Would you bare your soul to a stranger? More and more people, it seems, are prepared to do just that by revealing their most personal secrets to an unknown voice on the other end of the telephone.
Teachers belong to a group of professions where union membership brings with it access to a 24-hour telephone counselling service, and many now take advantage of this. But of those who do, how many stop to wonder about their unseen confidante or question the nature of their qualifications for doling out advice?
In most cases the company on the other end of the phone is Eastgate Assistance. It boasts a "portfolio" of helplines to provide advice to employees and members of companies and organisations, in-cluding a significant number of trades unions and professional bodies, on any number of issues from personal accident to bereavement to victim support.
When Eastgate decided to offer a stress counselling helpline five years ago, the teaching unions were among the first to sign up. The National Association of Head Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers led the way, followed by the Association of University Teachers, the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) and the National Union of Teachers. Each union was given a dedicated number for their members.
Gareth James, head of the NAHT's professional advice department, says the association began looking for stress counselling for its members 12 years ago. It had embarked on several initiatives with local authorities but was concerned that provision was patchy and inadequate.
"We were coming across more and more of our members suffering high levels of stress," he says. "Our pensions department was also alarmed at the numbers retiring on health grounds, in many cases with unacceptable levels of stress causing or exacerbating a medical condition."
The Eastgate stress helpline promised what NAHT was seeking. Mr James says:
"It's in the silent hours, late at night or the early hours of the morning, that our members need someone to talk to. " Most of the teaching unions now pay a flat-rate fee for the service per union member, regardless of how often it is used. All believe it offers value for money and crucial support that their own officers are not qualified to provide.
Ken Wimbor, EIS assistant secretary, says: "We felt it was up to us to provide a service for members who were obviously under increasing pressure. A large number of calls involve work-related stress and many are made before an OFSTED inspection. Members tell us it is very good to have someone to turn to immediately."
David Clout, ATL executive member and Hertfordshire branch secretary, says that before the union subscribed to the stress helpline, field officers were having to deal with increasing numbers of calls from teachers "looking for a shoulder to cry on".
"Rather than the normal union business of sorting disputes and conditions of service, we could be involved in a call for up to two hours with a teacher who really needed to speak to a trained counsellor. The feedback on the help-line has been extremely positive."
Eastgate's stress helpline takes 8,000 calls a year. According to Belinda Hall, Eastgate's medical and counselling services manager, it is the only one run by staff who are qualified both medically and in counselling. Some 22 state registered nurses, all women, answer the phones, keeping lines open 24 hours a day throughout the year.
Hall, an SRN herself, joined Eastgate 10 years ago to help set up the first medical helpline in the country to be offered as an organisational or company membership benefit. She began with a team of four other nurses, each specialising in different fields. Their job was not to diagnose or prescribe treatment but to offer reassurance and support material, sending out factsheets, for example, and referring to a database of more than 2,000 support groups, if necessary.
The helpline grew in popularity - it now has four million potential clients - and the range of expertise among its staff increased. After five years it became clear that many people who were telephoning had physical symptoms of stress: palpitations, headaches, high blood pressure, heartburn, stomach ulcers, allergies and skin rashes. Eastgate decided to train the nurses as counsellors in preparation for setting up a stress counselling helpline.
"We didn't want to be just a listening service," says Hall. "We wanted to offer practical advice as well. Stress manifests itself in so many ways, and we felt it was important that staff could cater for the whole person, for physical as well as emotional and mental wellbeing."
Hall says the nurses gain a great deal of satisfaction from the work: "We are paid to do what we had so little time to do in our previous jobs - which is to talk to and listen to people."
Each nurse is given two study days a year to maintain their medical and counselling skills and "keep abreast of developments". They are also closely supervised. "We recognise that counselling is the sort of job where you can easily get burnt out," says Hall.
"Talking to stressed people every day is stressful itself, so each nurse is linked to a co-counsellor. And we go out and socialise, let our hair down, together."
Hall likes to employ staff with "experience of life". She takes on nurses - most aged from their late twenties to their fifties - who have "seen a fair bit". Some, for example, will have experienced bereavement or divorce themselves.
Police officers, social workers, environmental health officers and staff of Abbey National also enjoy the stress helpline as a benefit, and nobody who calls the number is turned away.
Hall believes telephone counselling has its own particular benefits as a first port of call. "We are immediate. People don't have to book an appointment, they don't have to face us. They have no obligation and can put the phone down any time they want. They can phone when they like, for as long as they like."
Some calls last as long as two hours; the average is 40 minutes. Some people call more than once and build up a relationship with a particular nurse. Nurses give their Christian names and hours of working for those who want to call them back.
Hall says: "People have become far more comfortable with the idea of telephone counselling and tend to be more open in the first instance than they would be with somebody face-to-face. It is totally private and it's convenient."
It is not, however, a long-term option. "When people obviously need further help and the benefit of face-to-face counselling, we refer them on. The fact that they have already bared their soul on a helpline makes people feel they have overcome a major hurdle and gives them the courage to move forward."
Contact telephone counselling for union members: Association of Teachers and Lecturers: 08705 234828National Association of Head Teachers: 08705 234569Educational Institute of Scotland:0990 234729National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education: 0990 347781Association of University Teachers: 0990 234533Eastgate Assistance Limited, Eastgate House, Stephenson Road, The Business Park, Colchester Essex C04 4QR Tel: 0990 234567.