any time. And know what you can do to mitigate risks that may arise.
Remember, protecting your professional boundaries also helps clients manage their expectations about what you can do for them, and how your organisation and social worker services in general can assist. A relationship based on mutual respect builds trust and sets your client up for a better potential future.
To find out more about how we can help you with the next steps on your career journey, get in touch with our team of social work recruitment specialists. We can connect you with a wide variety of social work roles across Australia.