Canada

Kids Help Phone counsellors say they see improvements to formerly 'toxic' work environment

Counsellors at Kids Help Phone, the 24-7 crisis line for youth in distress, say complaints about the charity's management style have been largely addressed since they were brought to the attention of CBC's Go Public last November. At the time, some current and former employees said unrealistic demands and excessive scrutiny were damaging their ability to do their job.

Counsellors told CBC's Go Public last year that unrealistic demands, scrutiny hindered ability to do their job

An image from a promotional video made by Kids Help Phone. The 24/7 free helpline saw demand for its counselling services double last year, but staff said close monitoring and micromanaging of their work and a strict time management system had caused burn-out, stress leaves and resignations. Counsellors now say conditions have improved since CBC first reported their complaints last November. (Kids Help Phone)

Linda Belanger of Nepean, Ont., said she cancelled her monthly contributions to Kids Help Phone, a Canada-wide 24-7 crisis line for youth in distress, immediately after she read a CBC News report last November about the working conditions for counsellors.

Now, she says she's ready to resume donating after counsellors reported that their complaints have been largely addressed.

Counsellors from the helpline's Toronto and Montreal centres who contacted CBC's Go Public last year had said rigid time limits set on their work, coupled with excessive scrutiny and reprimands for exceeding those limits by even a minute in some cases, were damaging their ability to do their job and help kids in need. 

"Of all the types of workplaces that should understand the negative impacts of this type of management, it should be Kids Help Phone," said Belanger, a retired public servant.

In November, Go Public reported on complaints about the charity's alleged strict micromanagement. Former and current counsellors said they spoke out in hopes that media attention would achieve what their own complaints to supervisors had not: an overhaul of a management style they said was causing staff members to burn out, take stress leaves or quit and began well before the pandemic.

"It's such an important job," Belanger said of the service, which has offices in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Like 'night and day'

Now, counsellors say the work culture at the 30-year-old charity has changed. The difference is like "day and night," said one. CBC News is withholding the names of the counsellors, who say they fear they would lose their jobs for speaking to the media. 

A counsellor CBC called Natalie in the original report said that after it was published, staff saw a difference.

"Never have they been this supportive," she said of her employer.

Counsellors' time to decompress after emotional calls is no longer scheduled and tightly limited, she said. "They have given us autonomy over our self-care time."

Natalie, who works out of Ontario, said staff even received Christmas bonuses. And although she was initially skeptical that improvements would last, she said, they have continued. 

CBC's requests to Kids Help Phone for an interview with CEO Katherine Hay, above, were declined. The organization never explained why it had adopted such a strict time management system for its counsellors in the first place. (Tynan Studio)

Calls, texts for help doubled in 2020

A counsellor who works for Kids Help Phone in another province said a number of counselling staff share Natalie's perspective. In an email sent to CBC, she said that she and her colleagues not only feel less stressed; they are confident they are now doing a better job. 

Kids Help Phone declined a request from Go Public to confirm any of the details shared by counsellors, including that it has scrapped the monitoring and strict schedules staff had complained about. 

A spokesperson said in an email that 55 new professional counsellors were hired last year, added to its staff of 182. The organization had 4.5 million connections with young people via phone calls, texts and online consultations in 2020, an increase of 137 per cent over the previous year.  

"Our front-line teams are doing incredibly hard and amazing work to support the young people of Canada during COVID-19," the email said. "We couldn't be prouder, and we continue to invest in all our staff's well-being."

The charity said it had 4.5 million connections with young people via phone calls, texts and online consultations in 2020, an increase of 137 per cent over the previous year. (Shutterstock)

Not everyone satisfied with changes

Not all counsellors are satisfied with the current work culture, however. One counsellor said she feels the changes have been superficial and said she still feels pressured by managers.

"It's not a huge organizational shift," she said. "I have a couple of colleagues I'm relatively close to, and they echoed the same sentiment, that things haven't changed that much."

She cited a recent example when she called in sick. "I was met with a lot of disrespect, almost, for making that choice," she said. "There was judgment and criticism."

Julie Parenteau, a former Kids Help Phone counsellor who quit the charity last September, contacted Go Public after its November report to say she had been frustrated that she and others were being "ignored and silenced" for raising important issues related to their work. 

"It's ironic it took a CBC article for the exact thing we have been asking to happen: to be heard," she said in a recent follow-up interview.

Natalie said she feels relief and the changes "really saved many of us from mental breakdowns."

"Going forward, I believe the environment will no longer be a toxic one."

Former donor Belanger says she is pleased to hear that the charity has taken action even if not everyone is pleased with the results. 

"I'm going to go back to my monthly donations."

About the Author

Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.

now