How To Set Professional Boundaries

Have you ever asked yourself how to best set professional boundaries?

I can relate. 

Beyond the most obvious and most commonly agreed on boundaries - sexual relations with clients, dual relationships, acceptance of expensive gifts - the lines are blurry. 

Being a warm and empathetic human being while putting your foot down at the same time can pose a challenge, and different relationships warrant different rules. 

The following are few typical scenarios that fellow helping professionals struggle with:

Examples of Common Boundary Twilight Zones 

  • Starting and ending sessions on time

  • Scheduling appointments that work for the client, but not the helper

  • Sliding scale fees

  • Feeling energetically drained after sessions

  • Taking vacation days

  • Taking sick days

  • Taking on extra shifts

  • Taking phone calls away from the desk

  • Answering emails after hours

  • Spending too much time on your smartphone 

  • Weekend work

  • Handing out private contact information

Before going into my personal strategies around how to handle each of those sample scenarios, I wanted to share this excellent piece on how to best protect our emotional energy by boundary specialist and feminist therapist Nicole Perry; you might remember her from our free webinar on setting clear boundaries. Nicole created this piece especially for today's newsletter. Thank you so much for generously sharing your expertise with us, Nicole!  

How To Protect Your Emotional Energy

In a nutshell, the three strategies to protect your emotional energy when working with clients as suggested by Nicole are:

  1. Conscious noticing

  2. Reconnecting and grounding

  3. Understanding how we stay in tune with ourselves in session

My Personal Strategies 

As promised above, here is how I personally handle each of the sample scenarios in my own practice:

  • Starting and ending sessions on time

My sessions are 50 minutes long, and while I can't always land the 50 precisely, I do make a point of never, ever going over 55 minutes. My favourite strategy to keep track of time is to check my wristwatch about two thirds into the session and say something like: "We have about fifteen minutes left together today, what else would be helpful for you to talk about?"

  • Scheduling appointments that work for the client, but not the helper

I use Acuity Scheduling, an online scheduling tool that lets clients self-schedule their appointments on my homepage within an availability range that makes sense for me. My availability generally is the same every week, but if I need to take some time off or change things up because of an important event, Acuity Scheduling lets me adjust my work windows flexibly as needed. As I understand that some clients need evening and weekend appointments, I stay at the office later on Tuesdays and offer Saturday afternoon appointments, too. However, I don't veer outside of those regular time brackets to accommodate clients further.  

  • Sliding scale fees

Personally, I charge one non-adjustable fee for everyone, which is currently CAD $95 per 50mins. I set this particular price point last year, when I was about halfway through my Addictions Careworker Diploma training at McMaster University. As soon as I'll finish the program (my last paper is due in June), I will raise my rate to CAD $125 per session for new clients as well as returning clients who have been inactive. I have found that sticking with my pricing has been easier than expected, and it hasn't seemed to deter clients, either.  

  • Feeling energetically drained after sessions

This is an interesting one, as I usually feel energized by my work. However, in the rare cases I don't, I very much understand why people would charge two hundred and fifty dollars per hour. In any case, if your work environment is more draining than inspiring on the regular, perhaps adjustments need to be made?

  • Taking vacation

I'm not great with this one, but I think that is because I work part time hours. That said, for this summer I have already set aside one week of cottage time, one week of professional training time, and one week for reconnecting with friends in Europe. 

  • Taking sick days

I have come to understand that I can only be helpful to others when I take time to recuperate. Rather than prolonging an illness unnecessarily, I now know that I heal faster when I take rest when I need to. While I hate cancelling client sessions, I am looking at it as modelling self-care to them. 

  • Taking on extra shifts

I can't really speak to this one, as I have never worked in shifts. Hypothetically, I think I would be agreeable to taking on extra shifts in a reciprocal system, for extra income, or for a colleague in a dire situation. Ideally, I wouldn't want to take on extra shifts over a longer period of time, though. 

  • Taking phone calls and answering emails after hours

I don't take business phone calls after hours, but I do answer emails on those nights I am on my computer anyway. When I am on vacation, I will set up an auto-responder and record a related intro on my voice mailbox. Generally, I am trying to return messages within 24 hours. 

  • Spending too much time on your smartphone or social media 

As I used to be in digital media, this is a hard one for me. My previous career required being online all the time, and while I have managed to cut down my screen time considerably, I acknowledge that I still spend a lot of time in digital environments. A strategy that has worked for me in this regard has been to be mindful of when my daughter is around and to curb my screen time around her. 

  • Evening and weekend work

As mentioned above, I am at the office every Saturday afternoon and on Tuesday evenings. Beyond that, I will only act on bursts of work energy when my child is asleep and my husband is busy otherwise. 

  • Handing out private contact information

For my own convenience, I use only one mobile phone for work and private matters alike, and I used to use only one email address for both until recently, too. Now that I do have a separate work email address - this one! - I made sure that work emails are *not* pushed through to my phone. With the exception of appointment booking notifications (which I set up to go to my private address for ease of planning) I only check my work email at my desk. 

How do you maintain appropriate professional boundaries?

Here are a couple more strategies that might be helpful in this respect: 

Ideas For Improved Boundary Setting 

  1. Reassess your boundaries weekly

  2. Stay true to yourself by honouring your personal needs

  3. Put everything in your calendar and do as it says  

  4. Use positive self-talk

  5. Consult around these issues with a colleague, supervisor, mentor or coach - sometimes it's just easier to talk things through

As per usual, I hope this email was useful to you.