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How do we manage the intersection of our professional and personal lives?
A social worker, Jack has discovered that his personal and professional lives have started to intersect. This has been creating conflicts as it infringes on the boundaries with his client.
As a clinical social worker, I have been counselling a couple through complications in their marriage. Most of their arguments seem to centre on the stress they experience in parenting their teenage daughter, who struggles with a combination of issues including learning difficulties, Autism Spectrum Disorder and other behavioural issues. While undergoing counselling, they have decided to transfer their daughter from a secondary school to a special needs school which would provide the support she needs to overcome the behavioural, social, and academic problems she experiences.
As it turns out, my son goes to the same school. As part of the program, students’ parents participate in monthly meetings which I attend along with my wife. The meetings provide us with a space and support group to discuss personal issues that might affect our children, such as marital, addiction or finances. We often reveal private information about our family and struggles that we are facing. While we find these meetings very beneficial, I am unsure of how to continue attending the sessions as I feel uncomfortable discussing my personal affairs in the presence of my clients.
Jack should aim to maintain clear boundaries as much as possible. While a Social Worker tries to separate professional and personal lives, it is important to recognise that there will be instances where boundaries may be blurred and appropriate steps have to be taken to uphold professional obligations as much as possible. Balancing professional and personal lives and managing boundaries could help to overcome Jack’s struggle.
Jack has to keep in mind that he has the responsibility and obligation to maintain and create reasonable boundaries that will protect clients and not make decisions based on his personal interest. Jack can refer to the SASW Code of Ethics and NASW Code of Ethics. SASW Code of Ethics -Ethical Responsibility to Clients indicates that “professional responsibility must take precedence over personal aims and views” and social workers do not get involved in close personal relationships with clients and former clients unless the professional relationship was ended at least two years prior to the new contact. In addition, NASW Code of Ethics informed,“Social workers should not engage in dual or multiple relationships with clients or former clients in which there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the client. In instances when dual or multiple relationships are unavoidable, social workers should take steps to protect clients and are responsible for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries...”
With reference to the guidelines set by SASW and NASW, it would not be appropriate for Jack to participate in a support group (usually includes discussion and sharing of personal information and family lives) with his client. Jack could explain to his client the need for him to separate his personal life and professional work and to discuss on appropriate boundary issues with his client. Jack could also approach his child’s school on suggesting or finding other alternatives in seeking parenting support (such as attending workshops, separate discussion with teachers, etc) to avoid inappropriate dual relationship and potential risk to client.
Assistant Senior Social Worker
Viriya Family Service Centre
This is one of the scenario causing dilemma in social work where the social worker find himself in a dual relationship with the client intersecting his personal and professional life. Ideally it is recommended that social workers should not engage in multiple or dual relationships with clients or former clients. If it is unavoidable, social workers should strictly create and manage reasonable boundaries that protect the client from any harm that might arise out of the dual or multiple relationships.
According to the Academy of Certified Counsellors (ACC) Singapore , Code of Ethics, (Section B. Counselling Relationship, Sub Section 5; ) Counsellors must avoid establishing dual relationships with clients that could affect their professional judgement and may potentially lead to exploitation of the clients.
Based on the given scenario, what can Jack do ?
1. Jack has to critically examine the clinical and ethical implications of attending the common monthly meeting with the client and weigh the merits and demerits (Consider the power relationship between the client and Jack, risk factors that can lead to boundary violations, duration of relationship, date of planned termination of session, to what extend does the dual relationship breach the prevailing ethical standards as well as what would be the effect of the dual relationship on the clinical outcome of the client and the potential conflicting roles if any while analysing the situation). A consultation with the supervisor in this process of evaluation is highly recommendable, especially if there is a degree of doubt.
2. Once Jack arrives a decision (to attend or not to attend) , he has to discuss with the client in the most professional way without bruising their feelings, the concept of multiple relationship and issues of boundary crossing and stressing on why he needs to keep his professional and personal life separate.
3. After this, if Jack feels comfortable and conclude that both parties can participate in the meeting without having any boundary issues in a way matching the ethical standards and fulfilling his professional responsibilities without causing any harm to the client, he can attend the meeting.
4. If Jack decides on attending the meeting, he has to to undergo periodic self-monitoring for conflicts of interest and boundary violations.
5. If Jack concludes that it is beneficial not to attend a common meeting again with the client’s consent, Jack can discuss the issues of dual relationship with the school authorities and seek alternatives like changing the group of monthly meeting.
6. If none of this is possible, after consultation with his supervisor, Jack has to think of transferring the client to another colleague.
7. Proper documentation of all the key aspects involved in decision making process has to be done by Jack including justification of the decision taken as well as the informed consent.
8. If the client doesn’t give the consent, Jack cannot discuss the issue neither with the school authorities nor with the group.
9. At no point of time can Jack disclose professional details or privileged confidential matters related to the client nor their identity to the school authorities nor the group.
10. If Jack thinks his attendance in the meeting along with his client is going to interfere with his professional responsibilities and cause harm to the client, he has to refrain from attending the meeting until a solution is obtained.
Whispering Hearts FSC
Jack should consider two sets of guidelines to seek guidance for his current situation - the guidelines that are established by his current organization as well as those of his professional association ( locally , that would be SASW ) as they may offer him solutions to his current problem which is conflict caused by the merger of his personal and professional life. For instance , what does the guidelines say about maintaining boundaries in our professional relationships with our clients ?
A possible plan of action for Jack could be :
Correctional Rehabilitation Specialist
Singapore Prison Service
The Intersection of the Professional and Personal
Social workers usually have no problem drawing clear lines between their professional and personal lives as they tend not to mingle with their clients. They need to have personal space in order to freely pursue their own interests and recharge.
However, unexpected circumstances such as the above sometimes cause the two spheres to intersect – especially in small, close-knit communities where everyone knows one another. This makes the separation less defined, leaving us with little control or influence over the resulting unavoidable encounters in social settings. Ultimately, they need to make judgement calls that would maintain the clearest possible boundaries even if those will inevitably be unclear on some instances.
Managing Boundaries: Guidelines to keep in mind
Above all, social workers should strive to create reasonable boundaries that protect clients and are not self-serving. In the American National Association of Social Work’s , the focus is on social workers’ obligation to maintain clear boundaries:
It also directly addresses the way we should ideally handle our personal and professional lives and relationships:
Keeping these in mind, it would not be appropriate for Jack and his client to participate in the same support group for their children in the special needs school. Parents in the group share very intimate information about their lives. In this situation then, Jack would need to discuss the boundary issues with his client so that they would understand why it is important for him to detach his work and his family life. Ideally, if they are cooperative, he could explain the unique situation to the school and discuss suitable alternatives for both their benefit. This would help them avoid the inappropriate dual relationship they face.
The extent to which our private affairs interfere with our professional work is vague as we are not always able to tell when the former will pose risks to our clients. It is especially tricky when trying to determine strict criteria for these circumstances. As a general guide, social workers faced with these difficulties should attempt to distinguish between private conduct that directly interferes with, or has the potential to interfere with our therapeutic obligations and those that are tangential or unrelated to our ability to remain professional.
 National Association of Social Workers: (standard 1.06[c]).
 National Association of Social Workers: (standard 4.03).