Volume 1, Issue 3

Are Counselor Salaries the Right Focus for Improving Workforce Hannah KnudsenRetention? Re-Considering the Importance of Managerial Practices and Clinical Supervision
By Hannah K. Knudsen, Ph.D.
University of Kentucky

The growing interest in turnover among counselors is well-placed since turnover disrupts service delivery for clients and is costly for organizations which must recruit and train new staff. A key retention strategy identified in the new report, Understanding America’s Substance Use Disorders Treatment Workforce: A Summary Report, is to focus on the relatively low salaries that are paid to treatment staff. Our research on counselor salaries, conducted as part of the National Treatment Center Study, has highlighted the relatively low pay for counselors. In our study of counselors in privately funded treatment programs, we found that nearly 90% of counselors earned less than $40,000 a year (Knudsen, Johnson, & Roman, 2003). Later surveys of counselors working in therapeutic communities and in programs affiliated with NIDA’s Clinical Trials Network found that the average counselor earned between $25,000 and $30,000 per year (Knudsen, Ducharme, & Roman, 2006; Knudsen, Ducharme, & Roman, 2008).

How do these salaries compare to patterns of income across the US? The US Census Bureau collects data on personal income and reports this information for individuals who are aged 25 or older. Interestingly, Census data from 2006 show that 43% of individuals earn less than $25,000 per year, and that nearly 70% of individuals have income of less than $50,000 annually. Placed in this context, the seemingly low counselor salaries in substance abuse treatment organizations are perhaps not surprising.

The new ATTC workforce report suggests that increasing counselor salaries are an important method for improving workforce retention. But how important is salary in understanding counselor turnover? Our studies of counselors who work in a diverse range of treatment organizations suggest that it is perhaps of limited importance. For counselors in privately funded treatment organizations, we found that counselors with higher salaries reported lower turnover intention (meaning that they are not actively searching for a new job or intend to leave their current position) (Knudsen et al., 2003).

It is important to place that relationship into the context of the other results. When the size of the relationship for salary is compared to job autonomy (i.e. empowering counselors to make decisions and have control over their work), the relationship of salary to turnover intention is just half the size of that of job autonomy. We found a similar relationship in a later study of counselors in privately funded and publicly funded treatment organizations (Ducharme, Knudsen, & Roman, 2008). In our other studies of turnover intention among counselors in therapeutic communities and CTN programs, salary has not been associated with turnover intention (Knudsen et al., 2006; Knudsen et al., 2009).

Across these studies, counselor salaries have only a limited and inconsistent impact on turnover intention. What we have repeatedly found is that it is far more important to focus on the relationships among counselors, their clinical supervisors, and program management. Supervisors and managers have a great influence on the context in which counselors work. They determine whether the workload is spread equally across counselors, whether counselors are given the chance to have input about organizational changes, whether counselors are supported when they try to be creative in their work, and whether counselors are allowed to have control over how they perform work.

In the research literature on workplaces, these facets of organizational life are called distributive justice, procedural justice, support for creativity, and job autonomy. Not only are lessened presence of these factors associated with turnover intention—they tend to also be associated with emotional exhaustion which is a central feature of burnout. Overall, the relationships between these factors and turnover intention tend to be 2-3 times greater than the relationship between salary and turnover intention.

While attractive in its simplicity, increasing counselor salaries is simply unrealistic. Substance abuse treatment programs face an increasingly turbulent funding environment and lack the flexibility to increase counselor salaries without comprising some other treatment deliverable.

The advantage of focusing on managerial practices and the relationships between counselors, clinical supervisors, and program managers is that behavioral changes, rather than financial changes, are required. It may require managers and supervisors to re-think how they interact with counseling staff, but long-term fixed costs in the form of higher salaries would not be required. To the extent that programs are able to better manage their counseling workforce, our data clearly suggest that management will actually see financial benefits in the form of reduced turnover.

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