How to Become a Counsellor

Responsibilities, working hours, what to expect and qualifications needed

Career guides » How to Become a Counsellor

What does a counsellor do?

A counsellor is sometimes also known as a therapist. They are professionals who help people to discuss their feelings and identify any difficulties they may be facing. Counsellors help individuals to reflect on their choices, situation and behaviour and encourage them to make positive and effective changes in their life. They are not expected to give advice and guidance to clients but are there to act as a facilitator to support people to overcome their problems.

Counselling is carried out in various settings, such as schools, hospitals, GP surgeries, clinics, community centres, and even counsellor’s own homes. However, most counsellors will work in healthcare settings. They can provide counselling face to face, online and over the telephone.

Counsellors will see clients of all different ages and backgrounds who have a range of issues. Individuals may be experiencing relationship difficulties, bereavement, illness, addiction, stress, anxiety or unemployment. Counsellors may work with individuals, couples, families or groups, and some may specialise in specific groups, such as children and young people.

People may be referred to a counsellor, or a counsellor may be contacted directly by individuals needing help. Counsellors will have many duties, including establishing relationships with clients, encouraging them to talk, listening carefully, asking questions, challenging where necessary and making referrals. The role will also have an element of administrative work, such as maintaining confidential client records and writing reports.

A counsellor’s main aim is to support clients to explore their own feelings and make their own choices in a safe, non-judgemental and confidential environment. They have an important role in improving the health and wellbeing of individuals in our society and can even save lives.

Counsellors can work alone with many different clients but may also work closely with their colleagues, e.g. fellow counsellors. They may also need to liaise with external stakeholders, including doctors, nurses, specialists, GPs and other healthcare teams.

Counsellors can work for many different sized organisations. They may work for large organisations, e.g. the NHS, or smaller companies, e.g. private clinics and charities. Some more experienced counsellors may choose to have their own practice and become self-employed or work through employment agencies.

Responsibilities

A counsellor will have many different responsibilities, which may include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Establishing relationships built on trust and respect.
  • Agreeing with clients on what will be covered in sessions.
  • Encouraging clients to talk about their feelings and discussing any issues they may have.
  • Helping clients to see their problems more clearly or differently and finding ways to help them cope.
  • Listening carefully to clients whilst empathising with them and without bias.
  • Asking clients questions and checking understanding.
  • Challenging clients if what they say or do appears to be inconsistent.
  • Supporting clients to make choices that will improve their health and wellbeing.
  • Liaising with other healthcare professionals, such as doctors and community mental health teams.
  • Referring clients where appropriate.
  • Keeping confidential records and writing reports.

 

The exact responsibilities a counsellor will have will depend on their role, their specialist area and the type of setting in which they work.

Working hours

A counsellor can expect to work 35-40 hours a week; usually, 9am-5pm (Monday-Friday). However, some counsellors will be required to work in the evenings or at weekends for events or appointments.

Flexible working is possible for some counsellors, e.g. part-time hours or a job share. There are even working from home opportunities with certain roles, and some counsellors may choose to be self-employed or work freelance.

Travel may be necessary for some counsellors, i.e. those who work in the community. There may be a requirement to cover counsellors in other areas, and there may also be opportunities to work overseas, e.g. for international charities.

What to expect

Being a counsellor and helping people with an array of emotional and psychological difficulties is extremely rewarding. Counsellors can go home at the end of the working day knowing they are helping make a difference to their clients’ health, happiness and wellbeing.

There is no shortage of counselling roles – there are jobs available nationally, and there are many different roles in which to specialise. The salary is also good, particularly if employed in the NHS or privately.

Being self-employed, working from home, and having control of your own caseload can be very beneficial for some individuals. They can work around their own needs, and it reduces the need to travel. Also, being your own boss can be exciting and fulfilling.

Boredom will never be a problem for counsellors, as their caseloads can be very varied. They will see and try to help many different people with various issues. One appointment may involve helping someone with a bereavement, and the next, supporting an individual with a mental health condition. Of course, this will depend on a counsellor’s specialist area.

