Why social work isn’t changing – and why that’s hurting consumers

I vividly remember my social work field placement at a residential drug treatment program. The one licensed social worker on staff was so burnt out she’d taken to listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with her office door closed. With no meaningful guidance I was in a constant state of panic.

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Not music therapy

The staff psychiatrist, meanwhile, would jet in like a rock star. He always seemed happy and people lined up to see him.

It was a vivid demonstration of a real problem: as social workers we fail to advocate for ourselves, and in the end this hurts our clients.

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My wallet's never looked like this

Society wants us to work – and work cheap

The baby boom is aging, the healthcare system is changing, and demand for social workers is only going to grow. Demand for most kinds of social workers (mental health, substance abuse and healthcare social workers) is expected to explode by 19% between 2014-2016, far outpacing the average for all industries (around 6%) and exceeding the growth rate for psychiatrists (15%).

Despite this boom in demand, social workers’ salaries are not keeping up. According to surveys from Payscale.com, the average social worker increases their earnings by only 37.5% over a 20-year career, going from $40,000-$55,000. In contrast, a psychologist will increase their earnings by 50% ($60,000-$90,000 per year) and a psychiatrist will increase their earnings by 24%-but that’s from an already high starting salary of $174,000 per year, capping out at $216,000.

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Salary of social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists after 20+ years in field

For some in society – nonprofits and government agencies – this has obvious short-term benefits. Bossman loves cheap labor. (Indeed, it’s probably worth noting that social work is more populated by women and minorities than psychiatry and psychology – I’d suspect that’s one reason for the lower pay). Whatever the cause of the salary gap, it has serious long-term consequences – and not just for social workers.

The sick reality is that interns and beginning social workers are charged with the most vulnerable, high-need people. Survive in the field for 20 years and you can get rich helping millionaires with public speaking anxiety.

The cost of low pay

Most social workers don’t last for 20 years in the field, according to Salary.com’s survey, a fact that isn’t true of psychiatrists and psychologists.

This high burnout rate might create opportunities for beginning social workers, but is that really such a good thing? Not for clients.

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I’m thinking of the jobs and field placements I’ve had so far. I’ve been an intern with zero experience with responsibility for the emotional wellbeing of recovering drug addicts with extensive trauma histories. My first job out of grad school was as a preventive worker with families involved with Child Protective Services – an incredibly demanding job that involved trauma-informed therapy, legal advocacy and intense casework. These are jobs that should have been performed by somebody with years of experience.

I don’t buy the argument that beginning social workers make up for their lack of experience with enthusiasm – how many domestic violence survivors have been forced to pin their hopes on somebody who was working with a client for the first time? Would you want to be in that position? If it was your mother would you want her to see an intern or someone with 10 years’ experience?

The sick reality is that interns and beginning social workers are charged with the most vulnerable, high-need people. Survive in the field for 20 years and you can get rich helping millionaires with public speaking anxiety.

By the way, if you’re thinking psychiatrists and psychologists deserve higher pay because they have expertise your thinking is part of the problem – they have expertise in their fields, but do they know how to advocate for somebody in court? Or get someone into a domestic violence shelter?

Moving forward

It’s a truism – but also true – that in order to care for our clients we must also practice self-care.

As social workers many of us seem willing to sacrifice everything we have, including our financial security, for the greater good. But in the end this is catastrophic, not only for social workers but for the people we serve.

If we advocate for ourselves – by demanding raises and salaries that reflect our good work – the result will be satisfied, dedicated social workers who remain in the field longer during these times when we’re needed more than ever.

Stand up for yourself! And let me know in the comments what you think the best way to do this is. Should social workers unionize? Do we need a culture shift?

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