Sure, we revere those who help others, but spare a thought for all the rest.

Every year the Reader's Digest does a poll asking New Zealanders who they respect. The findings don't change much. This year most of the top 10 could be defined as the "helping" professions: firefighters, nurses, doctors, vets and so on. We revere those people. In contrast, down the bottom are no-hopers like me - journalists - with real estate agents and financial planners.

People who do "helping" jobs are seen as contributing more to society than those who sell cars or work in admin. Those are just jobs. Doing something limpid-eyed where you "help" is seen as a much higher calling. A vocation. People in those helping jobs often get a lot back from their work. It is satisfying, as opposed to, say, fast food servers and telemarketers who are at the bottom of the pecking order.

I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of those helping people are actually addicted to their work. And they would probably be even more admired for that. Workaholism is a compulsive behaviour, a disease in fact, but it rarely gets talked about because it is socially accepted, if not encouraged. Work is virtuous, so doing even more of it has to be even more virtuous, right? But it's not.

Workaholics may not even realise they are gripped by their obsession and they are not able to control their compulsion to work - but I bet you their families can tell you.

Workaholics may get to the point of losing their family and their health - they can't slow down because working, like drinking or overeating, is their way of calming their anxieties or avoiding their neuroses. But this is considered to be a "good" thing. If a workaholic does a "helping" job there is even less chance their crazy obsession will be noticed.

I don't normally buy into the pathologising of ordinary behaviour but it would be interesting to ask the neglected family of an admired workaholic if they think workaholism is a bona fide disease. I suspect they would say yes.

I have to confess I'm also a little sceptical about people who profess to be "here to help". I saw a picture that had a round smiley face. Half of it was black and half was yellow. Underneath, there was a saying that "helping is the sunny side of control".

Frequently "helpful" people are secret control freaks. It is an intrinsic part of helping someone that you put yourself on a rung up from them. It is not a transaction of equals.

Although obviously we do need firefighters to go and douse fires and nurses to care for sick people, as a general principle, it is better not to help able-bodied people but to leave them to find their own solutions and sort out their own "stuff".

So maybe instead of idolising people in so-called altruistic professions, we should recognise that everyone contributes, in their own way - even roofing installers and call centre operators.

So be nice to that telemarketer next time they call. They're certainly not getting an ego boost from their job.

dhc@deborahhillcone.com