Counsellors help people to identify problems in their lives, allowing them to reflect on what is happening to them and consider alternative ways of doing things

As a counsellor, you'll actively listen to clients, offering them time, empathy and respect to talk about particular issues and problems, with the aim of reducing confusion and increasing their ability to cope with challenges, or to make positive changes to their lives.

Sessions with clients can cover a range of issues, including:

  • divorce or relationship difficulties
  • illness
  • bereavement
  • unemployment or job uncertainty
  • general anxiety.

Counsellors are impartial and non-judgemental, providing a safe and confidential environment for clients to look at their own values and beliefs. You won't give advice, but will support clients to explore their behaviour patterns and make their own choices. This may involve challenging their beliefs in order to help them see things from a different point of view.

Some work activities overlap with the role of a psychotherapist, 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
  • support 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, such as GPs, hospitals and community mental health teams, 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.
  • Experienced counsellors can earn between £30,000 and £40,000. Some lead or specialist counselling roles, such as those in addiction, can attract salaries higher than this.
  • Counselling jobs in the NHS usually follow the Agenda for change - pay rates. Jobs are often advertised at Band 5, 6 or 7, depending on your qualifications and experience.
  • There is no standard scale of fees for private practice work and rates vary considerably. Private practice counsellors typically charge between £40 and £80 for a 50-minute session, depending on a range of factors, including location and the client's circumstances.

Salaries vary depending the type of employer you work for, your location, whether you're in private practice, your experience and specialist skills.

Some counsellors work on a voluntary basis, on helplines for example, and don't receive a salary.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 9am to 5pm but some posts may require evening or weekend work to meet with clients.

Although opportunities for paid work in counselling are increasing, many jobs are part time or on a voluntary basis. There may be opportunities for flexible working and job sharing.

What to expect

  • You'll provide face-to-face counselling, as well as telephone and online counselling. Settings can include hospitals and GP surgeries, schools, colleges and universities, charities and addiction organisations, and in the workplace.
  • Counselling is often undertaken on a one-to-one basis, but it can also involve work with couples, families or groups.
  • Counselling can take place over 6 to 12 sessions or for a longer period, lasting months or over a year, depending on the needs of the client. Sessions typically last around 50 minutes.
  • With experience, there is scope for self-employment in private practice and freelance work. Many counsellors have a portfolio career combining part-time, voluntary and private work.
  • You'll need a good support framework as the work can be emotionally demanding. Professional supervision is essential to help counsellors work through any difficulties they experience.

Qualifications

Although there's no compulsory training required to become a counsellor, most employers will expect you to have undertaken professional training and be registered with a relevant professional body. Registration shows that you meet certain educational standards and abide by a code of ethics.

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) recommends a three-stage training route, comprising the following:

  • Introduction to counselling - provides basic counselling skills and an overview of training before committing to a full counselling course. Courses typically last 8 to 12 weeks and are available at further education (FE) colleges or adult education centres. These courses are a good way of helping you to decide if counselling is right for you.
  • Certificate in counselling skills - a deeper theoretical understanding of counselling, develops your counselling skills and prepares you for the core training at the next stage. Courses typically last one year part time at FE colleges.
  • Core practitioner training - equips you with the skills, knowledge and competence to work as a counsellor. The minimum level of training at this stage should be a Level 4 Diploma, but can also be a foundation, undergraduate or postgraduate degree. Training must adhere to internationally recognised standards of quality and cover reflective, competent and ethical practice. Courses should be at least one year full time or two years part time, with a minimum of 100 hours in supervised placements.

Training courses are provided by colleges, universities and private training organisations. Research courses thoroughly to make sure they meet your career needs as training is a substantial investment of time and money.

Look for courses that are approved/accredited by a professional body such as:

Completion of an accredited core practitioner training course will allow you to apply to join the professional body's professional register of practitioners.

Different courses have different entry requirements and you should check with individual providers for what they are looking for in terms of previous training and experience.

A degree in a related subject, such as nursing, psychology, social work or education, might help you to get onto a counselling course. However, previous counselling experience and evidence that you have the necessary personal qualities, commitment and self-awareness can be just as important.

Skills

You'll need to show:

  • self-awareness, sensitivity and empathy
  • excellent observation and listening skills
  • a broad-minded, non-judgemental attitude and a respect for others
  • an understanding of your own attitudes, limitations and responses
  • the ability to work well and think clearly under pressure
  • verbal and written communication and presentations skills
  • an ability to establish rapport with people from all backgrounds and to gain their trust
  • time management skills
  • the ability to work well as part of a multidisciplinary team
  • common sense
  • an understanding of the importance of confidentiality and also an awareness of its limitations
  • personal integrity
  • resilience
  • a belief in people's inherent ability to change and develop
  • a sense of humour and an energetic and positive approach
  • an understanding of equality and diversity issues.

Work experience

Counselling is often a second or third career and relevant experience in a 'helping' profession, such as nursing, social work, mental health or teaching, is useful. Experience of working with a range of clients can be particularly helpful.

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 is valuable and may even lead to further training and paid work.

Student membership of a professional body such as BACP or the NCS is useful.

Find out more about the different kinds of work experience and internships that are available.

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 working with people with disabilities or on 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 services
  • human resource departments of larger employers
  • general counselling services
  • specialised telephone helplines
  • churches and other faith-based organisations.

Another option is to set up your own private practice. This can provide a greater degree of flexibility but it may take time for you to get established. Counsellors may combine private practice work with other counselling jobs.

Look for job vacancies at:

Competition for full-time paid positions is high. Many paid posts are part time and some are combined with other duties, such as teaching, nursing or advisory work.

Professional development

Once you've completed training accredited by one of the main professional bodies, such as the BACP, UKCP or NCS, and have met all their membership requirements, you can access the full range of membership benefits they offer. Each professional body has different levels of membership, and as you gain experience, knowledge and skills you can progress through the levels.

You should also join your professional body's professional register of practitioners, which is accredited by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) for Health and Social Care. Becoming registered shows you adhere to high standards of conduct, competence and ethical practice. For more information, see:

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

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

You'll also undergo supervision to help enhance your practice, which involves presenting your client work to a supervisor in order to reflect on the psychotherapy process. With experience you can undergo training to become a supervisor.

It's also possible to take courses relating to setting up, running and marketing a business if you're thinking of moving into private practice.

Career prospects

Although opportunities for paid counselling work are increasing, many roles are still part time or voluntary.

Promotion in areas such as health or education is likely to be into team leader or management roles. These usually involve less time spent with individual clients and more on supervising a staff team and working on strategy and policy implementation.

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

  • bereavement
  • children and young people
  • family therapy
  • mental health
  • sexual health
  • sexual violence
  • substance abuse.

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've gained enough experience. It may take time to build your client base and income but it may provide greater flexibility and new opportunities.

There are also opportunities to move into research.

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