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Setting up a help or support line in response to coronavirus

Many organisations, parish councils and other community response teams are looking at how they can best support people during the coronavirus pandemic.

Different groups are thinking about setting up a help or support line to provide a direct response to their local communities.

Under normal circumstances it isn’t a process or decision that should be rushed - there are lots of things to consider.

However, these are not normal circumstances and so we have listed the top five things organisations need to think about if they are considering setting up a helpline.

1. Is there a need?

Before you set up a help or support line ask yourself, is there a need?

Are there any other organisations locally or nationally that are providing a similar service? If there are, can you work together?

Working in partnership, sharing resources and experience will make your helpline more resilient.

2. Be clear on the purpose of your helpline

What is the objective of your helpline service? Be clear about what is and isn’t in the remit of your service.

Will it be for the duration of the pandemic or could it be potentially longer or a permanent service?

It’s important to be clear from the outset otherwise you risk working in areas that you don’t have the skills, knowledge or expertise to support in.

Find out, and make links with, organisations that you can signpost people to.

If you receive a call or are asked for advice on an area that isn’t within your remit, signpost people to other safe and approved organisations and services.

You can find a list of organisations to signpost people to in our on-line directory - Find a Helpline.

3. Helpline teams

Think about the structures you’ll have in place to manage, train, coordinate and support the helpline team.

Callers need to receive a consistent service no matter who they talk to on the helpline. Always be clear on your remit.

Whether you are working with paid helpline staff or volunteers, it is essential that people have been trained and have support structures in place e.g. after a difficult call.

Build-in clear time for helpline workers and volunteers to take time away from the phone, for supervision, to reflect and debrief.

Be alert to the risks and signs of vicarious trauma.

Make sure that you have clear and concise policies in place, for example, data protection and GDPR which may include that you signpost rather than taking details to refer people. It is essential that your teams know and understand the policies.

4. Capacity

Do you have the systems in place to be able to handle high numbers of helpline calls? Do you have enough people to respond, manage and record the contacts? Are you resilient - do you have contingency plans in place in case the call handlers are ill or in self-isolation?

It is better to provide an effective, well-resourced helpline for a few hours a couple of days a week than a poor-quality, under-resourced service for longer periods of time.

Helpline teams need to have time away from the helpline. Breaks should be planned into the rota and this will help to protect your team's wellbeing and the resilience of your service.

Consider using staff that are not usually on the helplines during busy periods. It is important to safeguard your organisation, and during such unprecedented times, sadly some people may take advantage that DBS checks may not be used by offering to volunteer.

5. Helpline technology

Many organisations are moving to home working. If your helpline team will be working remotely, how will you answer and route your calls?

Cloud-based virtual call centres provide a flexible and reliable solution for handling calls enabling helpline teams to log on from any location and answer communications including email, voice, text, webchat or SMS.

Consider the confidentiality of the service user and the helpline staff. If staff and volunteers are working remotely, make sure that their caller ID is protected.

Helpline resources

Setting up a helpline requires detailed planning and thought, there are lots of things to consider.

We’ve created a series of resources, drawing on our knowledge and experience as the membership body for the helpline sector, to help you work through the process step by step.

You can find more information about them on our website, as well as information about helpline products and services including translation services.

If you would like to talk to the Helplines Partnership team, you can get in touch by phone and email.