If you're a good listener with an interest in psychology and helping others, a career as a counsellor will suit you

Counsellors help people to explore feelings and emotions that are often related to their experiences. This allows clients to reflect on what is happening to them and consider alternative ways of doing things. As a counsellor you will not give advice, but help clients to make their own choices.

Working in a confidential setting, you'll listen attentively to clients, offering them time, empathy and respect. With the aim of reducing confusion and increasing their ability to cope with challenges, or to make positive changes in their life. There is no clear distinction between the terms counselling and psychotherapy, and both can encompass a range of talking therapies.

Responsibilities

As a counsellor, you'll need to:

  • establish a relationship of trust and respect with clients
  • agree a counselling contract to determine what will be covered in sessions (including confidentiality issues)
  • encourage clients to talk about issues they feel they cannot normally share with others
  • actively listen to client concerns and empathise with their position
  • accept without bias the issues raised by clients
  • help clients towards a deeper understanding of their concerns
  • challenge any inconsistencies in what clients say or do
  • help clients to make decisions and choices regarding possible ways forward
  • refer clients to other sources of help, as appropriate
  • attend supervision and training courses
  • undertake personal therapy (mandatory for accreditation)
  • liaise, as necessary, with other agencies and individuals to help make changes based on the issues raised by clients
  • work to agreed targets in relation to client contact
  • undertake group as well as individual therapy on occasions
  • keep records and use reporting tools.

Salary

  • Starting salaries for counsellors can vary considerably but may be in the region of £20,000 to £26,000. Private practitioners charge around £30 to £50 per hour.
  • With experience and supervisory responsibilities, counsellors can earn £30,000 to £40,000.

The majority of counsellors are employed on a part-time basis. Many counsellors work as volunteers and so do not receive a salary.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are mainly 9am to 5pm but some posts may require evening or weekend work to meet with clients. A maximum of 20 hours of client contact time per week is recommended by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).

What to expect

  • Counsellors are usually office based, but their work may involve travelling to other locations or working from home. Phone and internet counselling services are growing.
  • There is a lot of scope for self-employment and freelance work. A lot of counsellors have a portfolio career combining part-time, voluntary and private work.
  • Counselling is often undertaken one-to-one, but it can involve work with couples, families or groups. Group counselling is becoming more common as services are under increased pressure due to the high demand for counselling.
  • Jobs are available in most areas but the concentration is heavier in cities. Some rural areas are poorly served.
  • The job is stressful because of the painful and sometimes contentious nature of the personal problems experienced by clients.
  • Professional supervision is essential to help counsellors work through any difficulties they experience and it is a requirement for all practising members of the BACP.

Qualifications

You don't need to have a degree or HND to enter into counselling as there are separate counselling qualifications available at different levels.

The BACP recommends that a three-stage training route is followed, which comprises the following courses:

  • Introduction to counselling: provides basic counselling skills and an overview of training before committing to a full counselling course. Typically lasts 8 to 12 weeks and is available at further education (FE) colleges.
  • Certificate in counselling: provides theoretical understanding of counselling at a deeper level, develops counselling skills and prepares for the core training at the next stage. Courses last a year when studied part time at FE colleges.
  • Minimum diploma level qualification in counselling: courses at this level should meet BACP requirements of being at least one year full time or two years part time, with a minimum of 100 hours in a supervised placement. The course may be at diploma, degree or postgraduate level. Qualifications that meet these requirements enable you to get membership with the BACP.

Counselling courses accredited by the BACP are widely recognised in the profession but there are a variety of different certificates or diplomas available. For a list of accredited courses see BACP Accredited Course Search.

A degree in a related subject, such as nursing, psychology, social work or education may be useful in the career and might help you to get onto a counselling course. However, previous counselling skills and evidence that you have the necessary personal qualities are just as important as academic achievement. Check with individual providers for entry requirements.

Funding for training may be limited but the BACP has details of current funding opportunities available for counselling and psychotherapy research.

Skills

You will need to show:

  • a non-judgemental outlook and a willingness to work with all kinds of people
  • excellent observation and listening skills
  • patience, tolerance and sensitivity
  • an understanding of your own attitudes and responses
  • a belief that all clients are able to make positive changes
  • an appreciation of confidentiality issues.

You will need to undergo Disclosure and Barring Service checks if your client group comprises children under the age of 18 or vulnerable adults.

Work experience

Relevant experience in a helping capacity is very desirable and is particularly useful if you can demonstrate experience of working with a diverse range of clients.

There are many voluntary opportunities available across the counselling sector. Some basic counselling training is usually required, but some agencies train their own volunteers. Voluntary experience can be highly valuable and may even lead to further training and paid work.

Employers

Counselling vacancies can occur in a range of settings including:

  • schools, further education colleges, universities and higher education colleges
  • statutory and voluntary sector care agencies, dealing with people with disabilities or specific issues such as substance abuse, eating disorders, sexual health, sexual assault and domestic violence, mental health, adoption, bereavement, rehabilitation of offenders, family relationships and homelessness
  • health sector settings including hospitals, oncology, genetics, general practices, community healthcare, mental and occupational health teams
  • youth services and agencies
  • children's centres
  • citizens' advice bureaux
  • human resource departments of larger employers
  • general counselling services
  • specialised telephone helplines
  • churches and other faith-based organisations.

Look for job vacancies at:

Members of the BACP get access to Jobs Online and the Therapy Today journal, which both list vacancies.

The demand for counselling is increasing in areas such as employee counselling, adoption, education and addictive behaviours, but competition for full-time paid positions is high. Many paid posts are part time or combined with other duties, such as teaching, nursing or advisory work.

Professional development

If you've completed an accredited counselling course, or a non-accredited course which still meets the requirements of the BACP, you are eligible for BACP membership.

Once you are a member, you can apply to join the BACP register, which is approved by the Professional Standards Authority. Being a registrant is something that many employers and clients look for as it shows you adhere to high standards of ethical practice. For more information see BACP Register.

Once on the register, you'll be required to engage in continuing professional development (CPD), which may include short courses on new therapeutic approaches and possibly progression to higher qualifications at postgraduate level. You will need to plan, record and reflect on your CPD activities and this is supported by the BACP.

You can also work towards becoming a BACP accredited counsellor. In order to do this you must meet the following requirements:

  • be a registered BACP member
  • have successfully completed 450 hours of professional counselling training with a student placement element
  • have been in practice for at least three years
  • have accumulated a minimum of 450 hours of practice, covered by at least one and a half hours of supervision per month.

If you do not have a diploma-level qualification or higher, you may need to complete further training before you can become a full member with the BACP or achieve accreditation.

Many private, voluntary and charitable counselling organisations run in-house training schemes that focus on the particular needs of the client group with which they are concerned. They are generally aimed at counsellors already working in these fields or those who wish to add a specialisation to their counselling training.

Career prospects

There tends to be little room for promotion as many counsellors work part time and at a similar level. In health or educational settings, management opportunities exist but these usually mean less time spent with individual clients and more on strategy and policy implementation.

You can take on increased responsibility in training or supervision, or choose to specialise in areas such as:

  • bereavement
  • family therapy
  • mental health
  • sexual health
  • substance abuse.

Gaining experience in more than one setting can be advantageous for career development as it broadens your experience. Working overseas is another option, if you're seeking new and varied opportunities. This may be possible through an international charity.

You could also establish yourself as a self-employed counsellor, once you have gained enough experience. This could potentially increase your flexibility and income, although may take time to build your client base and your income could be erratic to begin with. The BACP recommends that private practitioners should first acquire BACP accreditation, although this is not compulsory.