Heard but not seen: Exploring youth counsellors’ experiences of telephone counselling


  • Danielle Davidson Queensland University of Technology, Queensland, Australia
  • Gai Harrison Allied Health, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, Queensland, Australia




Telephone counselling, invisibility, anonymity, telephone counsellor wellbeing, working conditions


INTRODUCTION: Human service practitioners who work over the telephone are physically invisible to their clients and this invisibility shapes their work. Existing literature suggests that physical invisibility, coupled with anonymity and the immediacy of service provision are defining features of telephone counselling. However, little research has explored how telephone counsellors experience these features in any real depth.

METHODOLOGY: This article reports on a case study conducted at a youth helpline in Aotearoa New Zealand. Qualitative, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 10 practitioners on their experiences of telephone counselling work. One key finding from this case study is discussed: the impact of invisibility and anonymity.

FINDINGS: Findings indicate that practitioners’ experiences of delivering telephone counselling are more divergent than those presented in extant literature. While telephone counsellors face challenges delivering non-face-to-face counselling support, the physical invisibility of this medium, coupled with a supportive work environment can also provide potential benefits to counsellors.

CONCLUSIONS: Counsellors’ experiences of telephone counselling work appear to be more nuanced than traditionally understood. While practitioners may experience a range of possible challenges in delivering telephone counselling, such as responding to hoax and abusive callers, they also experience benefits such feeling relaxed, and supported by colleagues and supervisors. Management practices, such as flexible rules and accessible supervision, can help practitioners manage the impact working non-face-to-face with clients. Given the ongoing popularity of telephone counselling, further research is needed on the working conditions that promote practitioner wellbeing and job satisfaction.


Alston, M., & Bowles, W. (2018). Research for social workers: An introduction to methods. (4th ed.). Sydney, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Altheide, D. L., & Johnson, J. M. (1994). Criteria for assessing interpretive validity in qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research, (pp. 485–499). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Barnes, A. (2007). The construction of control: The physical environment and the development of resistance and accommodation within call centres. New Technology, Work and Employment 22(3), 246–259. doi:10.1111/ j.1468-005X.2007.00197.x

Beddoe, L. (2016). Supervision in social work in Aotearoa New Zealand: Challenges in changing contexts. The Clinical Supervisor, 35(2), 156-174. doi:10.1080/073252 23.2016.1217497

Bobevski, I., Holgate, A. M., & McLennan, J. (1997). Characteristics of effective telephone counselling skills. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 25(2), 239–249.

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2), 77-101.

Carpenter, J., Webb, C. M., & Bostock, L. (2013). The surprising weak evidence base for supervision: Findings from a systematic review of research in child welfare practice (2000-2012). Children and Youth Services Review, 35, 1843–1853. doi:10.1016/j. childyouth.2013.08.014

Centore, A. J., & Milacci, F. (2008). A study of mental health counselors’ use of and perspectives on distance counselling. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 30(3), 267–282.

Christogiorgos, S., Vassilopoulou, V., Florou, A., Xydou, V., Douvou, M., Vgenopoulou, S., & Tsiantis, J. (2010). Telephone counselling with adolescents and countertransference phenomena: Particularities and challenges. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 38(3), 313–325.

Coman, G. J., Burrows, G. D., & Evans, B. J. (2001). Telephone counselling in Australia: Applications and considerations for use. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 29(2), 247–258.

Dong, C. Y. (2016). The uses of mental health telephone counselling services for Chinese speaking people in New Zealand: Demographics, presenting problems, outcome and evaluation of the calls. The New Zealand Medical Journal, 129(1441), 68–77.

Durie, M., & Hermansson, G. (1990). Counselling Māori people in New Zealand [Aotearoa]. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 14, 197–118.

Fraser, H., & Taylor, N. (2016). Neoliberalization, Universities and the public intellectual: Species, gender and class and the production of knowledge. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hall, B., & Schlosar, H. (1995). Repeat callers and the Samaritan telephone crisis line: A Canadian experience. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 16(2), 66–71.

Hanna, S. (2010). Call centres as sites of professional practice: “Where old social workers go to die?” Australian Social Work, 63(3), 266–280.

Hanna, S., & Nash, M. (2012). “You don’t have to shout”: Vocal behaviour in social work communication. Social Work Education, 31(4), 485–497.

Harms, L. (2015). Working with people: Communication skills for reflective practice (2nd ed.). South Melbourne, VIC: Oxford University Press.

Hermansson, G. L., & Webb, S. B. (1993). Guidance and counselling in New Zealand: Weathering a decade of transformation. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 16, 213–227.

Holstein, J. A., & Gubrium, J. F. (2004). The active interview. In D. Silverman (Ed.), Qualitative research: Theory, method and practice. London: SAGE Publications.

