Calls to Kids Help Phone have surged. Now some counsellors are making a distress call of their own
After a call from CBC's Go Public, helpline says it will make workplace rule changes to help counsellors
Kids Help Phone, the charity that offers 24/7 counselling services to young Canadians in distress, needs to listen to the concerns of its stressed staff if it truly wants to help callers, say three current and former counsellors.
Demand for Kids Help Phone's services has been on the rise, with calls and text messages surging since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
But the counsellors who spoke with CBC's Go Public say handling the increased demand is even more difficult because of the micromanagement and unreasonable demands of supervisors, which have taken a toll on counsellors' ability to do their job properly — and on their own mental health.
They said the service is being run like a corporate call centre, and counsellors are under pressure to account for how every single minute of their workday is spent via a software tracking system.
"It was like a production line," said one former counsellor. "Like, we need another target, we need to hit three million calls. I mean, we're not in sales. I'm helping people."
WATCH | Counsellors speak out about working conditions at Kids Help Phone:
CBC News has agreed not to publish the names of the current and former counsellors who were interviewed, as they fear that speaking out against the practices of an organization as well-known and important as Kids Help Phone could harm their future employment prospects.
They revealed how Kids Help Phone measures the performance of counsellors based on what it calls key performance indicators (KPIs). Their job performance is tracked, with percentages, for things like how many calls they failed to answer, how often they weren't ready to answer a call, and what percentage of their time was devoted to self-care.
Supervisors require an explanation from counsellors if their KPIs don't match the organization's performance targets.
Time to debrief with colleagues after upsetting calls — something they were able to do in the past in order to recover and get into a proper frame of mind for the next call — is now strictly limited, the counsellors said.
Pressure and burnout
Kids Help Phone has provided assistance to millions of young people in its 30-year history, including counselling victims of abuse and helping to prevent suicides. It also provides a caring listener to young people who just need to speak anonymously to someone about their troubles.
The charity employs 182 professional counsellors in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, with 50 more coming on board by the end of the year, thanks to additional federal funding in response to the pandemic.
Those who contacted Go Public said the addition of new staff hadn't done much to reduce stress, as the micromanaging continued. Alerting supervisors, management and their union to the problems didn't lead to any significant changes either, they said, even though the stressful working conditions counsellors face affect the quality of their work and their ability to help kids in need.
But after Go Public contacted Kids Help Phone to tell them that several counsellors had been in touch, the charity's chief youth officer said changes will be made.
"Our counsellors are courageous, kind and top professionals," said Alisa Simon, who described herself as the executive most in touch with workplace issues at the charity. "If we miss something, we will make it right; including changing guidelines to better meet their needs."
No specific details of how guidelines would be revised, or when, were included in the statement.
In a previous statement to Go Public, Kids Help Phone said it has added more support for front-line staff over the past eight months and intends to add even more, including mindfulness programs, extra days off in summer and "added time to decompress and debrief."
The charity also said it surveys staff to hear how they are doing.
However, a current Kids Help Phone counsellor, referred to as Natalie for the purpose of this article, says stress leaves are common and turnover is high.
"We can't really give the proper support if we're burning out," she said.
Another former counsellor, who will be referred to as Ashley, said the organization's intense focus on efficiency metrics, which was introduced in late 2019, is a distraction during crisis calls.
"That's a lot of pressure to have in the back of your head when you're trying to be present talking to some of these kids," she said. "It takes away from the main focus of what we're trying to do."
Natalie said supervisors have even sent messages to counsellors over the company's internal chat system during lengthy calls to ask what's taking so long.
"That can bring some anxiousness and nervousness," Natalie said.
"You think, 'Oh, the manager is noticing how long I've been on the phone,' and it really takes you out of the call, because now you're worried that the manager is watching and you've been on too long. It can ruin the work you're doing."
Union not helping much, say counsellors
Kids Help Phone workers are represented by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, but the counsellors who spoke with CBC News say complaints to the union haven't led to meaningful action.
"The union has said for us to keep trying, to keep giving suggestions, to document the problems," Natalie said. "And that's not enough. I think that their method is just to wear management down. But we're worn down."
Go Public reached out to the union for comment but has yet to receive a response.
Before the focus on time management and efficiency was introduced late last year, Kids Help Phone had been a great place to work, said Jacques, a former counsellor.
"When I first started, I told my friends, 'I'm going to retire from this place, I love it,'" he said. "The training was fantastic."
Ashley said she also used to love the work.
"It was amazing to be able to help some of these kids," she said.
The counsellors said they didn't have a problem with the charity using a software program to track their work activities through a system of codes. They could still manage their own workflow and weren't chastised for missing time-management targets, they said.
But once the new operational guidelines were introduced last December, the charity started to measure counsellors' performance on a monthly basis, providing percentages to indicate their adherence to a strict schedule that dictated precisely how much time they were to spend on various activities and when they could take breaks.
Bathroom breaks counted as 'self-care'
On one occasion, before the pandemic hit and counsellors started working from home, Jacques said his supervisor confronted him after returning late from break.
"I got told, 'You went a minute over your lunch. What are we going to do about it?'" he said.
A Kids Help Phone operational guide, provided to employees, was obtained by CBC News. It says time is allowed for self-care, but that it should amount to no more than five per cent of a counsellor's "log in time averaged over the course of a month," or, for example, 30 minutes during a 10-hour shift.
The document also specifies the downtime is intended to promote wellness, and suggests it can be used to get a coffee or tea, or to use the washroom.
Jacques confirmed this is how it works.
"I can't even go to the washroom without having to justify to someone why I spent two minutes off the phone?" Jacques said in exasperation.
The counsellors who spoke with CBC News said the unpredictable nature of the calls they receive demands a level of flexibility in their workday, but supervisors don't seem to appreciate that, insisting instead the schedule be strictly followed.
Danielle van Jaarsveld, who teaches in the organizational behaviour and human resources department at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, and has studied call centres in the U.S., Europe, China and Canada, said it appears Kids Help Phone is compounding the stress of an already stressful job.
"The issue with this type of monitoring is that it really contributes to employee emotional burnout," she said. "And when employees are burnt out, they really can't perform at their best."
She said employee time-tracking systems like the one used at Kids Help Phone are not uncommon, but are more suited to call centres that deal with "shorter, simpler transactions," as opposed to lengthy counselling sessions.
"What I tend to see in call centres where the interaction involves emotions is much more discretion being given to the employees with respect to break time."
Believe it when they see it
When told that Kids Help Phone said it plans to change the time-management rules, Natalie said she is skeptical about her employer's motivation.
"They say they have our well-being at the front but they have said that before and nothing changed," she said. "I do believe that if this time has a different result, it is only because they are worried about their reputation and not us."
Nonetheless, she and the other counsellors who spoke with Go Public said they remain hopeful that the problems at the charity will be solved. They said the mental health support Kids Help Phone offers its callers is more important than ever.
"I think the people that are higher up are not understanding the reality of the front line," said Jacques. "We need more autonomy to say, 'These are my limits right now.' And that is really not that much to change when you think about it."
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With files from Manjula Dufresne