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How to maintain professional boundaries when work doesn’t feel like work

Hipster son with his senior father cooking in the kitchen. Two generations indoors.

At some point in your career, you might encounter situations that require you to think about professional boundaries. As an independent support worker offering your services via Mable, that likelihood is increased. By its very nature, the work that you do is personal. So how can you ensure you set those professional boundaries without alienating yourself from the people you’re supporting?

As an independent worker, you enjoy the freedom, flexibility and financial rewards of being your own boss. You and your clients can choose each other – and might do so based on mutual interests. That initial connection can lead to a great working relationship, but also a dynamic that can sometimes feel more like a friendship. Professional boundaries are in place to protect the space between a worker’s professional power and their client’s vulnerability. When that space is not protected, there can be a blurring of the line between a professional and personal relationship. So, what are some of the common challenges? And how can you keep your distance while ensuring you become a valuable part of your client’s support team?

Are you a friend or employee?

Often, your job will require you to provide companionship. You might become a trusted confidant of your client, or regularly support them in a social setting. Many independent workers offering their services directly to clients have often said that they enjoy this aspect of the job; that it doesn’t, in fact, feel like work. The aim for any support relationship is that it’s long-lasting and built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect. While these are also the foundations of a great friendship, it’s important to remember that your professional relationship has a specific role and purpose. While your role might be to provide your client with companionship, that should never extend beyond the job itself. This might be difficult, particularly if your client is lonely or isolated. In this case, it’s important to remember that your job is to support your client to strengthen their existing friendships and connections; or to help them extend their networks to build their own.

Know what your job is, and what it isn’t

The scope of your role should be clearly outlined in your agreement prior to commencing work. If your client asks for a favour, or something that’s outside of the scope, and it’s something you’re not comfortable doing, let them know.This is particularly true if your client asks you to do something that’s outside of your area of expertise. Your duty of care to your client means that you must always ensure their safety and wellbeing above all else. That extends to saying no if they’ve asked you to do something that you’re not qualified or trained to do – even if they say it’s ok.

When it comes to money

As a rule of thumb, it’s never a good idea to discuss money unless it’s in the context of payment for your work. Your own personal financial situation, and that of your client, should always stay under wraps. If you would like to discuss a revision to your agreed hourly rate, make sure you do so in a professional, respectful way.

Privacy and confidentiality

In general, it’s always a good idea to keep details about your family and personal life private. Often, the social nature of support work can make it feel like it’s the perfect setting for a good gossip. Whether you’re in a cafe, sports centre or someone’s lounge room, remind yourself it’s your workplace and treat it as such. Any information obtained about your client should also be kept private except with the written or verbal consent of the individual or their legal guardian. If you would like to share information with other support workers on your client’s team, make sure your client is happy for you to do so.

Uncomfortable situations

These can arise in any work situation. Often, it can be hard to know how to respond, particularly when you don’t have a ‘boss’ or HR department to defer to. Maybe a client has made an inappropriate comment. Or you’ve witnessed a situation where a client or family member might be at risk. Although we’re online, Mable is run by a team of real people, based in an office in Sydney. And we’re here to support you. If you’re not sure about how to approach a situation, you can give us a call for advice.

Don’t forget self-care

If you’re in the support industry, chances are, you’re the kind of person who cares about your clients. That can mean you have a tendency to go above and beyond. Always respect your working hours and remember that any work that you do outside the hours you’ve agreed on the Mable platform will not be covered by insurance. That means neither you or your client will be protected. The reality is, there will be times when professional boundaries may be crossed. It’s always good to follow you instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Check in with yourself from time to time to make sure you’re operating on the right side of the line.

Interested in becoming an independent support worker and using the Mable platform to find your own clients? Find out more here.

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