Holz, C. (2019). A manager’s challenge: Is external supervision more valuable than increased training money for staff? Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 31, 127–127-133. doi:10.11157/anzswj-vol31iss3id654

Kim, H. S., Hodkins, D. C., Bellringer, M., & Abbott, M. (2016). Gender differences among helpline callers: Prospective study of gambling and psychosocial outcomes. Journal of Gambling Studies, 32(2), 605–623.

King, R., Nurcombe, B., Bickman, L., Hides, L., & Reid, W. (2003). Telephone counselling for adolescent suicide prevention: Changes in suicidality and mental state from beginning to end of a counselling session. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour, 33(4), 400–411.

Kinzel, A., & Nanson, J. (2000). Education and debriefing: Strategies for preventing crises in crisis-line volunteers. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 21(3), 126–134.

Lang, S. K. W. (2005). “Decolonialism” and the counselling profession: The Aotearoa/New Zealand experience. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 4, 557–572.

Lang, S. K. W., & Gardiner, B. D. (2014). As they like it – culture-centred counsellor education in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand: A play on bicultural pluralism. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 42(1), 73–85.

Lester, D., Brockopp, G. W., & Blum, D. (2012). The chronic caller. In D. Lester & J. R. Rogers (Eds.), Crisis intervention and counseling by telephone and the internet (3rd ed., pp. 159-176). Springfield, Illinois: Charles C Thomas.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications.

Maher, A., & von Hippel, C. (2005). Individual differences in employee reactions to open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25(2), 219–229.

Maxwell, J. A. (2005). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (2nd ed.). Applied social research methods series (Vol. 41). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Miller, J. H. (2012). Counselling and guidance initiatives in Aotearoa New Zealand. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 40(3), 187–190.

Minichiello, V., Aroni, R., & Hays, T. (2008). In-depth Interviewing: Principles, techniques, analysis (3rd ed.). Sydney, NSW: Pearson Education Australia.

O’Sullivan, J., & Whelan, T. A. (2011). Adversarial growth in telephone counsellors: Psychological and environmental influences. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 39(4), 307–323.

Parrott, L., & Madoc-Jones, I. (2008). Reclaiming information and communication technologies for empowering social work practice. Journal of Social Work, 8(2), 181–197.

Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Rhoades, L., & Eisenberger, R. (2002). Perceived organizational support: A review of the literature. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 698–714.

Roberts, S. (2016). Assessment with Maori. In J. Maidment & R. Egan (Eds.), Practice skills in social work and welfare: More than just common sense, (pp. 207-224). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Rodgers, N. (2012). Shifting landscapes of counselling identities in Aotearoa New Zealand. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 40(3), 191–204.

Rosenfield, M. (1997). Counselling by telephone. London, UK: Sage Publications.

Rosenfield, M. (2002). Electronic technology for social work education and practice: The application of telephone technology to counseling. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 20(1–2), 173–181.

Rosenfield, M. (2003). Telephone counselling and psychotherapy in practice. In S. Goss & K. Anthony (Eds.), Techonology in counselling and psychotherapy: A practitioner’s guide (pp. 93-108). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ryan, G. W., & Bernard, H. R. (2003). Techniques to identify themes. Field Methods, 15(1), 85–109. doi:10.1177/1525822X02239569

Sanders, P. (2007). Using counselling skills on the telephone and in computer-mediated communication: An incomplete guide to using counselling skills on the telephone (3rd ed.). Ross-on-Wye, UK: PCCS Books.

Sharah, S. (1995). Future directions in telephone counselling: The belief in self-control and the “illusion” of a meaningful world (Unpublished Bachelor of Art (Honours) thesis), Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW.

Shier, M. L., & Graham, J. R. (2011). Work-related factors that impact social work practitioner’s subjective well- being: Well-being in the workplace. Journal of Social Work, 11(4), 402–421.

Stake, R. E. (2005). Qualitative case studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 443-466). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Staniforth, B. (2010). Counselling in social work in Aotearoa New Zealand: The historical, political and socio-cultural evolution. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 22(3), 3–13.

Stanley, P., & Manthei, R. (2004). Counselling psychology in New Zealand: The quest for identity and recognition. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 17(3), 301–315.

Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 7(3), 321–326.

Van den Broek, D. (2008). “Doing things right”, or “doing the right things”? Call centre migrations and dimensions of knowledge. Work, Employment & Society, 22(4), 601–613. doi:10.1177/0950017008096738.

Watson, A. (2019). Collision: An opportunity for growth? Māori social workers’ collision of their personal, progessional, and cultural worlds and the values and ethical challenges within this experience. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics. 16(2), 28–40.

Youthline. (2005). Evidence of the effectiveness of telephone counselling services. Auckland, New Zealand: Author.




How to Cite

Davidson, D., & Harrison, G. (2020). Heard but not seen: Exploring youth counsellors’ experiences of telephone counselling. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 32(1), 73–85. https://doi.org/10.11157/anzswj-vol32iss1id708



Original Articles