Even though being a counsellor is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, they may also face challenges, for example:

  • Stressful working environment – some counsellors have multiple caseloads and will see many different clients during the day. There is also a significant amount of administrative work involved in the role, e.g. writing or typing notes. A counsellor will need to juggle different demands, and work schedules can often be erratic.
  • Mental demands – being a counsellor can be emotionally demanding, particularly in times of bereavement and when dealing with individuals with mental health conditions. It is not easy seeing people struggling to cope with what is going on in their lives. Counsellors may be exposed to trauma, and some clients may also be challenging to deal with. It can also be frustrating if clients are not progressing as anticipated.
  • Work-related violence – unfortunately, there is a risk of verbal and physical abuse in counselling. It is usually due to alcohol and drug-related issues, but people can also lash out when in pain or emotional distress. Employers have a duty to reduce and manage the risk of work-related violence, so there are ways of prevention. However, counsellors must be aware of the risk.

 

Self-employed counsellors may have additional challenges, such as:

  • Setting up a counselling practice is not easy, and there will be additional costs.
  • Loneliness when working from home, particularly between clients.
  • Increased health and safety risks due to working alone with clients.
  • Not receiving a regular salary, i.e. no guaranteed work and relying on clients paying.
  • Managing your own business and ensuring compliance with the law will increase the workload.

 

There are pros and cons in every career choice, and prospective counsellors must know what to expect before deciding whether the role is for them. There is no doubt that working in counselling is challenging, mentally demanding and stressful. However, there are many positives too, and helping people make improvements to their lives is very fulfilling. In some cases, it can actually save lives.

When considering whether to be a counsellor, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.

Personal qualities needed to be a counsellor

Some of the personal qualities that a counsellor requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Knowledge of healthcare, mental health and psychology.
  • Knowledge of related legislation and standards.
  • Knowledge of health and safety.
  • Knowledge of equality and diversity.
  • Knowledge of confidentiality, data protection and GDPR.
  • Having a caring attitude, sensitivity, empathy and understanding.
  • Having confidence, patience, tolerance and a reassuring manner.
  • Having a non-judgemental approach.
  • Having self-awareness, including examination of own thoughts and values.
  • Excellent interpersonal skills, i.e. the ability to deal with clients and other healthcare professionals.
  • Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
  • Excellent counselling and active listening skills.
  • Good time management.
  • Being motivated and committed to helping people.
  • Being thorough and having attention to detail.
  • Being flexible and open to change.
  • The ability to work both in a team and alone using own initiative.
  • The ability to understand individuals’ reactions.
  • The ability to challenge people positively.
  • The ability to be resilient in emotionally demanding situations.
  • The ability to gain people’s trust, respect and confidence.
  • The ability to accept criticism.
  • The ability to work well under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations.
  • The ability to use IT equipment and software competently.
  • The ability to follow policies, procedures, instructions and risk assessments.

Qualifications

There are many different ways to become a counsellor. Individuals can undertake a relevant university or college qualification.

Course levels – diploma, undergraduate degree and postgraduate course.

Entry requirements – 

– Diploma (one or two A levels or equivalent).
– Undergraduate degree (two or three A levels or equivalent).
– Postgraduate course – a relevant undergraduate degree (at least a 2:1 or 2:2).

Example courses – counselling or psychotherapy. Some undergraduate courses combine counselling with other areas, such as psychology or criminology.

Course levels – introduction and level 3, 4 and 5 courses.

Entry requirements – vary depending on the course.

Example courses – Introduction to Counselling, Level 3 Certificate in Counselling, Level 4 Diploma in Counselling Skills and Level 5 Diploma in Therapeutic Counselling.

It is recommended that individuals start with an introduction to counselling course, which lasts between 8 and12 weeks.

Therapist in conversation with patient in her clinic

On-the-job training and volunteering

There are no set academic or training requirements to become a counsellor. Therefore, gaining qualifications is not the only route into the role. However, some employers may stipulate that specific qualifications or training is required along with professional body registration and membership.

There may be opportunities to work in roles helping people (e.g. in health and social care and education) and learn on the job. Individuals can also attend relevant training courses whilst working. On-the-job training can lead to becoming a counsellor with the right experience, training and supervision. Individuals who have relevant experience will find it easier to apply for counselling qualifications and jobs.

