What are professional boundaries?

While thinking about this topic I went through some of my old textbooks and none of them had anything about boundaries. I found it interesting that something so fundamental to our work it not explicitly taught or often discussed in depth. We talk about needing boundaries but rarely about what they are and how to develop and implement them.

“Why did you go into social work?” 

The answer usually centers on an interest in wanting to help or improve the lives of others

Key things to consider 

  • boundaries are a cornerstone of social work
  • There is often a power differential between client and professional
  • you are in a position of power with respect to your clients
  • thought of  & seen as the ‘expert’ have authority
  • management of transference and countertransference are factors that cannot be ignored in this discussion
  • safe, open and transparent relationship
  • being clear to the client what will happen in a situation or circumstance, 

Being good at your job & acting in within the expectations placed on you. It’s more than how you work with clients, it’s also how you manage and conduct yourself and your emotions. 

As social workers, we are often seen as the ‘expert’ have authority. You have a position and title, an employer and workplace, in many cases, you have the ability to deny or refuse the client access to the service or support. The power imbalance in relation to you and your relationship with them, even if they are not vulnerable in any other setting. 

This comes with a number of responsibilities

  • Respect the client
  • Ensure what you do doesn’t harm them
  • Actions based on the needs of the clients
  • Trustworthy and responsible
  • Truthful and honest

Every situation needs to be taken on its own merits. There’s no book, podcast or guide that can cover all possible situations. It’s good to have a supervisor and/ or group supervision that you can discuss specific cases.

Boundaries- sharing with clients

In practice, boundaries require ongoing reflection, thought and readjustment 

Situations that may be blurring boundaries

  • special treatment and urge to provide it 
  • spending more time with one client more than others
  • paying for things out of workers own pocket
  • seeing the client outside work hours 
  • sharing too much information or details about personal life 

The kinds of situations you can consider and reflect on.

If you bump into a client out in public while out shopping with your partner. 

What do you do? What do you say?

In a residential setting, a client comes to you after hours when you’re off the shift.

Clients asking you about your personal life, if you have a partner or children.

A client hugs you at the end of a session. How do you explain that it is inappropriate to hug and you need to keep the relationship professional?

Sharing stories

Keep the story positive, de-identify details, prepare stories prior about things you’re happy to share and what is the message.

Have a message of hope and recovery.

Boundaries with workload and home

How can you set boundaries around what you can take on. 

Reflect on how you’re traveling and what your mood/ frame of mind is.

Telling people you can’t take on any more at the moment. 

Reducing caseloads, or taking more breaks.

A few resources I recommend

This is not an exhaustive list and you should familiarise yourself with your registering body’s code of ethics and consult with your team, manager and supervisor to discuss specific cases and situations. 

AASW code of ethics 

APS code of ethics

ACA code of ethics

Professional Boundaries in Social Work and Social Care

By Frank Cooper

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