The Challenges of Helpline Management

Annika Howard
Sue, helpline manager at CALM presenting at the member event

In June, members who attended our Managing a Helpline event in London heard from Sue who manages the helpline for our member The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). Sue talked to us about the challenges of helpline management.

CALM is a national charity dedicated to preventing male suicide, the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. They offer support to men in the UK, of any age, who are feeling low or in crisis via their helpline, webchat and website.

Recruiting helpline workers

One of the areas Sue spoke about was the recruitment of staff. CALM’s helpline is staffed by paid employees, rather than volunteers, but the issue of recruiting people to work on helplines was a common theme for many of the helplines at the event.

Finding enough staff of the right calibre is hard. The recruitment and training process is time-consuming. Not everyone who thinks they might like to work on a helpline finds the reality matches up to their expectations and people can be lost who simply are not suited to helpline work e after the initial training period.

Who's working on your helpline makes a difference too. Although CALM is for men, Sue explained: “men calling CALM often don’t want to talk to another man, a man who is there working in a job when they are having a crap time and we often see more ‘put downs’ when we have men on shift.”

Increases in the volume and complexity of contacts

Over the past year, the number of contacts to the helpline via its web chat service and by phone have increased dramatically. Some of this can be attributed to external factors, for example, the Coronation Street suicide storyline and the media coverage of the 84 statues campaign on TV. CALM was actively involved in both of these so aware of the likelihood of increased contacts for their service as a result. However, many helplines do not know about upcoming storylines, TV programmes or press releases so are unable to plan for an increase in demand. With mental health services being reduced the helpline is taking more calls from people needing emotional and crisis support which often results in more complex calls.

The complexity of calls to the service has increased and this puts more pressure on staff. Sue spoke about the importance of being able to flex rotas to keep staff well and allow them time to get away as well as how essential it is to have regular supervision and opportunities to reflect on the calls.

Helpline staff development

Sue acknowledged that as the CALM helpline manager she’s in a fortunate position that they don’t have a high staff turnover on the helpline. People come and they stay, which is a testament to the support and supervision Sue provides for her team. One of the challenges that it does bring though is making sure there are opportunities for development and progression for staff in a mainly static workforce. The introduction of additional responsibilities is one of the ways that the CALM helpline has tackled this. For example, giving a member of the team the responsibility for the quality control of web chats as well as introducing group supervision where one person leads and another person takes the notes.

We’d like to take the opportunity to say thank you to Sue (and CALM) for coming along and talking at the event and sharing her experiences of managing a helpline. As one of the members attending the event said “Sue’s talk was so relevant. Not just a presentation on her service. Good frank approach too.”

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