Take Your Lunch Break & Other Social Work Boundaries

Social work is often associated with overwhelm, low pay, and high caseloads. Though these can absolutely be true, and are too often seen in this field, it is possible to have a work-life balance, actively use self care, and not get burned out. A key factor in what makes or breaks this is the use of boundaries.

Boundaries are rules, spoken or unspoken, that a person lives by on what is acceptable and is not. Boundaries are often association with relationships, but are also important in the work place. For the purpose of today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at using boundaries with clients and with the agency we work for.

Client Boundaries

Part of ethical social work practice is having boundaries with clients. This can go in many different directions, including ethical decisions for dual relationships, avoiding romantic partnerships with clients, and having rules for professional practice. In order to effectively work as a clinician, it is essential to have consistent and clear boundaries with clients, including the following.

  • Communicate your scheduled hours, and give resources the client can use if they need to talk to someone outside of those times. Particularly important for
  • If texts or emails are not immediate, discuss the content in the next session to establish what’s appropriate. For example, if a teen client texts you a funny meme, don’t respond immediately, but have the client show it to you in the next session. This helps the client understand that topics like this are not appropriate to randomly text the clinician outside of sessions. If not, lines could blur between professional relationship and friendship.
  • Turn off your phone/email notifications before and after work hours. Not only do we need to inform our clients of our hours and when it’s okay to contact us, but we need to reiterate these boundaries if they do attempt to reach out. By providing them other resources to contact (hotline numbers, mobile crisis team, on call staff), you can rest easy during your time off knowing that the client has supports. You are not the only person they have, and you need that time to yourself too!
  • If you know your client from another place, whether it is your children attend the same school or sport, talk to your client about that. If the client is comfortable, then you can move forward with treatment. I like to venture on the side of caution with this, and typically will refer the client to another clinician before even meeting with them. If no other social workers are available, then we would have that conversation, it would be documented, and I would continue to check in with the client on their comfort working together.
  • If you see a client outside of work, do not acknowledge them. Make sure you inform your client of these privacy & confidentiality rules during the intake session, so if this does happen they are not put off. In your next session, you can discuss it further if necessary. If the client approaches you, you can engage with them, but do your best to keep it short and sweet, and continue to maintain privacy. If anyone asks how you know them, remember the essential phrase, “I cannot confirm nor deny” how or what you know about this person.

Agency Boundaries

Social work agencies & organizations provide innumerable supports and resources for communities, and are often equipped with great social workers. But given the need for these programs, the social workers may experience high agency turnover, burnout, and not be able to effectively do the work. Boundaries with employers is essential in long terms functioning and success in social work, but may take time to get the hang of.

  • Have a limit for the number of clients you’re willing to work with, and what your hours will be at the beginning.
  • Form a healthy and honest relationship with your supervisor, and ensure your supervision is consistent and effective. If there are concerns, use your voice to advocate for yourself and see if administration can offer another supervisor if this cannot be resolved between the two of you.
  • If you’re asked to stay late or take on another responsibility, practice saying “No” or say that you will think about it and get back to them with an answer in a stated amount of time.
  • Try to get your paperwork done at the end of each day. This will help you leave work at work, and fully be present at home without running through everything you need to get done when you’re back at work.
  • When you’re looking for work, keep in mind what agencies have benefits and what their pay/rates are, look for reviews or touch base with current/former employees to get a more accurate idea of what the agency culture is like.
  • Make your office space welcoming and comfortable, not just for clients, but for yourself!
  • Communicate your work schedule, lunch break, and do not disturb time to other staff. If people disturb this time or try to contact you, try not to answer, or send a general text stating you are out of the office and will return their call once you return.

Boundaries look differently for everyone, but what remains the same is the need for professional boundaries that are consistently and clearly defined for the people we serve. These only scratch the surface of what boundaries can look like in practice, so if you have any more tips or ideas, please share in the comments!

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