There is no substitute for practical experience. Volunteering can help individuals understand what is involved in being a counsellor and help them build their knowledge and skills. There are counselling services, including charities, that can offer training and help provide practical experience, e.g. the Samaritans, Mind, Relate and Cruse. Having relevant unpaid experience increases the chances of individuals getting a paid role.

Having relevant work experience that involves working with and helping people can be beneficial and can help an individual work towards becoming a counsellor. As the role tends to be a second or third career choice for some individuals, life experience is invaluable.

Registration

If a person wants to work in the NHS as a counsellor, they need to be registered on a counselling or psychotherapy register accredited by the Professional Standards Authority. Each register will require registrants to adhere to certain terms and conditions and conduct. Also, registration will need to be renewed, i.e. annually. The exact requirements will depend on the professional body.

There will be a cost to become registered and for renewing registration.

Other employers and even clients may check registers, so it is recommended that counsellors become registered.

Other requirements

To maximise the chances of being accepted on to courses and for job roles, it is recommended becoming a student member of a professional body, such as:

 

For counsellors to become registered with a body accredited by the Professional Standards Authority, they will be expected to have counselling themselves (personal therapy). This is so they can see what it would be like for their clients. They will also need to receive supervision from another qualified practitioner who acts as a professional mentor. Supervisors give counsellors support whilst helping develop their skills.

Counsellor doing training course

Training courses

Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help counsellors enter the profession, enhance their employability, increase their client base and keep their knowledge and skills current.

Most colleges and accredited private training providers provide training courses. Some examples of relevant courses that may be useful for counsellors include:

  • Safeguarding.
  • Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS).
  • Mental health and capacity.
  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Bipolar disorder.
  • Schizophrenia
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
  • Phobias.
  • COVID-19 awareness.
  • Equality and diversity.
  • Health and safety, e.g. work-related violence and lone working.

 

Professional bodies and associations, such as the BACP, the NCS and the UKCP, can advise on reputable training courses. They also have events that can help counsellors and give them the means to continue their professional development. Continuing professional development (CPD) is a mandatory requirement for counsellors to remain on accredited registers. Also, see CPD courses for counsellors for further guidance on CPD.

The type of training required will depend on what employers are looking for, the counselling individuals want to offer and the CPD requirements for registration. As well as looking on professional body websites, it is also worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the courses required and other training needed for specialist roles. Jobs can be found on NHS Jobs, BACP Jobs, Charity Job, HealthJobsUK, and other job sites, such as GOV.UK find a job service and Indeed. Also, look at recruitment agencies, e.g. Agency Central.

Having more relevant training and competence will open up more opportunities for counsellors, as it is very competitive, particularly where full-time positions are concerned. Refresher training will also be required, as it is a legal requirement under legislation, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.

 

Criminal records checks

Counsellors will be required to undergo a criminal record check, as they may have contact with children and vulnerable adults. Having a criminal record, caution, warning or conviction may put off prospective employers. However, they should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance to the role.

The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:

 

Driving

Some counsellors will be required to drive as part of their role, especially when working in the community. Therefore, they should have a full clean driving licence.

School counsellor with child in therapy

Where do counsellors work?

Counsellors can work in many different settings, including (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Schools, academies, colleges and universities.
  • People’s homes and in the community.
  • Workplaces.
  • Hospitals, walk-in centres, therapy clinics and GP surgeries.
  • Residential care homes, nursing homes and hospices.
  • Children’s services.
  • Advice and support centres.
  • Offices and their own home, e.g. face to face, online or telephone.
  • Churches and premises of other faiths.
  • Prisons.

 

They can work for public bodies and private organisations, for example:

  • The NHS.
  • Private hospitals, centres and clinics.
  • Local authorities.
  • Counselling service providers.
  • Addiction agencies.
  • Employee assistance providers.
  • Charities.
  • Consultancies.

 

They can also be self-employed and work for themselves or an agency.

Counsellor with mother and daughter who are having therapy session

How much do counsellors earn?

