Stressful Jobs That Pay Badly: Social Work

A CNNMoney article lists 15 stressful jobs that pay relatively poorly.  According to the article, those jobs, their median pay, and the percentage of people having those jobs who say the job is stressful, are as follows:

Barista ($20,300):  50.3% say the job is stressful
Special education teacher’s aide ($22,700):  59.3%
Loss prevention officer ($23,000):  54.3%
Day care teacher ($24,200):  60.5%
Veterinarian’s assistant ($25,500):  72.6%
Job coach ($31,400):  84.8%
Concierge ($34,200):  81.9%
Mental health case manager ($36,100):  96.4%
Public relations coordinator ($39,600):  93.6%
Assistant living manager ($40,600):  $83.9%
Athletic coach ($43,500):  89.2%
Social worker ($44,300):  93%
Benefits and payroll administrator ($46,200):  92.9%
Chaplain ($46,800):  92.1%
Purchase agent ($49,000):  94.5%

(I assume the “social worker” entry refers to licensed social workers.)  The unnamed author cites PayScale data from August 2010 to August 2012, but does not provide a link.  Browsing through the PayScale website yielded bad links.  A search suggested that an earlier PayScale survey may have used a different methodology and reached different conclusions.  One point of commonality, however, is that jobs with low stress apparently tend to involve working with technical information (e.g., mechanical engineer, database analyst) while jobs with high stress tend to involve working with customers or clients.  It is also worth noting that there are other job metrics besides stress:  for example, another PayScale report lists Medical and Health Services Managers as the most stressed, but also indicates that their median pay is good, and that they are relatively unlikely to hate their bosses or to have low job satisfaction.  (In that report, Child Care Workers had lower stress, much lower pay, and lower job satisfaction.)  These PayScale findings appear to be based on voluntary surveys and, as such, are not necessarily representative of people employed in these various kinds of jobs.

Two jobs in the CNNMoney list (above) are of particular interest here.  For both, the reported stress levels are very high.  The brief blurbs characterizing those jobs – mental health case manager and social worker – indicate that the stress comes especially from having a heavy caseload and from the emotional content of the work.

The topic of “emotional labor” has generated a fair amount of scholarly research.  For example, Brotheridge and Grandey (2002, p. 31) cited earlier research suggesting that “Human service workers experienced significantly lower levels of depersonalization and higher levels of personal accomplishment than did workers in other occupations” (emphasis in original), possibly because “employees who experience a level of success in their work are more likely to invest in their performance.”  According to Wharton (2009, p. 159), “The most consistent findings in this body of research concern the relationship between surface acting (or emotional dissonance) and the emotional exhaustion dimension of burnout.”  In other words, “[W]orkers who report regularly having to display emotions that conflict with their own feelings are more likely than others to experience emotional exhaustion.”  This apparently occurs “regardless of whether the emotions themselves are positive . . . or negative.”  Wharton (p. 160) distinguishes “surface acting” from “deep acting,” where the latter consists of “an effort to truly feel the emotions that one is expected to display”; deep acting, she says, has been shown in some research not to increase the risk of emotional exhaustion.

Preliminary reading in the emotional labor literature suggests that much of the problem of high turnover in social work, discussed in another post in this blog, may be due to such factors as poor job design, unrealistic management expectations regarding worker adaptation to challenging job situations, and insufficient orientation to genuineness in workers’ understandings of their roles.  In other words, one can look at the CNNMoney list and conclude that social workers face inordinate stress; but one cannot conclude that such stress leads directly to turnover.  It seems, rather, that stress can lead to turnover due to poor job quality (e.g., quality of management, sense of accomplishment) and/or emotional exhaustion (involving e.g., dissonance between the emotions one feels and the emotions one is required to display).  There are implications, here, for personal mental health and managerial dimensions of social worker selection, education, and training.

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