(November 16, 2020) The Charity Report editor in chief Gail Picco spoke with Kids Help Phone CEO Katherine Hay on November 14, 2020 to talk about the context of the crisis line’s work, the well-being of its counsellors, what is takes to be available to Canadian children and the use of technology.
The interview is on the heels of a story broadcast by CBC’s Go Public on November 9th—Calls to Kids Help Phone have surged. Now some counsellors are making a distress call of their own. Hosted by Rosa Marchitelli and Erica Johnson, Go Public focuses on the travails of regular people and typically focuses on consumer affairs.
The crux of the counsellors’ issues, as reported, are that “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.”
Supervisors appear to micromanage, say the counsellors. One counsellor said she received a message from her supervisor about ‘why a call was taking so long.’ According to the counsellors speaking to Go Public, burnout is increasing and they feel pressure towards quantity over quality. There is no time built in for de-briefing after difficult calls. New operational guidelines were introduced last December that include setting goals for the number of calls. (Full disclosure: Gail Picco was campaign director for the Kids Help Phone Futures campaign in 2005 and 2006.)
Gail Picco: What was it like for you when you woke up and read the Go Public story online? Or did you see it on television? As a CEO—and just as a regular person–what were the first things that went through your mind?
Katherine Hay: We got contacted by the reporter the week before the story dropped. We didn’t have a line of sight into the allegations other than it was several counsellors and involved the use of KPIs [key performance indicators] and workplace culture. As a person, I found it shocking. “As the CEO, I felt sick – my top priority is the people at Kids Help Phone, and I care deeply about them. I also felt disbelief.”
As the CEO, I felt sick – my top priority is the people at Kids Help Phone, and I care deeply about them. I also felt disbelief.”
Gail Picco: In addition to feeling some empathy for the counsellors, there are a couple of things that struck me when I looked deeper into the story, and that is the sheer scope of what’s happening within families in Canada. Kids Help Phone has experienced a doubling of interactions with children and youth—from 1.9 million interactions in 2019 to 3.7 million interactions so far this year. We hear a lot—and rightly so—about hospital staff being overwhelmed by the pandemic. What’s happening at Kids Help Phone?
Katherine Hay: We are on the front line. Our counsellors were working hard before COVID and are working even harder now. We had townhalls booked with our counsellors before the story broke [on November 9th]. One of the ways we communicate with our counsellors is that we regularly do townhalls, which we have to book far in advance because we are a 24-hour service across all time zones. At the town hall, we heard counsellors had some challenges with some of the policies, and that’s it’s been a difficult time. The number of calls is relentless, the length of each call is long. I was happy to hear from our counsellors about how they are doing, and our union reps were at the town hall, so we were able to make some decisions about how to mitigate the challenges right then and there. Children and young people are feeling a sense of enormous grief and loss for their former life and don’t know what’s ahead. Many young people are calling because they are feeling suicidal or are experiencing abuse. Our counsellors are experiencing vicarious trauma.
Children and young people are feeling a sense of enormous grief and loss for their former life and don’t know what’s ahead. Many young people are calling because they are feeling suicidal or are experiencing abuse. Our counsellors are experiencing vicarious trauma.
Gail Picco: What sorts of things have you been doing to try to manage the stress inside the organization?
Katherine Hay: We have CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) programs available for our crisis responders, employees and their families. Mind Beacon [a company that provides digital therapy to people with issues related to depression, anxiety, panic and PTSD] is providing this service to us for free. We are grateful for that and about 200 people have signed up. When we were moving our services from the office into our employees’ homes, we gave $400 to each employee to use in whatever way they wanted to create a home workspace. And we gave people a couple of extra days off during the summer. Keeping our counsellors healthy is a vital part of our ongoing part of our work.
Gail Picco: Have you been surprised about the sheer numbers of young people calling Kids Help Phone?
Katherine Hay: We weren’t really surprised. We had about 180 people staffing our counselling programs before COVID, and that’s based on how people communicate. In fact, at 2 in the morning, it’s the only mental health option available to young people. Period.
Gail Picco: How did you adapt to the COVID reality?
Katherine Hay: Back in March, I don’t think Canada had ever done anything like it did [effectively closing down the country]. But our business continuity plan, which is a corporate sounding term, but what it meant for us was that we couldn’t close down for one minute. We had to be there for kids 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We had to get everyone set up remotely. And we had to stem the financial storm a lack of fundraising would create. We didn’t lay anyone off. If a work- at-home structure wasn’t applicable for some jobs (a receptionist, for example), we re-deployed that staff person to another area. And we have been able to keep all our people on staff. Then our calls really intensified in May and June. Revenue from events went from $6 million to zero. Burnout was an issue.
Then our calls really intensified in May and June. Revenue from events went from $6 million to zero. Burnout was an issue.
