Maintaining Professional Standards as a Counsellor
In the UK, the National Occupational Standards (NOS) specify the standards of performance that different professions, including counsellors, are expected to achieve in their work, and the knowledge and skills they need to perform effectively (NOS, 2014). These standards were introduced in 2010 and cover four types of therapy, one of which is humanistic counselling (Skills for Health, 2010). While these standards are not mandatory, they are recommended by leading professional bodies such as the BACP (Skills for Health, 2010).
The NOS for counselling covers the same professional standards as the BACP (2013), whose ethical framework is based on the belief that, “All clients are entitled to good standards of practice and care from their practitioners . . . Good standards of practice and care require professional competence; good relationships with clients and colleagues; and commitment to and observance of professional ethics” (p. 1).
The professional standards expected of counsellors, as highlighted by the NOS and the BACP, are broad. They encapsulate factors such as behaviour, dress, competence, confidentiality, communication with others, professional judgement, integrity, respect, prioritising the interests of clients, and recording keeping, to name a few.
In terms of confidentiality, counsellors are expected to maintain privacy of information unless superseded by specific conditions, e.g. if disclosure is in the best interest of the client(s) or is required for the welfare of others or by law. Accordingly, they should disguise the identity of the client when using data for training, research or publication.
Competence and integrity are part of the personal moral qualities expected of counsellors (BACP, 2010). Competence is defined as “the effective deployment of the skills and knowledge needed to do what is required” (p. 1), while integrity is defined as “commitment to being moral in dealings with others, personal straightforwardness, honesty and coherence” (p. 1). In particular, counsellors are required to practice only within the boundaries of their competence and sticking to this is a sign of integrity and putting the clients’ interests first. I have internal and external supervision to help me gain in competence and to make me accountable for maintaining professional standards. I also ensure clients know that I am a trainee, so that they can provide informed consent to working with me.
I feel that communication is particularly important when considering professional standards – not only with clients, but also colleagues. This is where teamwork could also be seen as necessary for maintaining professional standards. Indeed, the BACP (2013) emphasise that all communication between team members about clients are to be conducted on a professional basis, is purposeful, consistent with the counselling organisation’s rules on confidences, and is respectful of the client’s rights at all times.
Teamwork can be defined as a “dynamic process which involves a number of healthcare professionals with different but complementary backgrounds or fields of expertise, sharing common health goals, and exercising concerted physical and mental effort in assessing, planning, or evaluating patient care” (Xyrichis and Ream, 2008, p. 233). Such teamwork is an important part of maintaining professional standards as it allows for feedback and input from others with more experience or a different perspective. In this sense, teamwork facilitates the development and maintenance of professional standards since it makes counsellors accountable and also provides the opportunity to consider new ways of working that are in the best interests of the client.