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Social workers and self-disclosure

One of the issues which frequently arose in the training we provided to practitioners in the Connecting People study was that of self-disclosure.

We encouraged practitioners to reflect on their own networks and contacts in order to consider if they would use anyone they knew personally to connect service users with new groups or activities within their community. This inevitably raised issues of professional boundaries and how much about oneself it was appropriate to disclose to service users.

As social workers – like other human service professionals – we implicitly disclose things to service users which may have an impact on our relationship with them. Our age, gender and ethnicity are often quite apparent. Our religious beliefs, sexual orientation and political views are also quite apparent, though we may not speak directly about them. Symbols we wear, mannerisms we use or comments we may inadvertently make all reveal different aspects of our identity whether we intend to or not.

It is not clear, however, the extent to which social workers view disclosure of different aspects of their identity a good or a bad thing. Social work student at the University of York, Jonny Lovell, is conducting a national survey of social workers to explore just this. He writes:

Social workers face dilemmas when working with clients about what information they give away about themselves, when, and why. If you were working with a service user and they asked you something about yourself, how would you react? Would it be different if a client asked you about something trivial, such as whether you can drive, than if they asked you whether you are married or have children? What might you be prepared to share if you were asked whether you had ever been depressed, experienced counselling, or whether you were religious? And what kinds of things do we give away unconsciously or by accident, such as the way we dress, or by virtue of our gender or ethnicity?

Disclosing something to a client about ourselves might help to show we understand aspects of their situation and that we empathise with their circumstances, or it might help us to challenge their attitudes and beliefs.  Alternatively, sharing our thoughts and experiences might create barriers, for example, where attitudes and morals are in conflict, where clients feel that the practitioner is not fully focusing on them, or does not understand their situation.

Self-disclosure of personal information is contested, with some social workers being pro-disclosure, while others feel disclosure is not acceptable under any circumstances. A quick literature search shows that self-disclosure in counselling and psychotherapy is extensively considered and written about, but there is little for other disciplines such as social work, where, as in counselling and therapy, the relationship between the client and the social worker is central.

On my social work training, in particular on placement, I was unsure what I could share with clients and when.  Avoiding self-disclosure altogether was difficult, because sometimes it was unconscious, and sometimes it just felt plain unfair to the client. When they were telling me everything about their life and the way they felt, how could I refuse to answer even the most basic question they asked about me?

When I looked for guidance about self-disclosure specifically in social work, I found research to be sparse, and recommendations and guidance vague or contradictory. Discussions with other practitioners threw up a wide range of competing opinions and beliefs, depending on circumstances, settings, and the nature and purpose of disclosure. So I decided to research social workers’ opinions on self-disclosure, and help, to explore and highlight some of the difficulties practitioners face in using self-disclosure in their work.

The research that I am undertaking aims to explore what information about themselves social workers feel is OK or beneficial to share with clients, and what ought to be avoided – and crucially why.

It’s a web survey which takes about 5 to 15 minutes to complete, depending on whether you provide any optional written comments, and how long they are. If you are interested in being interviewed, I will be talking to a small number of practitioners to explore any polarised or interesting views that emerge. All participants will have the option, if they provide contact details, to be informed of the outcome of the research, through an article or paper that will be sent directly to them. If you’d like to take part and contribute to this area of practice development, please follow the link:


Please also send a link to this article and/or the survey to any social workers that you know, and ask them to pass it on too. The more participants, the better. Because of the nature and scope of the research, it is only open to qualified social workers in the UK.

The survey will remain open until 1st March 2013.

For further information on this research, please contact Jonathan Lovell, Social Work MA student at the University of York, by email:  jl1155@york.ac.uk

I would be most grateful if you could take a few minutes to complete the survey and then forward the link to your colleagues. Your responses will help to provide valuable evidence which can inform local and national policy on this issue. The findings will be posted here and on the Community Care website in the summer.

Many thanks.

3 thoughts on “Social workers and self-disclosure

  1. DaisyB says:

    This is a really interesting dilemma and your survey really made me think!

    On the whole I veer towards dont do it, but there are so many shades of grey. We really need to differentiate between basic facts about a person and soul bearing, they are very different. In most social contexts not answering a question like are you married? or why are you fasting? would be just strange surely!

    For me the working relationship between client and worker is based on a social relationship so why wouldn’t you answer questions like that? That doesn’t mean that you should share the ins and outs of your marriage or religious beliefs, they are yours, keep them that way.

    I think the key question for me is why are you disclosing. As social workers if we are going to disclose personal information we need to have an honest look and ask what is the benefit to the client by telling them that. I would also say there are ways to share information without personalising it, sharing possible options or solutions for someone to try out doesn’t need them to know it was you it worked for, in fact knowing it was you might even have a negative effect

    So for me this one should be seen in terms of the benefit to the client and be accompanied by appropriate supervision to keep everyone safe.

    The professionalism domain of the PCF also sets out some guidance that might be helpful in thinking about this area.

  2. I really do not understand why the essential rules, the reasons for them, and what is personal scope to be different within them have not been determined.

    This is not difficult stuff, and other services, such as mental health advocacy, have had to have a workable approach to it for more than ten years.

  3. Jane Burns says:

    I am not a qualified social worker, but have worked at the high end of multi agency social care including case management for over 20 years. Emotional Intelligence and Professional Boundaries ensure that I build positive relationships enabling information sharing on a need to know basis with clients/service users and this is the key to progression. I have never had problems with confidentiality, data protection issues or negativity from clients or professionals – in fact exactly the opposite. Having this weighted attitude has ensured I have become a well respected individual in the field in which I work.

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