A support worker’s guide to Mable
How to maintain professional boundaries with your client
All formal working relationships need rapport and trust to function well – especially relationships between clients and their support workers.
While it’s important the support worker ensures clients feel at ease with approaching and relating to them, it’s equally important the lines don’t become blurred.
The relationship between an individual and their support worker should never come at the expense of maintaining clear professional boundaries. Successful and ethical working relationships are based on a clear understanding of what the workers’ role is – and, just as importantly – what their role isn’t.
What is a professional boundary?
Professional boundaries protect the space between a worker’s professional power and their client’s vulnerability. Problems for support workers that can arise if these boundaries aren’t maintained include:
- Becoming overly involved or attached to a client
- Showing exceptional behaviour towards a client
- Being emotionally entangled or showing fluid work/home boundaries
- Disclosure of personal information of the client by the worker, including excessive self-disclosure
- Considering the client to be a ‘friend’ or allowing the client to have that view.
Professional boundaries are complex and often contentious because they relate to personal values and change over time. Although we may talk about what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and we should use ‘common sense’, it’s not always clear cut. For example, a support worker might feel it’s rude not to accept a gift, even though Mable’s policy is gifts cannot be accepted.
Appropriate relationships with vulnerable clients recognise we provide personal services and have enormous power over their lives.
In all our relationships, we set limits. A key issue for workers is to recognise when we may be crossing the invisible line separating a client from a worker, which defines our relationship as professional and workable.
Providing support to clients with disability (physical, intellectual, mental health, or neurological) raises challenges for support workers. The support worker’s role can mean you are in many intimate situations with clients, their friends and their families. You may have access to private or confidential information. You may also encounter situations where you are confronted with needs, requests or demands for services or support that are not your role as a support worker.
The information provided in this article is aimed to provide practical information on some of the key ethical and boundary issues in providing support in the community.
Qualities of a good support worker
The qualities of a good worker are many and varied. Everyone brings different strengths to their role, values, beliefs, practical knowledge, and skills. But some key skills areas make workers more effective, for example:
- Ability to listen and understand
- Good communication skills
- Interest in helping people
- Willingness to collaborate and consult with others
- Ability to accept and respect the choices of other people
- Respect for different needs, values, beliefs, culture
- Commitment to increasing independence and capability in others
- Ability to share knowledge and skills but not to take over
- Having a positive attitude
- Being aware of realistic goals and limitations – making sure you understand each person and their strengths, needs, goals and support needs
- Consistency and ability to follow through
- Professional – human, friendly, but not needy or dependent.
Why do we need ethical standards?
Ethics are beliefs about what constitutes the right conduct in a particular situation or job. We need a sound ethical framework to provide quality support and protect the rights of individuals aged or with a disability, especially those who may be more vulnerable.
Some people will have limited ability to evaluate the support provided by workers and communicate their concerns or complaints. Individuals themselves may also lack awareness their behaviour and expectations place demands on workers to do things that are inappropriate or in their role.
Ethical guidelines are important in providing a safe and clear working environment for workers to provide effective and goal-directed services and support.
The guidelines tell everyone what is expected of them in their work performance. They also ensure individuals providing services have adequate training, skills, knowledge or expertise to provide the services they are offering in the community.
All clients have a right to privacy in their personal information, and workers should not seek information that is not relevant or necessary to the performance of their duties. Support workers also have a right to privacy, and these boundaries will often need to be set with clients and families who may seek personal information about you or want to have a relationship with a worker.
Confidentiality means any information obtained or received by workers must be kept secret, except with the written or verbal consent of the individual with disability or their legal guardian. Workers must not discuss or disclose confidential information with anyone without this permission. It is expected workers will sometimes need to discuss matters with co-workers, peers or supervisors, but this should always be done in an appropriate and respectful way.
Duty of Care
Support workers have a duty of care to anyone who might reasonably be affected by their activities, requiring them to act in a way that does not expose others to an unreasonable risk of harm – physical, psychological or financial. As a worker, you are required to protect an individual from risks of injury or harm you can foresee or anticipate. This means you are required to act with knowledge of the individual (particularly about their disability and living situation) and of your abilities, knowledge and limitations. You should not give assistance or advice outside your role or expertise (e.g. financial advice, family counselling or relationship advice).
A support worker’s role is to build, support and strengthen the existing social, family and community network of a person with disability or who is aged. A friend’s role differs from a worker’s and constitutes a conflict of interest in doing your job.
Support workers may find this difficult as clients are often isolated, lonely and searching for friends, but a support worker’s role is to build friendships, not be the friendship.
Relationships with client family members are also inappropriate and risk blurring the boundaries of your professional relationship.
Be careful not to include clients in your social or family activities.
An inappropriate relationship with a client or family member has risks for workers, including:
- Increasing/or unreasonable demands and expectations from the client or family
- High worker stress and burnout
- Inability to provide professional and objective support
- Difficulty setting limits and dealing with behaviour
- Distress when relationships break down
- Grief and loss for clients when workers leave
Occasionally clients and family members may offer gifts to workers as a “thank-you” for work done, for example, chocolates, flowers, cards etc. Workers may not want to refuse a small token gift and cause offence. However, accepting gifts should always be considered with caution, particularly gifts of money or expensive items. You can always respond, “Your thanks are enough – this is my job.”