How does the professional setting of a counsellor affect their work?

How does the professional setting of a counsellor affect their work? Well as always, I must begin by stating there are no absolute answers to this question.  Having said that, there are most definitely some regularly seen features in different counselling settings that affect the work that is done,  and this blog will address those that are most common. Let’s start then with a quick description of the settings themselves.

Generally speaking, counsellors/therapists can work in one of two types of professional environment: A counselling service provided through an institution/charity or agency of some sort, or they can work privately (or independently as the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy refers to it). There is no question however that working as a counsellor/therapist for a counselling service is very different than it is for those who, like myself, work entirely independently. Even though I’ve not worked in a counselling service setting for nearly 20 years now, I am a professional supervisor for a number of counsellors/therapists who do work in this way (and this is a weekly reminder of why I no longer wish to!).

Counsellors who work in a counselling service are, generally speaking, supposed to only have to focus on the actual counselling work that they do. The service itself is responsible for the administration of the counselling department and all of the “outside of the room” work. It is the service’s responsibility for promoting itself, finding clients for the counsellor, booking initial sessions, keeping track of overall caseloads for counsellors, maintaining client details, organising the venue, ensuring that all counselling is performed in a safe environment and pretty much all other aspects of the practice apart from actually sitting with a client and helping them with their difficulties. When this works correctly all a counsellor has to do is show up at the right time and place and Voila! they can just meet with their clients, do their job and go home. Yes, on the face of it this sounds fantastic as the counsellor in an agency or service is free from all the behind the scenes work that must be done to run a successful therapeutic practice. Theoretically, this means that as all of the behind the scenes work is done for them, these counsellors have much more of themselves available to give to those they are assisting. Unfortunately however, it doesn’t always work like this and I’ve yet to see an organisation or institution that consistently performs these tasks very well.

The difficulty here is that the person (or people) who have the role of organising all of these bits and pieces in agencies are often either part time workers or volunteers (usually a mixture of the two). This means that often there isn’t one dedicated professional keeping an eye on the practical aspects of the interface between counsellor, client and service. Instead, it is not at all unusual to see these tasks as a small part of someone’s (or several people’s) overall duties and therefore are not necessarily given the prioritisation they deserve. The result is that counsellors regularly show up at the venue provided and have to navigate any number of issues more or less on the fly – before psychologically regrouping themselves to be ready for their client (who is usually scheduled to show up any minute!). Therefore, this vision of coming to work, meeting with clients and then going home does not actually materialise very often. Oh sure, there are often several weeks on the trot when the whole thing runs like clockwork, but there are plenty of others where it is a complete fiasco. The difficulty for the service counsellor therefore that they never know as they drive to the counselling venue which kind of a day it’s going to be. How this affects a counsellor’s work or translates into any given counsellor’s ability to be entirely present for their clients (as opposed to worrying about something in the background) is not something that anyone can truly quantify as it will vary from individual to individual.

Entirely as an aside, poor or ineffectual counsellors who work for counselling services are somewhat immune to being negatively influenced by bad professional reputations. This is because the clients they work with in these institutions generally only see their counsellor for a few sessions, have little control over which counsellor within that service they see, and often know little more about their counsellor than their first names. Sadly, this means it is possible to not be particularly good at any aspect of the role of professional counsellor and yet remain with a counselling service for years.

By contrast, the independent counsellor/therapist is responsible for all aspects of the practice. In simple terms this means that the independent practitioner not only needs to be a consistently good therapist (or their poor reputation will spread quickly through the community and people will not wish to use them), they also need to be a halfway decent administrator or business manager. At first glance this may seem like it makes the independent counsellor less available to those they assist, but it is my opinion that in reality it brings more benefits than difficulties.

While it may appear at first glance that we independent counsellors have our hands full of administrative duties from outside of the counselling room that could possibly affect our ability to help our clients, for the true professional therapist the opposite is true. I say this because even though I must spend a certain amount of time outside of the counselling room organising files, keeping my books straight, ensuring I’ve done an appropriate level of Continuing Professional Development hours each year or any of the other myriad of tasks a small business must complete, I know all of these things are done, and have been done properly. This means that while sitting with a client I am not secretly worried about whether Mrs X has been called and knows of a time change, Mr Y’s insurance letter has been signed, or any other of the multitude of client needs that could otherwise cause worry in the background – taking away from my ability to be present for my clients. Essentially, as an independent professional therapist the fact that I know all of the “outside of the room” work has been done properly significantly increases my ability to be entirely present in the room for my clients.

As stated at the beginning of this blog however, there are no absolutes in this, and I have no doubt there are some brilliant staff working in counselling services doing a fantastic job at keeping their particular service running smoothly, just as there are likely to be some independent therapists who are more than a bit chaotic behind the scenes. My suggestion to you, dear reader, is that before you choose a counsellor/therapist to work with, that you put small amount of time and effort into ensuring that you are making the right choice for you. If you would like a bit more information on how you might best undertake this process, please read this short article on how to choose the right counsellor for you.