We had to hire new counsellors, and have hired and trained 35 so far, and will have hired and trained 50 by the end of December. When we put a call out for volunteers that could be trained to become text responders, we received 9,000 full applications, with references and everything, to volunteer. And we didn’t drop a single minute.
Gail Picco: A large part of the complaint of the counsellors in the CBC story—I’m not sure about the number of counsellors; CBC said “several”— was the fact that Kids Help Phone had adopted a time management and operations software that required counsellors to use a series of codes, and account for their time more specifically. Is this, on its surface, a real clash of technology and humanity?
Katherine Hay: We have used technology all along, throughout our entire history. We have a clinical operation to manage and have always used codes. We have all kinds of different codes. And the codes mostly talked about in the CBC story are what’s called “Back to Ready” codes. It’s the two or three minutes after a counsellor hangs up from a call and can choose a range of actions, such as debriefing, professional development or some other action, to do next. It usually depends on the kind of call they’ve just dealt with. Some calls are hang-ups and they choose the “Back to Ready” code immediately, which means they are ready to take calls again. It’s not technology that’s the problem, it’s the volume of calls. We did have a guideline where counsellors were expected to spend 65% of their time on the phone, and 35% of their time on other aspects of their work. But we got feedback from our counsellors about that. They felt they should be able to determine the breakdown of the work themselves. We agreed. Our counsellors are all professionals and very experienced.
Gail Picco: Is there is a special kind of stress that telephone counsellors experience that’s different from people who do counselling face-to-face? A counsellor can talk to a child or a youth, maybe give a referral and the person seems okay in the moment. But when the counsellor hangs up, they have no way of knowing what happens next. How do counsellors manage that kind of stress in normal times? How are they managing now?
Katherine Hay: One thing that our counsellors are adamant about is the anonymity of the caller, and they will say if we don’t keep this as a part of the foundational nature of our service, children and young people will not feel comfortable calling in. So, while they don’t always know what happens when the phone call ends, their belief in the anonymity of the process mitigates that. They also know that our surveys tell us that 85% of children and youth engaging with Kids Help Phone say they feel better afterwards. In the meantime, if a young person is in imminent danger, there is a danger plan we can put into place.
Gail Picco: We’re seeing a lot of charities adopt technology in new ways. They are NGOs in Europe using virtual reality to give prospective donors a “tour’ through refugee camps, and AI allows some organizations to know more about the needs of the people they serve. Kids Help Phone is dealing with such huge numbers of Canadian children and youth, how does technology allow you to fulfill your mission?
Katherine Hay: Technology is our friend … we would never consider replacing a human counsellor, and Kids Help Phone only has professional counsellors on the phone. Two years ago, we had a real discussion of the future. Kids Help Phone has always been where kids are. We have to be on the edge of technology because that’s where kids are.
Gail Picco: I took a look at some of the stats you have on your Data Insights portal. Most of your phone and texting sessions are well over 35 minutes and, in some areas of the country, almost half of the children and youth were calling because they were feeling suicidal. Kids Help Phone is like a canary in the coal mine. How are the children and youth of Canada doing?
Katherine Hay: Here’s the thing … the data will tell us that the mental health of young people has been a crisis well before COVID. In 2019, 28% of our interactions were about suicide. The isolation is staggering. I don’t mean to be an alarmist. I am a realist. The numbers are what they are. We talk to young people about suicide, self-harm, sexual abuse and much more. The silver lining is that children and young people are figuring out help-seeking behaviour. Once you know how to reach out for help and know it’s okay, you will know this as an adult. My job is to make sure our counsellors have the tools they need to do what they do. And we have to be seeing out to 2030, not just next week or next month.
My job is to make sure our counsellors have the tools they need to do what they do. And we have to be seeing out to 2030, not just next week or next month.
Gail Picco: The level of complexity keeps increasing year over year. Things are getting cracked open in society now that have been held together by duct tape. Young people are feeling wrecked, and the people who are trying to help them are feeling the same way. How can Kids Help Phone sustain this level of service?
Katherine Hay: If we just hired more professional counsellors, we wouldn’t be able to sustain ourselves. But not all kids need the same degree of acuity as those speaking with our phone counsellors. Once kids enter the ecosystem of Kids Help Phone, we offer many options. We have professional counsellors on the phone, of course, but we currently have 3,800 trained volunteers who are part of our text support network. We offer support through Facebook Messenger and have Counsellor in the Classroom [where Kids Help Phone counsellors speak to classrooms across the country about how to reach out for help]. And we are considering a peer counselling program in the future. Our service has to change with the technology because we have to adapt to the technology young people are using.
Gail Picco: What is the thing you want people to know about Kids Help Phone, and where it’s at right now?
Katherine Hay: What I want people to know is not news. Kids Help Phone is an amazing organization and the people who work there are amazing. Today, we’ve been talking about technology and empathy, but the through line at Kids Help Phone is actually courage. We haven’t let Canada down for 31 years and we put it all out there to adapt everyday.