How to maintain professional boundaries as a support worker

An older woman and her support worker sit knitting together.

All formal working relationships need connection and trust to work well – especially relationships between clients and their independent support workers.

While it’s important that support workers make clients feel at ease when working with them, it’s equally important to not mix up personal and professional boundaries.

The relationship between an individual and their support worker should always keep these boundaries clear. This means both sides need to understand what the support worker is supposed to do – and, just as importantly – what they’re not supposed to do.

Support worker professional boundaries are essential.

What is a professional boundary?

Professional boundaries protect the space between a worker’s professional power and their client’s vulnerability. If support workers don’t maintain these boundaries, problems can arise, such as:

  • Getting too involved or attached to a client
  • Treating a client in a special or exceptional way
  • Mixing emotions or blurring the lines between work and home life
  • Sharing personal information about a client, or oversharing about themselves
  • Seeing their client as only a friend, or letting their clients think of them as only a friend, not a support worker.

Professional boundaries can be tricky and often cause disagreements because they relate to personal values, and can change over time.

While we often talk about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, and rely on ‘common sense’, it is always straightforward. For example, a support worker might feel it’s rude to refuse a gift, even though Mable’s policy says gifts cannot be accepted.

Recognising early warning signs of support worker boundary issues

The nature of a 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. It can be tricky to identify when your boundaries are being crossed.

Some signs that there could be issues with your professional boundaries as a support worker:

  • Discussing your personal, financial or relationship issues with a client
  • A client or their family asking for favours
  • Regularly being asked or expected to stay much longer after your shift has finished
  • Visiting clients outside of hours, or being asked to visit outside of hours

If you feel your support worker professional boundaries are being crossed, it’s a good idea to talk to your client or their carer to reestablish your boundaries.

Qualities of a good support worker

The qualities of a good support 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 is the right way to behave in a particular situation or job. We need an ethical framework to provide quality support, and to protect the rights of individuals aged or with a disability, especially those who may be more vulnerable.

Some people may have trouble judging the support they get from support workers, and might find it hard to express their concerns and complaints. They might not realise that their behaviour and expectations can make workers do things that are inappropriate or outside their role.

What are ethical guidelines?

Ethical guidelines are important because they help create a safe and clear working environment. These guidelines help support workers provide effective and goal-focused services and support.

Ethical guidelines explain what is expected from everyone in their work. They also make sure that the people providing services have the right training, skills and knowledge to do their jobs properly.

Some areas a support worker should keep in mind

It’s important to have professional boundaries as an independent support worker. Clear boundaries protect both support workers and their clients, ensuring a safe and respectful relationship, and help you to provide ethical and effective support to your clients.

Here are some areas that make up clear and healthy professional boundaries for support workers.


All clients have the right to keep their personal information private, and workers should only ask for information that is needed to do their job. Support workers also have the right to privacy. Sometimes, workers need to set boundaries with clients and their families who might ask for personal information or want a personal relationship with the worker.


Confidentiality means that any information workers get about clients must be kept secret, unless the client or their legal guardian gives written or verbal permission to share it. Support workers should not talk about or share this information with anyone without permission. Sometimes, support workers will need to talk about things with co-workers, peers, or supervisors, but this should always be done respectfully and appropriately.

Duty of Care

Support workers have a responsibility to ensure that their actions do not cause harm to others, whether physically, mentally, or financially. This means they must protect individuals from risks they can foresee. As a support worker, you need to understand the individual’s needs, especially regarding their disability and living situation, and be aware of your own skills and limits. You should not give help or advice in areas outside your role or expertise, like financial advice, family counselling, or relationship advice.


A support worker’s job is to help build and strengthen the social, family, and community connections of a person with a disability or an older person. A friend’s role is different from a worker’s and can create a conflict of interest in your job.

Support workers might find this hard because clients can be lonely and looking for friends, but a support worker’s job is to help clients make friends, not to be their friend.

Relationships with clients’ family members are also inappropriate and can blur the lines of your professional relationship. Be careful not to involve clients in your personal or family activities.
Some risks of an inappropriate relationship with a client or their family member can include:

  • Clients or families asking for too much or having unrealistic expectations
  • Support workers feeling very stressed and burned out
  • Not being able to give professional and fair support
  • Having trouble setting boundaries and handling behaviour issues
  • Feeling upset when relationships with clients don’t work out
  • Clients feeling sad when workers leave.
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.

A support worker’s guide to Mable news

A support worker’s guide to Mable news