When the only thing that is driving you is your own capacity to care, burn-out and compassion fatigue are inevitable. When will our society truly value care work?

When I think about prestige, I don’t think about my job.

This is not to say that I don’t think my job is valuable. I think it’s incredibly valuable. I feel it in my bones after a 12 and a half hour shift.

What do I do?

I am a recovery worker. Recovery workers support clients across a variety of services – detox, rehab, forensic mental health, substance abuse – to assist them with their mental and physical health, relationships, finances, accommodation, and so forth. We liaise with GPs, mental health care facilities, recovery intervention, housing, and help them develop other life skills.

We support people throughout moments of transition and prepare them for whatever their next step is. These transitionary periods are often defined by a lot of upheaval and change: auditory and visual hallucinations, nervous breakdowns, personality disorders, mood swings, paranoia, anxiety, seizures, ill health are as standard as your daily cup of tea.

While we often have access to personal histories and risk assessments, we experience people as they are now, in this moment: sometimes broken, sometimes healing. Sometimes you can’t tell which is which.

I am paid less than 23k, which I can survive on, despite living in London (if children were part of the equation I doubt very much this would be the case). I don’t feel like I’m unveiling some great secret when I state that care work is undervalued and underpaid.

But this extends beyond personal salary. My work reveals how our system of support is one of cracks, fissures and fractures. Claps cannot drown out the sound of it groaning under bloated weight.

I’ll be honest, the care system is repulsive. It’s needy and destitute. It always requires propping up, patching up. Amputation, tourniquets. It’s tiring. I’ve only just started, and I’m tired.

Please, make the bleeding stop.

As a society, we don’t like to think about the care system. About those cared for. The care itself. We don’t like ‘need’. We are taught to avoid the less glamorous aspects of being human: hide it away, pretend it’s not there, someone else will deal with it. Someone who is good at it, born to do it. Let the women and the people of colour do the caring.

We consider caring ‘dirty’ work – not consciously, not deliberately, but in a way that recognises the inherent messiness of care work. And yes, it deals in pain and suffering, but also in joy, recovery and gratitude. This is literally blood sweat and tears. This is the sticky trade of human currency.

So we nervously dodge, carefully avoid with a pitiful smile and a hunch of the shoulders. That “what can you do” shrug practised to perfection whenever manoeuvring past the hunched figures, urban furniture against the wall, gaze delicately side-stepped. They’re there for a reason. Someone else will take care of it. Can’t do much.

We are aware, in somewhat passive abstraction, that care is vital for others. This knowledge becomes very real when we or someone we love is in need, then it melts back into background noise. After all, we have lives to live, money to earn, others to support.

During the pandemic, there was a little wave of recognition for care work. Its crash and swell bore the sound of clapping hands (drown it out), slowly decreasing into awkward apathy. Workers continuously put their lives at risk while the UK government stumbled through unforeseen circumstances with the bold stupidity of a man in a suit stuck on a zip line, legs dangling above a sea of flaming shit.

Continuous support for a government that provides a plaster for a knife wound, then demands money for it – is that what true recognition looks like? Support, no matter what?

Care work is not lucrative, it’s not a ‘desirable’ job. It’s not prestigious, and while it may be theoretically valued, it isn’t in practice.

You stay in jobs where you cannot afford a nice place to live, where paying for public transport is a financial burden. Where you struggle with an incessant stream of people who need you, this need that others circumvent because it just isn’t nice. You compare your pay to politicians, investment bankers, advertising executives, tax accountants (whose sole purpose, in some cases, is to funnel money out of the country) or high-paying CEOs who earn ludicrous amounts but stifle national economies and value profit over social good. You compare your work to those in power who flaunt the rules because they can, and it’s one long, painful joke. Side-splitting. Splitting sides.

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I am frequently met with the sentence “I couldn’t do your job” – but why?

We are social creatures and we do not truly thrive on our own. But we are taught value. We reflect and often reinforce the environment we are born in. And we are born into an environment of competitive individualism, goals, targets, profit, surplus, success, and finally, prestige. We value efficiency, speed and strength, we value bold statements (empty actions).

I didn’t realise until I looked it up that ‘prestige’, etymologically speaking, means ‘illusion’ (Latin praestigium, and praestigiae (plural) ‘conjuring tricks’), so it’s official: we are taught to strive for what isn’t real.

Long hours, heavy emotional and physical labour is real. A widespread yet fundamental misunderstanding of mental health and addiction is real. Working within a system where everything is stretched to near breaking point at all times is real, and it often leaves you asking yourself whether it’s worth it – what difference does your care make when society is built against you, and moreover, those you are breaking your back to help?

You continuously come up against obstacles that leave you and your clients hopeless – endless waiting lists for mental health assessments, limited social housing, limited funding to undertake activities and ameliorate workplace conditions, limited training for staff, and indeed, limited staff. Low pay and bad working conditions are why staff are always desperately trying to find a place where they are appreciated, respected and protected as workers, but individual services cannot thrive when the social culture and physical structure don’t encourage it. This continuous rotation means that those who need help always have to start at square one, re-telling their stories, re-living their trauma, re-starting their journey over and over again.

How do you help people, how do you instil trust and confidence in someone, how do you make them believe that there is something to live for when the truth is that our society does not place value on individual human lives? Oftentimes their break from society makes more sense to me, because it recognises how backwards society is.

We recognise value through reward. We are largely a service economy but we do not value services. We do not value the cleaners, the waste disposal worker or those who look after and teach the next generation. We value profit and individualism.

Where has it got us?