Professional versus social relationships

Q: I’m a newly practising nurse. I know it’s important to distinguish between professional and social relationships. What are the key differences between the two relationships?

A: It is important to be aware of the differences between professional and social relationships and nurses are accountable for setting appropriate boundaries within these relationships. 

Trust, respect, professional intimacy, empathy and power are the five components inherent to the nurse-client relationship, and the client’s needs are the focus of the professional relationship. The chart below outlines some key differences between professional and social relationships.

Key differences between professional and social relationships (adapted from Professional Boundaries for Registered Nurses: Guidelines for the Nurse-Client relationship, CARNA):

 

 

Length of relationship

Professional Relationship:

The length of relationship is related to a client’s need for nursing care and is time-limited. Length could be short (for example, triage in emerge) or long (for example, on a rehabilitation unit). Regardless of length, a therapeutic nurse-client relationship is formed.

Any sexual relationship with a client while they are receiving care, and for one year following the end of the professional relationship, is considered sexual abuse and professional misconduct.

Social Relationship:

Personal choice as it is not defined by care needs. May last a lifetime.


Location of relationship

Professional Relationship:

Location is limited to where nursing care is required or provided.

Social Relationship:

May occur anywhere.


Purpose of relationship

Professional Relationship:

To meet the therapeutic needs of the client.

Social Relationship:

Directed by pleasure or self-interest.


Power balance

Professional Relationship:

Unequal power inherent to the nurse’s position within the health care team.

A misuse of power is considered abuse.

Social Relationship:

Relatively equal power which may shift.

Power is determined by a wide variety of factors, not related to a nurse’s position.


Responsibility for relationship

Professional Relationship:

The nurse is responsible for establishing the therapeutic relationship and maintaining professional boundaries.

Social Relationship:

Equal responsibility to establish and maintain relationship.


Remuneration

Professional Relationship:

May be paid or unpaid.

Social Relationship:

Unpaid.


Trust

Professional Relationship:

Critical to the therapeutic relationship.

May be fragile at first and requires continual effort to maintain.

Social Relationship:

Changes depending on the type of relationship.


Respect

Professional Relationship:

Inherent to the therapeutic relationship. Nurse must maintain objective, respect the client’s choice and make sure their personal values do not conflict with professional practice.

Social Relationship:

May or may not be present. May change depending on the type of relationship.


Professional Intimacy

Professional Relationship:

Inherent in the type of care and services that nurses provide.

Social Relationship:

Not present.


Empathy

Professional Relationship:

Required to help clients meet their care goals and maintain the nurse-client relationship.

Social Relationship:

May or may not be present. May change depending on the type of relationship and situational factors.


Please review the Therapeutic Nurse-Client Relationship and Professional Standards practice standards for more information about the components of the nurse-client relationship.

Page last reviewed October 31, 2018