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How much should social workers disclose about themselves to clients?

disclosure2.jpgThe thorny issue of how much we should disclose about ourselves to clients is a constant dilemma for social workers, yet there is little in the way of clear guidance on the issue, writes Jonathan Lovell.

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.  

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 that way they felt, how could I refuse to answer even the most basic question they asked about me? 

In professions like counselling and psychotherapy self-disclosure is extensively considered and written about. Yet when it comes to social work – a profession where the relationship with clients is central – research on self-disclosure is sparse. 

Guidance is often, at best, vague or contradictory. Discussions with other practitioners throw up a wide range of competing opinions and beliefs. Some social workers are pro-disclosure, while others feel disclosure is not acceptable under any circumstances.  

This is why I’m conducting research on social workers’ opinions on this issue. I want, however modestly, to explore some of the difficulties practitioners face in using self-disclosure in their work. Have your say by taking part in this short web survey.

As with all professional ethical dilemmas, there is unlikely to be a consensus on the thorny issue of self-disclosure. But, in the absence of effective guidance for practitioners, research that seeks to understand the problem, and articulate social workers’ experiences, could be an important step forward.

Jonathan Lovell, is an MA social work student at the University of York

Picture credit: Burger/Phanie/Rex Features

About Andy McNicoll

Andy is community editor at Community Care, with a focus on reporting on mental health. He has previously worked for titles focusing on the NHS and substance misuse sectors. You can contact him at

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One Response to How much should social workers disclose about themselves to clients?

  1. Paddy McDonnell 25 April , 2013 at 11:04 am #

    I would like to stress my support for the opinion submitted by Mithran Samuel 23/1/07. Free provision of social care would only benefit the wealthy, articulate middle classes who can afford to pay for their provision. We would witness stricter eligibility critria, leaving all but those in greatest need or with influence excluded from care provision. Certainly those in receipt of social care provision would receive their care free of charge but how many would meet that strict criteria.