The High Costs of Helping Others (As If Low Pay Wasn’t Enough)

The High Costs of Helping Others (As If Low Pay Wasn’t Enough)

Let’s take care of those who take care of the most vulnerable among us.

On January 14th, 2019, Los Angeles Unified School District teachers took to the picket lines and braved heavy rainfall to protest stagnant wage growth, increasing class sizes, and limited auxiliary support in their classrooms.

Low pay, the constant pressures to do more with less, and little outside support are not problems limited to teachers. Helping professions of all kinds face similar challenges. So what exactly are the ‘helping professions’? Helping professions are careers wherein people work to end systemic inequalities, support the development of others, and address the problems of those in need. Teachers, nurses, social workers, and rehabilitation counselors are among the most common.

These professions are notoriously undervalued. They are paid less, have less social capital than other careers, and are subject to challenging working conditions. Undervaluing these professions points to larger problems within our society. It highlights the fact that our capitalistic culture prioritizes the sale and creation of goods and services over the wellbeing of citizens. If we truly want to move towards a more equitable society we need to start taking care of the people who take care of the most vulnerable among us.

The most obvious way we undervalue helping professions is by paying them less. 83% of social workers without a master’s degree earn less than $39,000 a year. Compare that to the average salary of sales representatives without a master’s degree of $67,960. The average teacher salary is $58,950 while the average web designer salary is $76,428 in the United States.

But there are more subtle ways that we relegate this work. Social workers, nurses, and teachers are exposed to significant secondary trauma every day. Secondary trauma is the emotional distress that occurs when a person hears about another’s traumatic experience firsthand. Repeated exposure to trauma leads to significant health problems including increased likelihood for hypertension, obesity, depression, PTSD, and autoimmune disorders. Rarely are helping professionals given the support they need to cope with the effects of secondary trauma.

As a social worker, I have had a client tell me about seeing their first dead body on their way to school at nine years old. The man’s head lay severed a few feet away from the rest of his corpse. I have heard clients tell me stories of repeated sexual abuse that should only exist on episodes of SVU. These images stay with me. They didn’t happen to some character on a television show. They happened to someone I know and care about. Someone I have been tasked with helping. These aren’t my stories, but I carry them with me and I lack the tools to cope with that.

Every public school teacher I know has a story about a kid in their classroom who was being abused or living so deeply in poverty they repeatedly showed up to class in the same dirty clothes. The helplessness that comes with witnessing someone else’s suffering and being able to offer very limited help takes a toll on a person’s psyche.

The result of insufficiently supporting those who dedicate their careers to helping others cannot be ignored. At my last job in the San Francisco Probation office, I saw many of my once empathetic and passionate co-workers become calloused, jaded, and bitter. Our repeated exposure to trauma, coupled with excessively high caseloads, and the fact that we had to take side jobs to pay rent led to burnout and eventually, turnover. We are driving skilled, compassionate people away from this work and the ones who stay become so broken that they are no long effective at their jobs. The stakes for not having high quality teachers, nurses, and social workers cannot be ignored. These are the people responsible for educating our children, taking care of the sick, and supporting those who have fallen through the cracks of our society. What work could be more important!

I think Americans need to start calling their values into question. Why do we pay sales reps 43% more than what we pay social workers and web designers 22% more than we pay teachers? Capitalistic imperative is real, but what does this disparity say about what we value as a society?

If people recognized the value of the helping professions we would live in a very different world. Teachers and social workers would not need to strike for fair wages. Secondary trauma would be discussed openly and mediated through employer sponsored self-care resources. Caseloads and classrooms would be manageable sizes and more people than ever would flock to these career paths. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The real beneficiaries aren’t teachers, nurses, and social workers. They are students, they are the homeless, and they are cancer patients. Respecting the helping professions means less people on welfare rolls and less people in prison.

In short, if we want a society where fewer people are sick, undereducated, and poor we need to empower those who are working to make that happen. The helping professions should be revered, celebrated, and given everything they need to support those they serve. In our quest for a more equitable society, this is a great place to start.

The High Costs of Helping Others (As If Low Pay Wasn’t Enough)

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