Setting the Right Boundaries in Social Work Practice

Ever since I became a social worker, my friends have come to me for “free” help and therapy. I used to enjoy it but now I find that some of them have become dependent on me. Any advice on how I can get them to stop using proper social work ethics without losing the friendships?

This is a big topic.

Many times, those of us who are drawn to the helping professions have played similar roles in our personal lives before – the caregiver, the confidant, the non-judgmental friend that can listen to anything. We are often less intimidated by the needs of others, and/or driven by a desire to devote our time, energy, and skills toward attending and supporting them in struggle and healing.

Boundaries are essential to life, as they are in social work practice. Boundaries are crucial to preserving our relationships and the efficacy of our profession; they protect both our clients and ourselves in navigating what is essentially, and often intensely, relational work. Just as our ethics and boundaries uphold the distinction that clients are not our friends, so goes the inverse – our friends, family, and loved ones are not our clients.

Distinguish between politeness (or being “nice”) and compassion (or being kind) – boundaries are the difference. Being able to advocate for your time, space and the changes that come with doing what you need to do for self-care is paramount to avoiding burnout or compassion fatigue. Setting boundaries can be challenging with anyone, but perhaps more so with loved ones who have identified you as a resource.

Social Work Ethics: Boundaries

As social workers, we are obligated to be active in our self-care, both with regard to our profession and our personal lives. Taking care of ourselves is not only a direct investment in our ability to be effective as social workers, it is the way of life we are essentially promoting in the world at large, and as such, we should charge ourselves with modeling or living into the ability to advocate for our needs and space with those in our personal life. 

Healthy boundaries, honoring needed space, and asserting limits of energy can actually increase intimacy and a sense of closeness and reduce the chance of avoidance, resentment, and anxiety.


  • As far as suggestions on how to communicate your needs, here is a fantastic article on navigating communication challenges and orienting yourself to asserting yourself from a place of love, self-compassion, and respect for the other person.
  • Great article on dual relationships from Social Work Today magazine.

Social Work Ethics: Volunteering

I’m new to social work and only have my field experience as actual experience. Many of the jobs I’m interested in require experience – where should I volunteer or look for opportunities that will give me experience that will make me more attractive to hire?

  • Local food pantries and homeless shelters – often equal parts challenging, humbling, and inspiring, being a part of providing folks with the basic necessity of food and shelter is a community and conviction builder, and Many pantries and shelters offer some crossover services of case management, benefits assistance, and linkage to housing and employment services if none exist internally.
  • Community health/mental health organizations – look into your state’s Department of Mental Health or Department of Public Health for listings.
  • YMCA/YWCA – great community experience, often with opportunities to work with youth and people of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Check out – it is a fantastic source for researching and identifying volunteer opportunities of any stripe, and have many listed as social work-related opportunities.

Social Work Ethics: Target Groups

I’m having trouble breaking-through to a target group (drug addiction) I’m working with. What are some strategies I can use to try and connect?

Motivational Interviewing is an evidence-based intervention that is gaining massive ground in the treatment of addictions and substance use. It is remarkable for its collaborative style, which takes the emphasis off of an expert/recipient dynamic and moves into a companionship or partnership (while maintaining good clinical boundaries, of course!).

Target groups.

Motivational Interviewing shifts the clinical focus from confronting the person’s addiction or being directive/persuasive/coercive in recovery regiment to a non-judgemental, client-centered exploration of the person’s or group’s relationship with change and resolving ambivalence. Through the use of skills such as open-ended questions, reflective listening, and eliciting/evoking change talk with an attitude of unconditional positive regard, and respectful curiosity.

Great Resources on Motivational Interviewing:

Social Work Ethics: Home Visits

My employer has asked me to start doing home visits. What should I be aware of ahead of time? THIS IS A TWO-PART QUESTION – I will discuss home visits and community assessments, as they go hand in hand.

Home Visit Considerations

Safety first! Always let someone (supervisor, team member, etc.) know where you are going and when you will be there. When doing home visits, if there is a history or current situation of risk or crisis, make arrangements to go with another worker or supervisor. When visiting the home of a client, adopt a poise of humility while asking important questions to ensure the safety and privacy of the work:

  • Call ahead of time. This is respectful and allows the client to prepare for the visit, as well as wrap up any other engagements or activities they may have going on.
  • Wear your I.D. badge or lanyard.
  • When knocking or ringing, stand where you can be easily seen through the door lens.
  • Ask permission to enter, and permission to be seated – this also provides and opportunity to begin building rapport
  • If you feel the building or environment is immediately unsafe or you feel such discomfort or anxiety that your focus and work will be significantly impacted, ask the client to meet you in a public location (library, coffee shop, park), or meet in your car.

Resources on Home Visits:

Social Work Ethics: Community Assessment

Social workers are renowned for venturing into the communities experiencing the greatest need and disadvantage, which can bring about disproportionately higher risks of criminal activity or community violence, as well as health and structural (building conditions) risks as well.

Community assessment.Do an internet search of the areas, but read more than mainstream news headlines – often media coverage can be biased in a way that emphasizes the danger or negative features of a community, which can reinforce stereotypes and produce prejudicial bias or assumptions in the worker.

Reach out to a community figure – a religious leader, an alderperson, a representative, clergyperson, local business owner, a community organizer, etc. someone who lives in the community and has a vantage point from within. If your agency doesn’t already have one, do a community assessment:

Community Assessment Resources:

Social Work Ethics Conclusion

Taking the time to become familiar with an area can have great impacts on your awareness and understanding of the community your clients live in, challenge your own bias, and foster greater trust and goodwill with the folks you intend to serve and collaborate with.

Related Articles:

Ethics & Gifts From Clients

The Social Work Code of Ethics and Ethical Dilemma Overview

What Kind of Jobs Can You Find with an MSW Degree? 

Why an MSW?

Social Work Ethics: Q & A on Social Work Practice
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Social Work Ethics: Q & A on Social Work Practice
This is a great read for social workers! Read the Q & A's social work colleagues have about social work ethics.
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