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A "Dangerous Paradox" in Human Services

How systemic values conflicts are reversing the progress of social change.

Key points

  • A “dangerous paradox in human services systems” where we struggle to align our values with our behaviors, is actually undoing our efforts.
  • Given the human-centered nature of work in the helping professions, the conditions the workforce must operate within are arguably inhumane.
  • The innovation and adaptability of helping professionals throughout the pandemic has not been reciprocated by the systems that manage their work.
  • We now have an opportunity to reimagine how we support and empower the helping professions in ways that honor the values that guide our work.

This post is part 1 of a series.

In January of 2016, I was one month into being a new dad. I was also halfway through graduate school, and working full-time as program director at a non-profit, overseeing a play-based early childhood initiative.

Throughout the previous year, my team navigated a series of challenges in our work: we adopted a more asset-based partnership model despite pressure to frame our work as “fixing” what was wrong with our partners’ programs; we lost an incredible program mentor when she took a job offering her more autonomy at a different organization; and right before the holidays, my executive director shared that our program was on the chopping block after a fundraising shortfall.

Feeling exhausted and defeated, I found myself in the office of my mentor Dr. Linda Lausell Bryant. Linda’s past roles include Deputy Executive Director at the Partnership for Afterschool Education, Associate Commissioner at the NYC Administration for Children’s Services, Executive Director at Inwood House, and most recently as Associate Dean at NYU and the co-founder of the Adaptive Leadership in Human Services Institute. When I’m at a loss for what to do next, she’s always the first person I call. Linda recognized that my experience—as someone feeling stymied and demoralized in the helping professions—was all too common.

She described a “dangerous paradox in human services systems,” where we profess our noble values (among them: recognizing people’s strengths, a commitment to social justice, pushing for greater access and equity in services) yet struggle to truly align these values with our behaviors. While we find ways to honor our cause in direct practice with clients and community members, it is painfully challenging to live out these same values with one another as professionals in the systems that organize our work.

The most common example of this is the disconnect between the success we expect of the helping professions and the resources we provide practitioners. If excellent programming and services are the goal, how can we justify abysmal pay, inadequate materials, unsupportive leadership, and toxic cultures that mistreat the very professionals we need to perform at the highest level? Given the human-centered nature of our work, these conditions are simply inhumane. Linda viewed the conflict between our values and behaviors as an existential threat that at best maintains the status quo, and at worst is slowly undoing our efforts.

The Current Crisis

If this dangerous paradox posed a risk in 2016, then today we find ourselves in a break-glass crisis.

With the confluence of the pandemic, a racial reckoning, political unrest, and the gruesome violence and death that accompanied them all, it’s no surprise that toxic stress and the need for mental health services continue to climb. Research conducted by the Citizens’ Committee for Children last year found that more than a third (35 percent) of New York City youth reported wanting or needing mental health services, and of those, far less than half (42 percent) are actually receiving them. This circumstance is particularly worrisome as unbuffered exposure to toxic stress creates a significant risk for lifelong problems with health, wellness, and learning.1

The adults who work with children are not immune to the traumas of the last two years, and without changes that better prioritize the mental health and wellness of both children and professionals, the education and human services sector runs the risk of grinding to a halt. The impacts of the Great Resignation in the helping professions have been devastating, as staffing shortages place a growing burden on the professionals who remain and compromise the quality of programming and services at a time of acute need.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on the education and health services sectors, 2021 job openings were up 39 percent, and the rates of professionals leaving the field were more than 10 percent higher than in the three years before the pandemic.2 These trends show no signs of slowing, as a recent national poll found that 33 percent of teachers are likely to leave the profession. With an additional 21 percent saying their resignation is somewhat likely, the potential exists to see over half of the teaching workforce turnover before the end of 2023.

Throughout the pandemic, those in the helping professions have demonstrated heroic levels of innovation, adaptability, and resilience in the face of once-in-a-lifetime challenges. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the systems and policies that manage their work. The organizational changes we have seen often level greater expectations with even fewer resources, creating misery for these heroes at a moment when their efforts should be lauded and reinforced.

The pain and suffering this workforce has endured since March of 2020 are reaching a crescendo, and people are headed for the door in droves. My hope is that we are at a tipping point, and before the wheels come off completely, we have an opportunity to reimagine how we support and empower the education, healthcare, and nonprofit professionals in ways that more fully honor the values that guide our work.

In the next part of this series: The ever-growing body of research on adverse childhood experiences and trauma-informed systems makes a compelling argument for the greater value alignment in workforce experiences. A Parallel Process approach that leverages existing practice strengths to confront organizational challenges could be the most promising way to envision more healing-centered systems.


1 Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245–258.

2 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). Jolts news releases. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved March 9, 2022, from

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