If a counsellor decides to work for the NHS, their salary is subject to a band pay system (agenda for change pay rates). For example (these are a guide only and are subject to change):

  • Newly qualified counsellors (band 5) – between £25,655 and £31,534.
  • More experienced and qualified counsellors (band 6) – between £32,306 and £39,027.
  • Specialist counsellors (band 7) – between £40,057 and £45,839.

The exact salaries for counsellors will depend on the role, location (London supplement), specialisms, qualifications and years of experience. As counsellors progress in their careers, there may be opportunities to enter more senior positions, and the band will increase.

There is potential for counsellors to earn more if they work in other settings, e.g. private practice. Experienced counsellors may also earn higher salaries if they combine consultancy with research and teaching.

What self-employed counsellors will earn is variable, as most will set their own rates. It will also depend on how many clients they have, the hours they work, their qualifications and specialisms, and the expenses they have to pay, e.g. utilities and training. Most self-employed counsellors charge per session, with some fees up to £70. The average cost is around £60 per session. The rate should be agreed upon with clients based on their circumstances.

Some counsellors may choose to work voluntarily, e.g. helplines, or combine unpaid work with paid counselling work.

Counsellor who specialises in couple therapy with her patients

Types of counselling roles to specialise in

Not only are there opportunities for counsellors to move up the career ladder and work in various settings, but there are plenty of opportunities for them to specialise in different areas of counselling, for example (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Bereavement – helping people who have experienced a bereavement.
  • Cancer – helping people who have or who have had cancer and supporting family members.
  • Children and young people – specialising in counselling individuals under 18 years old.
  • Family therapy – helping families to communicate better and resolve specific issues affecting the functioning of the family.
  • LGBT – specialising in counselling people who are LGBT.
  • Mental health – supporting individuals with different mental health disorders and issues, e.g. depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, addiction, trauma and schizophrenia.
  • School – providing counselling to pupils at schools.
  • Sexual health – supporting people with sexual problems.
  • Sexual violence – helping people who have been victims of sexual violence, e.g. assault and rape.
  • Substance abuse – helping people with addiction to substances, such as alcohol, illicit drugs and prescription drugs.

Some counsellors may decide to specialise in one area, such as depression or addiction.

There are also many different types of therapies counsellors can offer, for example:

  • Behavioural therapy.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
  • Gestalt therapy.
  • Humanistic therapy.
  • Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).
  • Person-centred therapy.
  • Systemic therapy.

 

Some counsellors specialise in different areas and offer various therapies to clients.

There are many different counselling roles and specialisms to choose from and far too many to mention here. The BACP has further information on the different types of therapies counsellors can offer.

All different counselling roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. Some may need specific qualifications and additional training for specialised areas. Most counsellors will need to know how to build relationships with different people, actively listen, ask questions, challenge clients and support individuals to make positive choices. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for in a counsellor and the type of work a counsellor wants to carry out.

If counsellors do not carry out their role effectively, it can put clients (and others) at risk and, in worse cases, may even cost lives. Therefore, whatever the type of role, counsellors must have the necessary competence (knowledge, skills and experience) to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency and not use therapies if they have not been trained and are not competent.

Counsellor with patient in his office

Professional bodies

Counselling standards, techniques, therapies and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, counsellors need to keep abreast with the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain legally compliant and ensure they carry out their roles effectively and safely. CPD gives counsellors the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them stay registered with an accredited body and allows them to progress their career.

Joining a professional body can help prospective and current counsellors enhance their skills and overall career. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), the National Counselling Society (NCS) and the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) offer different levels of membership, CPD, advice and support, access to industry contacts and networking events.

There is ample opportunity for career progression within counselling, and it is a diverse field. With more qualifications and experience, a counsellor can become a team leader or manager. They can also decide to focus on a specific area of counselling, such as bereavement, mental health or addiction. Alternatively, they may choose to become self-employed and set up their own counselling practice.

Having the knowledge, skills and experience in counselling can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, a counsellor may want to work in education and training, research or supervision. They may want to work in other areas, e.g. occupational health, mentoring or mental health services. Finally, they may decide to combine counselling with other roles, such as teaching or nursing.

Get started on a course suitable for counsellors

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